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!