October 24, 2007

"Insult to reason" or "functionally striking and attractive"?

This is the third in a series of posts on phrases as modifiers in English, following up on "Phrasally grateful" (10/18/2007) and "Extended adjectives" (10/23/2007). I don't have time this morning to do justice to all the email that I've gotten on the subject, but I very much enjoyed one scholarly exchange from four decades ago, and thought I would share with you the links and a couple of quotes.

A note from Stalina Villarreal connected me to John E. Crean, Jr., "The Extended Modifier: German or English?", American Speech 44(4): 272-278, 1969:

The extended modifier saves the verbiage of a relative clause and avoids the trailing effect of modifiers that follow the noun by tucking all the punch up front between the article and the noun, as in this example: ein anfangs für jeden Studenten ziemlich schwieriges Problem. Word-for-word the phrase translates as 'an initially for every student rather difficult problem', or, restructured into more idiomatic English syntax, 'a problem that is intitially rather difficult for every student."

The word-for-word translation sounds strange in English. Follett's Modern American Usage censures any such English structures, classifying them indiscriminately as "Germanisms" and rejecting them as "deeply at variance with the genius of the [English] language," an "agglutination of ideas into complex phrases . . . against the normal articulation of thought" and an "insult to reason." For him, "the language has no need of such fallacious compressions," which "corrupt both style and thought."

Anyone at home in both Germanic languages is made doubly uncomfortable by Follett's abrupt dismissal. Not only has the construction been accepted and utilized for decades in one Germanic language, German, but in recent years it has been gradually working its way into another, English. No dosage of grammatical prescription will be sufficient to cure the spread of the American extended modifier, because the reasons for its popularity and growth are much the same as those for its original use in German: economy and impact. Journalists, sponsors, commentators, advertisers, entertainers, gossip columnists, and editors alike are utilizing it to deliver the most message with the fewest words. What once might have been esthetically odd or ugly is now functionally striking and attractive.

And to O.C. Dean, Jr., "The Extended Modifier: German, Not English", American Speech 46(3/4): 223-230, 1971.

Born in the officaliese of the German Chancelleries of the sixteenth century, the extended modifier construction was quick to find a permanent place in German expository prose and, hence, in the list of constructions that must be mastered by foreigners who want to read German. In a recent article in these pages, John E. Crean, Jr., suggested that English has a similar construction in the increasingly popular use of such ad hoc adjectival phrases as those in "the five pounds thinner girdle" and "a get-tough-with-students guy." There are, however, some important differences between the English and German constructions that lead one to question whether the two are comparable on more than a superficial level. First, the German extended modifier is normally limited to the written German of scholars, bureaucrats, novelists, and newsmen and would be too formal for spoken German or advertising copy. The English construction illustrated above, on the other hand, is prevalent in advertising and in informal writing and conversation, but it is strictly avoided in scholarly writing and would quickly receive the red pencil treatment from teachers of English composition. Second, t with the exception of a few expressions imported as calques from English, such as mach es selber 'do-it-yourself (kit)' the type of ad hoc adjectival phrase noted by Crean is almost nonexistent in German. Last, and most important, the German extended modifier and its putative English counterpart are basically different constructions and result from different transformational rules.

"Different transformational rules"? Ah, those were the days, my friend...

In a more modern idiom, Jesse Tseng directed my attention to L. Sadler and D.J. Arnold, "Prenominal adjectives and the phrasal/lexical distinction", Journal of Linguistics 30(1): 187-226, 1994, saying that "My copy is somewhere in one of 40 boxes of books and papers that I haven't unpacked yet". It's not available on line, at least not to me, and I'm not about to interrupt my breakfast blogging hour for a trip to the library. Remember, online articles have more impact! But with or without the citational support, Jesse agrees with O.C. Dean, Jr. that English and German are different:

I don't think that the same term should be used for the English and German constructions. They both involve "heavy premodifiers", but otherwise they are completely different syntactically and semantically (and prosodically, and stylistically...)

I think for English we are dealing with a generalization of the "Army strong" phenomenon that came up a few months ago on LL (but I don't know of an existing term for that, either).

And we mustn't forget that the examples that started all this off were phrases used as adverbs ("ice cream cone on the way home grateful", or "not getting stuck with a groom's man shorter than you good"), not as adjectives. This is an area where English seems to be forging ahead of its Germanic sister.

And right on cue, this morning's Tank McNamara joins the chorus:

More from the mailbag on this later.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 24, 2007 07:12 AM