Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

They Swim As Good As They Look

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2009

While I was out and about today, I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt promoting her high school swim team. On the front, it said:

If only we swam as good as we look!

That’s an interesting problem. You can say If only you studied as hard as you partied, and the adverb hard does a job in two clauses. There’s the clause it actually appears in — you studied as hard — and the clause where it’s understood: you partied. Or for another example, If only they worked as enthusiastically as they played videogames. There, the adverb enthusiastically does a job in both they worked as enthusiastically and they played videogames. Sentences like these are referred to as comparative deletion: The thing being compared is the same in both clauses, and is omitted in the second one.

But when the comparison involves swim and look, we run into a problem. Swim would be modified by an adverbial form of good, which (at least in current standard English) is well. Look, on the other hand, is a linking verb, so instead of being modified by an adverb, it would take a predicate adjective. In short, good works fine with look. So now what is a standard English speaker to do if they want to compare the quality of someone’s swimming with their visual attractiveness? Use comparative subdeletion, of course! That’s what you use when you’re comparing different qualities. It shows up in phrases like as green as you are young or as weird as it is creepy. Why do they call it subdeletion? Because you don’t have the full deletion of the compared quality in the second clause. What’s missing is word or phrase saying how creepy or young the subject is.

Anyway, instead of is weird / is creepy or are green / are young for the verb phrases in the compared clauses, this time we have swam well / look good. Plugged into a comparative subdeletion construction and printed on a T-shirt, it would be:

If only we swam as well as we looked good!

There! An improvement already, don’t you think? I thought so. But then the T-shirt wearer turned around, and I saw that there was still a problem. The back of the shirt listed a dozen swimming events that the shirt-wearer’s swim team had presumably dominated during the season. Above the list was the sentence:

Oh, wait, we did!

We did? Oh, dear. When I read If only we swam, I naturally took it to be a present counterfactual: something that is false at the present moment — specifically, this girl’s team’s swimming at a degree of quality comparable to that of their visual attractiveness. I now realized that that couldn’t be right. If it had been, the correction on the back would have been Oh, wait, we do!

Instead, the Oh, wait, we did tipped me off that the message on the front was supposed to be a past counterfactual: something that was false at some point in the past. Followed, of course, by the sudden recollection that the quality of the team’s swimming had, in fact, been at a degree comparable to that of their visual attractiveness. So let’s take another crack at recasting the sentence on the front of the T-shirt:

If only we had swum as well as we look good!

There! Now that’s a snappy T-shirt!

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11 Responses to “They Swim As Good As They Look”

  1. Faldone said

    Boy, howdy! Perfect example of literal-mindedness sucking all the life out of a T-shirt slogan! Keep up the good work.

  2. kip said

    Also interesting to note, if they had written “If only we swam as well as we look”, that could be interpreted with “well” being both an adverb and an adjective simultaneously. Meaning something like: “if only we swam as well as we look healthy” or “if only we swam as well as we don’t look ill”. That would add a negation into the mix for even more fun!

  3. The Ridger said

    “If only we swam as well as we look” makes them sound eagle-eyed.

    All kidding aside, what are the odds that the t-shirt writer has leveled \”swim\” to two forms (swim-swam-swam) the way many speakers have leveled other irregulars?

    • Neal said

      Very possible, but in that case, it’d be if only we had swam. What I think is really going on is that they’ve leveled both present and past counterfactuals so that both forms use the ordinary past-tense form.

  4. Dann said

    I have a joke that utilizes this exact problem.
    A – “Did you hear that Matt and Rachel are getting married?”
    B – Yes, and if he is as loving and nurturing as he is domestically violent, I think they’re going to live long, happy lives together.”

  5. Neal said

    I just remembered a similar problem, from the 1970s-era Doritos commercials: “They taste as good as they crunch!” My improved version: “They taste as good as they crunch well!”

  6. Glen said

    Even in your reformulation, the T-shirt wearers are comparing their past swimming performance with their present attractiveness. To place them in the same time frame, the T-shirt would need to read, “If only we had swum as well as we looked!” Might even want another ‘had’ in there.

    But in any case, I would have been embarrassed to wear that shirt, no matter how good-looking in fast in the water I was. Awful.

  7. Glen said

    Correction: “If we had swum as well as we looked good.”

    And also: … no matter how good-looking *and* fast in the water I was.

  8. [...] he writes poorly.” And it’s pretty dicey when you compare adjectives with adverbs, too: “If only we swam as well as we look good.” Larsson’s sentence would turn into something like, “a wiry old man who moved softly and [...]

  9. [...] “If She Would Have Been Faithful” came out just a couple of years after I’d learned about English moods and tenses, and I still thought “Why do they do that?” every time I heard someone say “If I/you/we/etc. would have” when they meant “If I/you/we/etc. had”. The standard way of phrasing the thought in this song title is to use the past perfect tense for be: “If she had been faithful.” That line doesn’t scan the same as If she would have been faithful, but I’m sure that the songwriters could have made it work with skillful use of contractions, adverbs, and song-phrasing; maybe If she’d only been faithful. (For other examples of counterfactuals, there’s If it hadn’t been for these kids or If only we had swum….) [...]

  10. [...] noticed what Karl is asking about in past-time remote conditionals, too; for example, there was If only we swam as good as we look. Then there’s the old song “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d've Baked a [...]

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