October 25, 2007

Dickens, Browning and Follett

The topic is extended modifiers again -- things like "not-getting-stuck-with-a-groom's-man-shorter-than-you good" or "those gee-my-feet-are-killing-me-since-I'm-in-the-infantry blues". Yesterday I quoted a passage from a 1969 article by John E. Crean, who defended these constructions as a "functionally striking and attractive" option that "in recent years ... has gradually been working its way into English". Crean was reacting to the charges leveled by Wilson Follett in Modern American Usage (pp. 137-138 in the 1966 edition indexed by Google Books):

Under the influence of advertisers, American English has slipped into a construction deeply at odds with the genius of the language and more akin to German, in which compounding is a normal practice. Early examples included easy-to-read books for the children and ready-to-bake food for the whole family. This agglutination of ideas into complex phrases requiring hyphens to make them into adjectives goes against the normal articulation of thought, which is food ready to bake and books easy to read or easy books.

This is amusingly reminiscent of Antoine de Rivarol's 1783 argument that (18th-century) French exactly mirrors the inner language of logical thought. Today, email from Ran Ari-Gur points to some evidence that both Follett and Crean were victims of the Recency Illusion.

Ran sent a link to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XIV, The Victorian Age, Part Two, chapter XV ("Changes in the Language since Shakespeare's Time"), § 4. "Changes in grammar". (The series was published between 1907 and 1921. Volume XIV was written by William Murison.)

The story of English grammar is a story of simplification, of dispensing with grammatical forms. Though a few inflections have survived, yet, compared with Old English, the present-day language has been justly designated one of lost inflections. It is analytic, and not synthetic. This stage had virtually been reached by the beginning of the seventeenth century [...]

Further condensation is seen in the wide use in modern English of the attributive noun instead of a phrase more or less lengthy. The usage began in Middle English, and has been vigorously extended in present-day language. It is regularly employed in all kinds of new phrases, as when we speak of birthday congratulations, Canada balsam, a motor garage. Compound expressions are similarly applied, as loose leaf book manufacturers, The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, a dog-in-the-manger policy.

The attributive noun is not an isolated phenomenon in English. It belongs to the widespread tendency whereby a part of speech jumps its category. The dropping of distinctive endings made many nouns, for example, identical with the corresponding verbs; and, consequently, form presented no obstacle to the use of the one for the other. The interchange was also facilitated by the habit of indicating a word’s function or construction by its position in the sentence. This liberty became licence in the Elizabethan age. [...]

An extreme instance of this freedom appears in sentences transformed, for the nonce, into attributes, as when Dickens writes, “a little man with a puffy ‘Say-nothing-to-me-or-I’ll-contradict-you’ sort of countenance”; or into verbs, as in Browning’s lines,

While, treading down rose and ranunculus,
You “Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle” us.

Murison argues (plausibly, I think) that the freedom to deploy phrases in a variety of syntactic roles arose naturally as English shed its inflectional morphology. In contrast, Follett saw the lack of morphological marking as a problem, not an opportunity:

... the insult to reason consists in the failure to articulate. The reader must unscramble the ideas for himself.

It's certainly true that long complex nominals in English can be hard to parse. But Follett is not talking about things like "Volume Feeding Management Success Formula Award", much less "a puffy 'Say-nothing-to-me-or-I'll-contradict-you' sort of countenance". He's taking aim at some much more straightforward constructions:

All these locutions can be uttered, but sound does not give them meaning. When in advertisments for a directory we are promised 4,000 hard-to-find biographies, and in a dictionary we are asked to note its concern for hard-to-say words, we have reached a point where agglutination sounds like baby talk.

Yes, he really wants us to believe that phrases like hard-to-say words are hard to understand:

The language has no need of such fallacious compressions. They save no time; they corrupt both style and thought, and they leave the user unable to imagine how his meaning is read.

Those Yoplait ads may corrupt style and thought (Patricia Witkins, who sent me the link, certainly thinks so), but it's not because there's any uncertainty at all about the meaning of the phrases used as adverbs. Follett takes this bizarre line of reasoning to the point of recommending that we shun harmless phrases like accident-prone:

If we wish to protect ourselves from this assault on our wits, we must begin by avoiding every form of easy compounding -- e.g. flight-conscious, career- and action-oriented, accident-prone, ... , and all other lumpings of words in which the relation is not either established by usage or controlled by rule. Parking lights deceives no one into thinking of lights that park, because the phrase is formed on a regular pattern; the same is true of hairdresser, lantern-jawed, housebroken, bowling alley, and secretary bird--in all these we how how the elements affect each other to denote a fact or idea.

This is a remarkably incoherent passage. What, I wonder, is the regular pattern that housebroken is an instance of? Does Follett really mean to recommend coinages like carbroken (= "trained not to defecate in the car") and tentbroken (= "trained not to defecate in the tent"), while forbidding accident-prone?

There's nothing obviously irregular about X-prone = "prone to X"-- the OED gives examples with X=accident, suicide and violence, with citations from 1926 onward; and the general pattern of <Noun Adjective>, where the noun is interpreted as a complement of the adjective, was common in English for hundreds of years before that. The OED's first citation for "penny wise and pound foolish" is from 1598.

The same can be said for X-conscious = "conscious of X". The OED gives examples with X=class, colour, clothes, dress, woman, money, history, and weight), with citations starting in 1903.

And again, it's true that lantern-jawed is formed on a regular pattern (club-footed, ham-handed, jug-eared); but so is action-oriented. The OED gives examples of X-oriented with X = family, disease, person, expansion, goal, with citations starting in 1949.

Did Follett really mean to ban all constructions of the form <Noun PastParticiple> or <Noun Adjective> in which the noun is to be interpreted as a complement of the participle or adjective? I'd like to hear him explain this to Elizabeth Barrett Browning ("With a spirit-laden weight did he lean down..."), and to Thomas Hardy ("Oh epic-famed, god-haunted Central Sea"), and to H.G. Wells ("I became woman-conscious from those days onward"), and to pretty much every other English-language writer since Chaucer.

I think that the explanation for this curious passage is clear. Follett, who was born in 1887, was offended by newly-common uses of -prone and -conscious and -oriented as the second element of compound forms. When he wrote "established by usage", he really meant "familiar and comfortable to me". And when he wrote "controlled by rule", he apparently meant nothing at all -- this was just empty bluster to get the reader to accept his prejudices.

Really, it's amazing that a book like this has been repeatedly published in new editions, without correcting its obvious errors of logic and fact. Anyone who buys it should sue the publisher for fraud. This man was never grammarbroken.

[Note: I realize that phrases used as prenominal modifiers are syntactically different from compound modifiers headed by adjectives or participles, and that both are different from several other species of complex nominals, compound nouns, adjective phrases, and so on. They've gotten conflated here because Follett lumps a heterogeneous collection of them together as "Germanisms".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 25, 2007 09:06 AM