November 19, 2007

Exhausted grammar

"Pardon My Planet," (Nov. 14):

Brett Reynolds posted this on his English, Jack blog, with a note: "I wonder if Shatner ever felt that he was hyphenating his words. Likely this is more of a cartoonist's thing." What I'm wondering is, why the use of hyphens rather than some other punctuation to separate the words?

One common method of representing this sort of prosodic pattern (with each word treated as a distinct intonation unit) is separating the individual words by periods. This type of word-by-word emphasis came up here in a few posts back in March (here, here, and here). At the time we were considering the snowclone "Best./Worst. X. Ever." — modeled on the putdown uttered by Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons": "Worst. Episode. Ever." (For extra oomph, exclamation points could be used, as I suggested would be appropriate for ESPN's Chris Berman when he uses his irritating gimmick in NFL recaps: "He! Could! Go! All! The! Way!")

The "exhausted" style exemplified by the "Pardon My Planet" strip is certainly different from the sneering delivery of Comic Book Guy, but the separation of words by periods (rather than hyphens) works well here too, to indicate a melodramatically labored effort to get each word out. Here are some period-delimited examples of exhausted grammar from online sources where, as in "Pardon My Planet," the first-person pronoun is dropped before modals like must or can't:

Must. Vent. Spleen. (Barbelith Underground)
Must. Force. Self. To. Act. (Grayblog)
Must. Get. Tunes. Out. Of. Head. (Drowned in Sound)
Must. Fight. Urge. To. Become. Apple. Developer. Again. (Channel 9 Forums)
Must. Work. Harder. Must. Secure. Tenured. Position. At. Oxford. (Ghost of a Flea)
Must. Fight. Urge. To make. Snarky. Comment. And. End up. Under. NSA. Surveillance. (Blog, MD)

Can't. Stop. Laughing. (Culture Strain)
Can't. Sleep. Must. Blog. (Ghost of a Flea)
Can't. Stop. Tinkering. Must. Turn. Off. Computer. (Film Experience Blog)
Can't. Rest. Till. Every. Perpendicular. in World. Abolished! (Catholic and Enjoying It)

Even more common in the exhausted/labored/breathless style is delimitation by ellipsis:

Must... control... fury... (Volokh Conspiracy)
Must... buy... sugary... products. (Blah Blah Flowers)
Must... stop... cognitive... dissonance... (Corrente)
Must.....reassert....intellectual...credentials. (Venusburg)
Must ... restrain ... sarcastic ... remarks ... (Brainsluice) buy...all things...Jeep. (Engadget)

Can't... stop... searching... (Metafilter)
Can’t... resist... the Dickies. (See Magazine)
Can't ... hold ... out ... much ... longer! (Philadelphia Weekly)
Can't.....distinguish.....brilliant....satire....and.....incoherent......vitriol.... (Barbelith Underground)

(Google doesn't help too much in searching for examples like those above, except for characteristic phrases like "must fight urge," but I'm fortunate to have access to an online corpus that allows searches on punctuation.)

Now, what about the Shatner factor? William Shatner, especially in his Captain Kirk persona on the original "Star Trek" series, has been widely mocked for his hammy elocution. One notorious example is his dramatic reading of Elton John's "Rocket Man" at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards ("I'm a rock ... it ... man!"). But I don't know if Shatner is really the ultimate model for the exhausted word-by-word delivery (unless there's a relevant "Star Trek" episode that I'm unaware of). It seems more likely that comic-book superheroes (and supervillains) provide a firmer historical basis for this. I'm thinking particularly of Superman, when immobilized by exposure to kryptonite:

Then again, there are probably numerous sci-fi/fantasy predecessors for this — much like the snowclone "What is this X of which you speak?" (discussed here and here) — congealing into commonly recognized (some would say clichéd) conventions for representing jocular pseudo-exhaustion.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 19, 2007 11:42 PM