Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

It’s Sick, Twisted, and Smells Like Old Socks!

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2006

Ever since I wrote that post about being pompous, obese, and eating cactus, I’ve been seeing or hearing more multi-level coordinations. The ones that seem to turn up most are similar to Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus. These coordinations contain a verb phrase headed by some form of be, which is followed by a series of predicative complements, be they adjective phrases, noun phrases, participial phrases, or some combination. However, the last item in the list is not another predicative complement, but another entire verb phrase. For example:

It’s [sick], [twisted], and [smells like old socks]!
(“The Problem with Clones,” episode of Jimmy Neutron)

…for the most part, it was [clean], [easy to figure out], and [worked as advertised].
(Brian Bergstein, “Tool helps filter news feeds,” Associated Press, June 26, 2006)

Henry decided he liked best the people who gave them National Geographic, because it was [thick], [an easy size to handle], and [did not slip and slide].
(Beverly Cleary, Henry and the Paper Route, p. 119)

[Drug name] is not intended for women who are [nursing], [pregnant], or [may become pregnant].
(Noticed by Ingeborg S. Nordén, in a comment to this post.)

There may be other VPs before the one headed by be, as in this example:

What [hangs on the wall], [is green], [wet], and [laughs]?
(Steve Charney, Kids’ Kookiest Riddles, p. 15)

Another cluster of examples involved coordinated nominals and noun phrases:

Looking for a [home], [condo] or [real estate]?
(newspaper advertisement)

…getting the [disabled], [elderly], and [tourists] out of town…
(NPR report on post-Katrina evacuation plans for New Orleans)

In these examples, a single determiner (a, the) is intended to attach to the coordinated nouns (or adjectives functioning as nouns) that follow: home and condo in the first example; disabled and elderly in the second. But then, instead of another noun, we get an entire noun phrase: real estate and tourists. You can tell they’re noun phrases, because the factored-out determiners don’t fit with them. If you expand out the first example, you get …a home, a condo, or a real estate, which just doesn’t work. If you expand out the second example, you get the disabled, the elderly, and the tourists. Though this is grammatical, the meaning has changed from the original quotation; now we’re not talking about any tourists who happen to be present, but a specific, known group of tourists. For the intended reading, tourists stands as a noun phrase on its own.

All of the above examples coordinate two items at one level (either Predicative or Noun) and another or others from the next higher level (VP or NP). Some more complicated examples involve a two-level jump, as in this one from Eric Bakovic:

…everyone from [Pennsylvania], [Kansas] and [Pat Robertson] should see this.

Pennsylvania and Kansas form a prepositional phrase with from, which in turn forms an NP when it combines with everyone. This NP and Pat Robertson are supposed to be the coordinated subjects of should see this, but Pat Robertson is coordinated with the NP objects of from, which makes this a two-level jump from lower NP to PP, and from there to the higher NP.

Here’s another two-level jump, with three nouns inside a VP coordinated with two full VPs that follow:

…should I be expected to do the [housework], [laundry], [cooking], [take out the garbage] and [pay our bills]?
letter to Dear Abby, July 30, 2006)

From the level of the nouns to the NP level with the is one step up; from there to the VP do the … that is intended to coordinated with take out the garbage and pay the bills is two steps.

I’ve even found a three-level jump, in this quotation from a local farmer:

You try to make srue that you have [reflective tape], [good signs], and [that your lights are working].
(Dana Wilson, “Tractors face growing risk,” Columbus Dispatch, June 22, 2006, p. D1)

It sounds as though what the farmer wanted to coordinate was the two that-clauses (or complementizer phrases, as they’re sometimes known): that you have… and that your lights…. Actually coordinated, however, are the two NPs reflective tape and good signs. From NP to VP, from VP to sentence, and from sentence to CP makes for the triple jump.

Three is the highest number of levels I’ve seen jumped in this kind of coordination, but the most confounding multi-level coordination I’ve come across appeared in another Dear Abby column, just one day before the other Dear Abby specimen. It contains both a one-level jump and a two-level jump:

I’m 33, have [a great job], [a good head on my shoulders], and [I am in love].
(letter to Dear Abby, July 29, 2006)

In this example, it seems that two entire sentences are being coordinated: I’m 33… and I am in love. But digging into the first sentence, we can see that it contains two coordinated VPs: [a]m 33 and have a…. So at this point, we have a coordination of two VPs and an entire sentence, for a one-level jump. But wait, there’s more! Inside the I have… VP, there are a couple of coordinated NPs: a great job and a good head on my shoulders. Following the coordinated NPs is that same full sentence I am in love. The jump from NP-level to VP-level, and from VP-level to S level gives us the two-level jump.

So are these things actually grammatical? Even Huddleston and Pullum aren’t sure: “…given their marginal status, we will not consider them any further” (CGEL, p. 1336). But I will say that the Henry Huggins example went right by me when I read it as a kid, just like the Steve Martin one did when I was a teenager.

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8 Responses to “It’s Sick, Twisted, and Smells Like Old Socks!”

  1. Dana said

    I don’t know if these constructions are grammatical or not, but I know that several standardized examinations require students to identify and correct such sentences, which are considered to contain errors in parallelism. I realize that it can be a challenge to keep track of how you are constructing a list when you are speaking, but I still like to collect these “unparallel” structures as instructive examples for students preparing for tests like the SAT or the GMAT. To make it a little more interesting, I use celebrity quotes. Some of my favorites:

    “He would be on the same page with me spiritually, have a sense of humor and is not concerned about being overshadowed by the fame thing.” – Mariah Carey, about her future boyfriend

    “Listen, he’s a great man, he’s a great friend, he’s a great actor and so much fun.” – Jennifer Aniston, about Vince Vaughn

    “She’s 28 years old, a real estate investor, and, apparently, doesn’t read the paper.” – David Spade, about Charlie Sheen’s new girlfriend

  2. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Ooops, I see you beat me to citing the “pharmacist’s coordination” (and gave me credit for bringing it up, too). Please accept my thanks and apologies!

  3. Michael C said

    I don’t see the “disabled, elderly, and tourists” passasge the same way you see it. In fact I might guess that the utterer was hearing “the disabled, the elderly, and the tourists” when accepting the parallel construction (Of course I will never argue that – I just might guess it).

    What I see as the split in parallelism is the underlying form of the first two nouns. In fact I would argue it is more likely that those are underlyingly the noun phrases.

    If so we have culled our adjectives from the head of the phrases “disabled people” and “elderly people.” That leaves us with the tourists who have no qualities. Is “touristy” a word?

    So how awful is it to say: “getting all the disabled people, all the elderly people, and all the tourists out of town”?

  4. Doris Whisman said

    I have a friend who cannot bend over to put on her socks. Someone told her there is a product that you can put your socks on it, and hold the handkes and ….you have your socks on. Do you have such a product or do yoy know where it can be obtained

  5. [...] included this example in my second post on multiple-level coordinations a couple of months later. I wasn’t going to write more about these coordinations until I had [...]

  6. [...] Posted by Neal on November 23, 2009 In the multiple-level coordinations I’ve written about before, the coordinated items (which I’ll call conjuncts) have been two smaller phrases and a bigger one. For example, in It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks, [...]

  7. [...] Whitman’s second posting, “It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks” (here), he too was considering that some of the examples might simply be grammatical. It’s [...]

  8. [...] Whitman’s second posting, “It’s sick, twisted, and smells like old socks” (here), he too was considering that some of the examples might simply be grammatical. It’s certainly [...]

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