October 12, 2005

To snowclone or not to snowclone

Post about snowclones, and people send you more.  Today from Pat Dreher, To X Or Not To X, specifically an article by Constance Weaver, Carol McNally, and Sharon Moerman (in the NCTE's Voices from the Middle 8.3 (2001)) entitled "To Grammar or Not to Grammar".  That quickly led me to Bob Kennedy's posting (of 9/21/05) on the piloklok blog on this very snowclone, under the title "to clone or not to clone".

Kennedy had come across the sports headline "QB or not QB" and recognized it for what it was:

The to X or not to X structure is pretty clearly a snowclone, of the type frequently tracked on Language Log. This one's also pretty easy to date; it's at least as old as Shakespeare's Hamlet, but I suppose it's possible that the Bard may have lifted it from one of his contemporaries' work.

A google search of to * or not to * gets the following phrases on page 1:

to be or not to be
to Lariam or not to Lariam
to spank or not to spank
to pee or not to pee
to MBA or not to MBA
to hack or not to hack
to blog or not to blog
to breed or not to breed

And none of these actually discusses the play.

Regardless, the structure is so utterly common that its absence from the Google Meme Observatory is, IMHO, forgiveable.

Among the over sixteen million hits that came up for me today were the following, from just the first two pages:

to bundle or not to bundle
to /movelog or not to /movelog
to vaccinate or not to vaccinate
to rebuild or not to rebuild
to _root or not to _root
to outsource or not to outsource
to stopword or not to stopword
to circumcise or not to circumcise
to zap or not to zap
to shave or not to shave
to meow or not to meow

An utterly ordinary structure, indeed.  Some occurrences might just be simple contrastive disjunction, though the most natural expression of this disjunction would be with ellipsis in the second disjunct: "to X or not (to)".  You have to think that there's a lot of echoing of The Bard here.

The formulaic nature of some of these examples is made clear by the occurrence of an X that is straightforwardly a noun, not a verb.  Dreher pointed this out about "To Grammar or Not to Grammar", and Kennedy's list has "Lariam" (an anti-malaria medication) and "MBA" on it. 

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 12, 2005 07:10 PM