December 20, 2007

Colloquial looseness

Breffni O'Rourke writes:

I thought either the Elmore Leonard desk or the WTF coordination department might be interested in these, from Up in Honey’s Room, 2007. Both are on p. 62 of the Weidenfeld and Nicholson edition (end of chapter 6):

(1) Joe had an airplane, a single-engine Cessna he’d fly to Detroit and take Walter for rides and show him how to work the controls.

Three coordinated VPs within a relative clause (“a single-engine Cessna [which] he’d X and Y and Z”), but only the first has the requisite NP gap.

(2) Joe Aubrey thought he knew what Walter had in mind, but no idea how he’d pull it off.

The subject of the second clause is supplied by the first, but the verb “had” has gone missing – maybe under the influence of “had” in the indirect question (“what Walter had in mind”). Which might also explain why it seems OK at first glance.

They’re both perfectly comprehensible and have that colloquial looseness that makes the dialogue vivid, but I was surprised to find it in a narrative passage.

But these two sentences occur in a passage of free indirect style, where Leonard presents his character's thoughts in a mixture of perspectives, tenses and pronouns. Here's what immediately precedes Breffni's first quotation:

Walter had better things to do, work toward becoming as well known as Himmler, perhaps even a Nazi saint. He had finally decided, yes, of course tell Otto and Jurgen what you intend to do. They were Afrika Korps officers, heroes themselves. Tell them they are the only ones in the world who will know about the event before it happens.

The only ones if he didn't count Joe Aubrey in Georgia, his friend in the restaurant business who owned a string of Mr. Joe's Rib Joints, all very popular down there. Though lately Negro soldiers from the North were "acting uppity," Joe said, coming in and demanding service, and he was thinking of selling his chain.

This passage, although not quoted, does have some of the aspects of Elmore Leonard's dialogue, in which parataxis tends to be preferred over syntaxis. So the first quote might be an indirect-style echo of something like

Joe's got this airplane, he flies [it] to Detroit and takes me for rides and shows me how to work the controls.

The object it is optional here, even in a main clause.

But parataxis doesn't seem to be involved in Breffni's second quotation. In that case, there's definitely a missing "had" or "he had"; and I agree that the immediately preceding "had in mind" helps explain why the sentence goes down so easy anyway.

However, stranded "no idea how" is fairly common out there on the internets:

The editor is in my phone but no idea how to make it work!
I've encouraged my Ajax guru cousin to investigate shimming a HTML5 Audio wrapper overtop his library to promote cross-browser programming, but no idea how feasible that is...
Have you ever known what you wanted to say, but no idea how to enunciate it?
You managed to raise the floor but no idea how to turn on the fans?
Here's a bracketless one (no screws at least) but no idea how reliable it is.
There are alot of tools and macros for Radio which I imagine would work here, but no idea how to properly implement.

Maybe for some people, "no idea how" is on the verge of becoming a construction that can introduce a clause without requiring any overt preceding subject and verb. There's a hint of this in the distribution of the initialism nfi:

i got so wasted saturday night i woke up in a red cross clothing bin nfi how i got in there.
If you havent got console (nfi how you can play without it) go to options, click the keyboard tab, advanced button and make sure "enable developer console"
its a marketing ploy of thiers to make the stores as ugly as posible during sales... nfi how that works tho
my posts are on direct anime as well nfi how it got there,
ive been having this problems for months now, nfi how to fix it.
Currently in beta, but nfi how much it'll cost.

But nfi whether this is plausible in the 1940s Detroit of Leonard's novel.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 20, 2007 07:49 AM