January 10, 2008

Not deemed

I was marking examination papers this morning when I found that a student (who had in fact identified only 5 of the 6 noun phrases that were supposed to be identified in a certain exercise) had written that the other phrases in the given example sentence "were not deemed noun phrases." And it's funny how this can happen, but although that statement is 100% grammatical and was also meaningful in context and true (the student had indeed made that incorrect judgment), I knew that it raised my hackles.

"You," I found myself saying haughtily in an imaginary conversation, "do not deem, OK? You are the student; I am the examiner. You say what you think is true; I do the deeming around here!"

The verb merely means "judge" or "consider". X deems Y (to be) Z if and only if in X's opinion Y has the property of being Z. But the verb lends the sentence a flavor of pomposity and authority. A flavor that was enhanced in this case by the use of the passive voice (who it was doing this authoritative deeming was syntactically concealed).

The closest echo of this that I can immediately think of from popular culture was in Lenny Henry's portrayal of the always exasperated master chef Gareth Blackstock (a sort of fictional black Gordon Ramsay) in an episode of the 1990s TV comedy show Chef!. An apprentice had been practicing an excellent pigeon pie in secret, and Chef Blackstock learned that he was referring to it as his "signature dish". Blackstock went into a volcanic fury over it. An apprentice chef just doesn't have a signature dish, you see. It's presumptuous.

No marks will be deducted for the student's unintendedly arrogant choice of construction and lexeme. Unlike the awful Chef Gareth Blackstock, I am kind and merciful and easy to get along with.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 10, 2008 07:33 AM