Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Doug Bowls Over Me

Posted by Neal on September 10, 2007

“I’m gonna bowl you over!” I announced. I crawled at top speed across the living room floor, crashed into Doug and rolled around on the floor with him.

Doug’s turn. After he sent me rolling over backwards, he crowed:

I bowled over you!

Bowled over me? Where did he get that syntax? It’s been the better part of a decade since Doug and I played that game, but I still wonder. When I said bowl you over, the only thing over could be was a particle. But when Doug said bowl over you, which he did consistently, the over has to be a preposition, with you as its object. It can’t be a particle, because as I wrote last time, a particle has to come after unstressed pronouns like you.

Maybe Doug heard some ambiguous input, where over could be either a preposition or a particle, such as:

  1. Doug bowled over his dad.
  2. I got bowled over.
  3. YOU’RE gonna bowl over ME?! No, I’M gonna bowl over YOU!

In the first example, over his dad is a particle next to a noun phrase, but it could easily be mistaken for a prepositional phrase headed by over. If Doug interpreted it that way, then he could easily generate bowl over you, the same way he could generate walk over you. The same remarks hold for the second example’s bowl over ME and bowl over YOU, with their stressed pronouns.

In the third example, the passive form I got bowled [__] over corresponds to the active Someone bowled me over. But it could be mistaken for a passive with the same structure as I got walked over [__]. If Doug interpreted it that way, he could generate active forms like bowl over you, just as (again) he could generate walk over you.

Or maybe Doug didn’t hear any of the above. Maybe he just heard me say I’m gonna bowl you over at a time when he’d mastered prepositions but hadn’t recognized particles as something different. He listened, perhaps wondered why in the world I was saying you over instead of over you, and made a correction when he spoke it.

Whatever he did, he arrived at the correct analysis sometime in the years that followed. I asked him today if he remembered the game we used to play, describing it without using the verb bowl over, and he said he remembered “you bowling me over.”

“You said, ‘You bowled me over,'” I said. “Do you remember you used to say, ‘You bowled over me’ instead?”

He said yes, “It just sounded right back then.” But it doesn’t now?

“No.”


After reading my last post, Ben Zimmer wrote me with a different case of a particle becoming a preposition:

At the end of your latest post you say, “I’ve talked about the preposition ‘over’ becoming a particle; next time it will be a strange case of the particle ‘over’ becoming a preposition.” I don’t know if it’s what you had in mind, but I was recently discussing such a case with Katherine Martin of the OED. According to Katherine’s research, the idiom “rake (someone) over the coals” started off as the phrasal verb “rake over” with “the coals” as its object, roughly meaning ‘to dredge up something unpleasant from the past’. But along the way it got conflated with transitive verbs that could take the PP complement “over the coals”, as in “haul/call (someone) over the coals”. “Rake” ended up falling into this pattern, even though when you stop to think about it, the resulting idiom is very strange. (For me it evokes the painful image of someone’s body being used as a rake.)

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One Response to “Doug Bowls Over Me”

  1. [...] (not “look down their nose”) at things they disapprove of. It reminded me of my own posts about particles, prepositions, and phrasal verbs. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to [...]

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