January 20, 2008

Non-constituent titles

Mark mentions (in the previous post) a cellphone novel called If You (in transliterated Japanese, moshimo kimi-ga). As an English title this enters the ranks of the extremely few books ever published with titles that are not syntactic constituents.

A constituent is a syntactic unit: a single word, or a phrase or clause consisting of one or more words that belong together and act as a unit syntactically. Take an example like the first two lines of Route 66:

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best

(This line turns out to vary a lot between different recordings and different transcriptions; I've taken a sort of average.) Here the sequence to motor west is a constituent (a subjectless infinitival clause, the complement of the verb plan, which is also a constituent). So is the highway (it's a noun phrase). Likewise the whole conditional adjunct if you ever plan to motor west. Most linguists but not quite all would say that plan to motor west is a constituent: a verb phrase — though there can be controversy about such matters. But no one would claim that highway that's the is a constituent. And similarly, no linguist would claim that if you is a constituent.

In "Some lists of things about books" (Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 6 [1988], 283-290; reprinted in my collection The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, University of Chicago Press, 1991, 190-200) I gave a few examples of books that clearly have non-constituent titles, and commented on their rarity. The ones I still think are definitely valid examples are Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller (conditional if + preposition phrase adjunct + subject NP; note, though, that this book is overtly a literary experiment); James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (predicative complement NP + temporal modifier NP — though this one is doubtful, since as Topher Cooper points out to me, it comes from the lines "God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water ... the fire next time", and in that context it could perhaps be regarded as a clause with something like "it'll be" left implicit); Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion; and Andrew Holleran's Dancer From the Dance.

You might wonder how we know whether a title was intended as a constituent or not. Quite often we can clearly identify the source of such titles in familiar or previously attested phrases or clauses of which the titles are intended to be recognized as echoes. For example, the title of Holleran's Dancer From the Dance, a novel about gay men in New York, is well known to be a deliberate echo of William Butler Yeats's line: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?": the verb know takes a direct object, the dancer, which is followed by a preposition-phrase complement, from the dance. Hardly any syntacticians would say that these combine to form a constituent of the clause (but again, there can be disagreement: I believe the NYU syntactician Richard Kayne would defend the view that the two do form a constituent, at least at a certain transformational level of abstraction — don't ask, I could explain more about this but I won't).

I think things are freer, and there is more experimentation, in pop music song titles. Charles Ulrich recently pointed out to me that Frank Zappa gave non-constituent titles to at least two instrumental pieces, and we can identify them as definitely non-constituents in a similar way: "Watermelon In Easter Hay" (on Joe's Garage) was titled for Zappa's own remark, "Playing a guitar solo with this band is like trying to grow a watermelon in Easter hay" (where absolutely no one would try to argue that the direct object a watermelon forms a constituent with the locative adjunct in Easter hay), and "Hands With A Hammer", a drum solo by Terry Bozzio (on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 3), is named after Bozzio's complaint "I feel like I've been hittin' my goddamn hands with a hammer!" (same syntactic comment: absolutely no syntactician one would say that the direct object my goddam hands forms a constituent with the instrumental adjunct with a hammer).

But even for musical or poetic compositions, such titles are extremely rare. And I am most interested in collecting new instances of book titles. I expect to have a whole shipload of people mailing my gmail account to suggest new cases (the username is pullum; use the Subject line "non-constituent titles"), enough that I will probably not be able to respond personally. Already my Language Log colleague Ben Zimmer has pointed out that Justin Timberlake's song "SexyBack" (spelled without a space) comes from its first line "I'm bringin' sexy back" (see Semantic Compositions for an ill-tempered critique that hovers on the edge of rant). Zimmer also noted here on Language Log that the film Love Actually is named for the dialog line "If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around", and also that the play (and film) Suddenly Last Summer has a non-constituent title formed of two clause-modifying adjuncts.

But I don't actually expect to be deluged with examples, because it is overwhelmingly clear that for every odd case of a non-constituent title of a work of literature or music or theater or film, there are thousands and thousands of titles that are plain old constituents:

  • noun phrases (The Bourne Identity), or
  • nominals (NPs without the determiner, as in Handbook of Amazonian Languages or single noun cases like Enigma), or
  • preposition phrases (On the Beach), or
  • adjective phrases (Dead Certain), or
  • coordinations of constituents (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), or
  • independent declarative clauses (I Am Charlotte Simmons), or
  • independent interrogative clauses (How Should I Live?), or
  • interrogative subordinate clauses (Why I write), or
  • imperative clauses (Dial M for Murder)
  • Gerund-participial clauses (Growing Marijuana Under Lights)...

and so on. It is only extraordinarily few that are non-constituents, and to my ear most of those are quite easily recognized as odd, as straining for some special effect.

This is such a plangent and demonstrable fact that two things occur to me as I reflect upon it again.

First, one might regard it as prima facie evidence in favor of the constituency of a class of word sequences that sequences of that sort turn up frequently as titles.

And second, I see no reason why the statistical fact of the huge preponderance of titles that are constituents should not be counted part of the external evidence in favor of the reality of syntactic structure. That is, I see it as potential evidence against the linguists and psycholinguists (I think they are a minority, but they exist) who suggest that there really is no such thing as syntax, there are just words and the clues to communicated meanings that they carry.

Ordinary authors and songwriters are typically unacquainted with any theoretical notions of syntactic constituency. Even just the syntactic argumentation and terminology contained in this post, which I have addressed to a general audience, goes beyond the consciously articulable knowledge of syntax possessed by the typical novelist or songsmith. How would they (even when aided and abetted by their editors and publishers) know enough to maintain the overwhelming statistical preponderance if the distinction between constituent and non-constituent word sequences were not a real part of the structure of linguistic expressions, ingrained in our tacit knowledge of them?

[Update last revised Mon Jan 21 16:26:47 GMT 2008 and will be further revised soon: A few of the new non-constituent titles collected in the first few hours were from song titles. I have decided that these are rather like poems and ancient texts in that their titles are fairly often just shortened versions of the first line, or some significant line. But certainly, there are genuine non-constituent song titles out there: Dan Bruno notes that Phish closed out their last show with a song titled "The Curtain With" (I take it to be an allusion to grammatical phrases like "a song to bring down the curtain with", and very obviously a non-constituent), and John Beavers reminded me of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith's "Because The Night" (a clausally-complemented preposition plus the subject NP of the complement clause). Let me also point out that the title of the Australian film One Night the Moon (brought to my attention by linguist David Nash) has exactly the same non-constituent structure, and so does Suddenly Susan, the 90s Brooke Shields sitcom (as pointed out by Grant Hutchins). .

Furthermore, Chris Kern reports that the cellphone novel title Mark mentioned is from a Japanese pop song: "Moshimo kimi-ga" by Woody Sato. (Some people have suggested that in very informal Japanese it could be a constituent, meaning "if you are" or "if you will". In English it is certainly not.)

It was book titles that originally interested me in this connection, and I am pleased to have collected several more from the correspondence that resulted from this post. I have now moved the list to a separate post, q.v. Thanks to all.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 20, 2008 08:02 AM