Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Down Will Come Santa and Fill the Stockings

Posted by Neal on December 4, 2005

Doug and Adam are learning about planned obsolescence. This year, they somehow got interested in Bionicle, a line of toys from Lego. The Bionicle universe is populated by robot-like figures, and there are new ones each year. Not only can you assemble them from Bionicle sets, you can read about them in books and comics created by Lego, and see their adventures in (so far) three direct-to-video Bionicle movies. Once his interest was piqued, Doug remembered the two Bionicle sets some friends had given him for his birthday in 2004. Adam, meanwhile, got a Bionicle book published in 2004, all about that year’s Bionicle figures. Once he and Doug realized there were four figures other than the ones Doug already had, “collect them all” immediately set in. The trouble is, that series isn’t in stores anymore–all you can find are the 2005 Bionicles. After a number of frustrating discussions, Doug and Adam have finally accepted that no matter how many times they check the toy shelves in the stores, they’re not going to find those four Bionicles from 2004.

I knew Doug had learned and generalized the concept of planned obsolescence when he said, “2005 is almost over, so the 2005 Bionicles won’t be around much longer, either. We’d better buy more of them now!” I could almost see the CEO of Lego drumming his fingertips together and saying, “E-e-e-xcelle-e-ent.”

Yesterday, though, Doug said he and Adam had new hope for getting some 2004 Bionicles. “Lego doesn’t make 2004 Bionicles anymore,” he said, “but Santa doesn’t buy toys, he makes them! So he can make some 2004 Bionicles!”

“Hmmm…that’s a good point,” I acknowledged, and said no more. I guess we’re reaping what we’ve sown here.

But on the subject of Santa Claus, consider a sentence like this one:

Down came Santa and filled all the stockings.

What is being coordinated here? Before the and we have Down came Santa, a complete sentence. After the and we have filled all the stockings, not a complete sentence because it has no subject. Now obviously, Santa is supposed to be the subject of both verbs, but typically you’d expect the subject of coordinated verbs to come before either of them, like this:

Santa [came down] and [filled all the stockings].

This kind of coordination (which for reasons I won’t go into is called either an SGF or SLF coordination) has been written about a lot in the linguistics literature on German, because it was noticed in German first. The most common example of it comes from Tilman Hoehle, who wrote the first analysis of this kind of coordination:

In den Wald      ging der Jaeger    und   fing einen Hasen.
Into the forest   went the hunter   and   caught a hare.

Like Santa in the English example, der Jaeger is the subject of both ging and fing, but gets thrown right in the middle of the coordination of verb phrases. I suspect this it the kind of coordination Chris Waigl had in mind when she commented on one of my Friends in Low Places coordinations:

This is a strangely cerebral exercise for me because if you come from German, as I do, many of the WTF coordinations look totally unremarkable.

Coming back to my conversation with Doug, I see that I made another SGF coordination when I wrote:

“Hmmm…that’s a good point,” I acknowledged, and said no more.

The subject of both acknowledged and said no more is I, but like Santa and der Jaeger, it appears after something that belongs to only the first verb phrase: the “Hmm” quotation.

In later developments, Doug’s statement regarding Santa Claus and 2004 Bionicles has now become, in his estimation, a test for whether Santa is real, or (as he’s sometimes wondered) just kids’ parents. If he gets some 2004 Bionicles, Santa’s real; if not, it must be the parents. I wonder what he’d think if he only knew about eBay.

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3 Responses to “Down Will Come Santa and Fill the Stockings”

  1. I don’t think your two SGF’s are totally analogous. In “Down came Santa and filled all the stockings,” the verb ‘came’ appears *before* the subject. In “‘Hmmm… that’s a good point,’ I acknowledged, and said no more,” the verb ‘acknowledged’ appears *after* the subject.

    For a closer analogy, you might have used, “‘Hmmm… that’s a good point,” said I, and left the room.”

    So… do these SGF coordinations require verb1-subject-verb2, or is it enough to have object1-subject-verb1-verb2?

  2. [...] about language ownership that I only just learned. Longtime readers may remember that Doug and Adam like playing with Bionicles. Now and again I’d ask Doug and Adam why something like Ronaka (I just made that up) would be [...]

  3. [...] like my other Christmas-related example of adverbial fronting clashing with coordination, Down will come Santa and fill the stockings, and the examples of quotation fronting with coordinated verb [...]

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