November 03, 2007

More Colbert

Two follow-ups to my posting about riffs on the Colbert title I Am America (And So Can You!): one about why we should care about distinguishing snowclones from playful allusions, and one about the possibility that the title is itself an instance of a pre-existing form.

There are cases where we're not entirely sure (here at Language Log Plaza) whether something is a snowclone, so why bother making distinctions?  Well, as I pointed out in my last lasting, if we go this route, there will be zillions of "snowclones" -- many of them entertaining, like the ones I cited back in 2005 in postings on playful allusions (here and here), but few of them actually formulaic.  Most of them are based on some model expression, and ring variations on it, but they vary different parts in different ways; they're all over the map.  And in most cases the model contributes little or no meaning to the variants, or different bits of meaning for different ones.

The clear examples of snowclones, on the other hand, have both a form, like "X is the New Y", and a (rough) meaning, like 'Y now plays the role that X used to play'.  In this respect they are like syntactic constructions and like idioms or clichés with open slots in them and like productive derivational formations.  People who use them pull them "off the shelf", so to speak.  Playful allusions, in contrast, are invented "on the spot", not pulled off the shelf.  (Of course, different people have somewhat different things on their shelves.  What's a snowclone for one person might be a playful allusion for another.)  So snowclones and playful allusions have a different psychological status.

Meanwhile, reader Ken Mallott wrote to suggest that the Colbert title exemplifies a formula "not uncommon in slogans and titles".  He googled up six pre-Colbert book titles in which had so can you/we in them -- that is, which had Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE) in so tags with the modal can in them.  Here's the set:

I Can Count 100 Bunnies: And So Can You  (link)

Pre-Setting Dice--I Beat the Bastards, So Can You!!!  (link)

If Lazarus Did It, So Can You!  (link)

Money Talks and So Can We  (link

I Feel Wonderful : So Can You [1956]  (link

They Lost More Than 40 Pounds! . . . And So Can You  (link)

The first thing to say about these titles is that they're composed of everyday ingredients from English syntax and lexicon, in particular the ingredients that would allow the writers to express the meanings they had in mind.  (They also lack the grammatical oddity of the Colbert title, which we've already explained.  The current point is not the grammaticality of the Colbert title, but the possibility that it's an instance, however odd, of an existing formula.)  I can't see anything formulaic here: people are just deploying the lexical items (can, you) and syntactic constructions (the so tag, which involves both subject-auxiliary inversion and VPE) that are available to them in ordinary English.  In addition, so can you/we is scarcely a slogan or title specialty, as you can check by some googling.

Just because some expression type occurs with some frequency doesn't mean that it constitutes a formula.

Is there a special form for these expressions?  Mallott suggested that there was: "<Something Good> <Inclusion and Encouragement>".  But that's not a matter of linguistic FORM, it's a matter of linguistic CONTENT; this is just a meaning that people sometimes have reason to want to express.   There are plenty of other ways to do it without using a so tag.  Here are a few alternatives to the last title above:

They lost more than 40 pounds,

... and you too can lose more than 40 pounds.
... and you can lose more than 40 pounds too.
... and you can too.
... and you could become one of their number.
... and it's possible for you to achieve the same goal.
... and with some work you'll be able to do the same.

Now, it's certainly true that alternative expressions of the "same" content won't be used with equal frequencies (in a linguistic community or for an individual speaker); people who use more than one variant will have preferences for one or another, in general or in particular contexts.  Where both passive and active clauses are available, English speakers in general use the active alternative much more often.  But everybody (even those who inveigh against passives) uses some passives.

So it is with so tags.  There are a number of alternatives, but I suspect that so tags and reduced too tags (with VPE) predominate statistically, just because they're so compact.  But people use the others too.

Just because people use some expression type more often than the alternatives doesn't mean that it constitutes a formula.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 3, 2007 01:13 PM