November 23, 2007

Be off with you!

What on earth does Be off with you! have as its understood grammatical subject? (I know the phrase is a bit archaic and fairy-storyish; but it gets 40,000 Google hits. We've all encountered it.) You see, the understood subject can't be second person, as in imperatives, because then the pronoun in the with-phrase would be obligatorily reflexive (as in Be gentle with yourself), and we would find *Be off with yourself! instead. But we don't.

Updates, November 24th:

1. To the various people who have asked me whether I know the paper by the mythical Quang Phuc Dong (now known to be the late James McCawley) on English sentences without overt grammatical subject, yes, of course. Every linguist who remembers who broke the glass (it was Floyd), or who can recall when Mick Jagger first said he wouldn't want to still be performing when he was 40, remembers Jim McCawley's lovably puerile experiments in pseudonymous pornolinguistic and scatolinguistic underground essays. Quang discusses expressions such as Fuck you, which have a similar lack of overt subject. (Lonnie Chu seems to have stashed a copy of his paper on the web here.)

2. To the several people who have suggested that Be off with you is a calque on an Irish phrases like Amach leat "out with you", I would point out that this says nothing about the problem I raised, which is about what the understood subject could be.

3. To the people who have suggested that the understood subject is "the devil", so that Be off with you really communicates The devil be off with you, or May the devil be off with you, I have a simple refutation to offer (and it is suggested by an argument of Quang's): it is simply that if you were saying "Be off with you!" to Satan himself, then under this hypothesis we would expect a reflexive:

*Hey Satan, be off with yourself!

But that doesn't seem to be what one would say.

4. The best hypothesis so far (thanks to Chris Weimer for this) is that the you of Be off with you is an archaism from the time when the accusative forms of the pronouns were frequently used instead of the reflexive forms. One well-known line showing this clearly is Now I lay me down to sleep (me for myself), and more recently, in Wilbur Harrison's grand old blues number "Kansas City":

They got some crazy little women there,
And I'm going to get me one.
This non-reflexive-form pronoun usage could perhaps be the solution for some of Quang's cases as well: after all, in modern colloquial English we find Fuck you alongside Go fuck yourself. However, expressions like Damn you and To hell with you remain a problem, because we never find *Damn yourself or *To hell with yourself. Yet as Quang notes, Damn God! is grammatical, and *Damn himself! is not (and the same applies to To hell with God! and *To hell with himself!), which means the understood subject in these cases cannot be God either.

5. For a truly radical suggestion about Damn you, Fuck you, etc., see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pages 1360-1361, especially footnote 70 on page 1361. It astonished me when we thought it up. It is too radical for me to repeat here. You are just going to have to lift CGEL down from the shelf, or make a trip to the library.

6. One other observation, which could be quite important, is from David Denison: he points out that there are with-phrases within which the reflexive requirement does not apply, e.g., Take me away with you (it is not *Take me away with yourself. Notice also, He's taken her away with him (*with himself), I'll keep it with me always (*with myself always). Now, there are also with-phrases into which the reflexive requirement does apply; e.g., I'm so pleased with myself (*with me), or You're never happy with yourself (*with you). But as a rough first guess at how things fall out, it looks to me like in the latter cases the with-phrases are complements, and in Take me away with you the with-phrase might be an adjunct. (It's a bit hard to tell, because the phrase take X away with Y is so familiar, it's almost a fixed formula.) It could just be that the right answer to my original question is that simple: with you in Be off with you! is an adjunct; end of story. However, it also might not be; see the next update.

7. Randy Alexander has pointed out something really important (and I can't believe I overlooked the task of checking this, because it is so simple): he searched with Google for the string "be off with yourself"; and there are thousands and thousands of hits, many of them from a long time ago. We even find (in an 1852 story) "Say to him, Be off with yourself, Satan"! So it looks like there has been plenty of variation between Be off with you and Be off with yourself down the years. That fact returns us to favoring update 4 again.

Do you see how complex and fascinating and yet ultimately amenable to investigation this syntax business is?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 23, 2007 03:39 PM