Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Hatless Syntax

Posted by Neal on February 10, 2007

I checked the iTunes store again, as I do every month or so, and this time they were there! Apple must have finally managed to cut a deal and get them on board. So at last, I was able to download both hits from, you guessed it, Men Without Hats.

Now that I’ve played them a few times, two thing have happened. One is that the hook from “Pop Goes the World” has begun to play in a repeating loop in my head, and will probably have to be purged by an application of “The Preamble” or “Can’t Behave”. The other is that I have noticed anew some unusual syntax from “The Safety Dance”. No, I’m not going to talk about the ambiguity of You can leave your friends behind, funny though it is. I’m referring to this line:

We can go where we want to,
A place where they will never find.

Nice example of an adverbial fused relative in the first line: The phrase where we want to [go] looks like an adverbial relative clause, suitable for modifying a noun, as in the park where we want to go. Semantically, however, it acts like a prepositional phrase, something like “to the place where we want to go”. But even that’s not what I really wanted to talk about. What gets to me is the second line, A place where they will never find. A place where they will never find? Never find what? Us? Then say it: a place where they will never find us!

Oh, but wait. That would be too many syllables, and it wouldn’t rhyme with friends behind. OK, then why not replace where with that, for a place that they will never find? You’d change the meaning a little bit, but not too much: It would be the place itself, not the people who go to it, that they would never find. But a place where they will never find just doesn’t work.

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3 Responses to “Hatless Syntax”

  1. Michael said

    Yes I remember this song well from my salad days when I was full of hair.

    I always assumed the hatless men used “where” because they saw an analogy with that/which and who/whom.

    So by their logic, if “proper grammar” says it’s “an object which/that you’ll never find” and it’s “a person who/whom you’ll never find” then surely it must be “a place where you’ll never find.” And they would probably extend it to “a time when you’ll never find.”

    Though by that point they might realize that, just as you say, it just doesn’t work.

  2. Jaŋari said

    Michael, your comment reminds me of a discussion taking place on the letters page of my local broadsheet, the Sydney Morning Herald, about the differences between that and which.

    Unfortunately, the last word – it only ran for I think two days – was this: “I will say this once, and only once. It is “people who”, “things that” and “animals which””.
    I even managed to find the archived page in case you don’t believe me!

  3. Jaŋari said

    Either have patience, it is there, or don’t have patience and scroll to almost the very bottom.

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