It Took Patience, It Took Perseverance
Posted by Neal on March 28, 2010
Update, Mar. 29, 2010: Because of some kind of software glitch, all that’s been visible of this post today has been the first paragraph, or maybe not even that. It’s been corrected now.
I heard a sound bite of President Obama last week, talking about the just-signed nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Based on his intonation, here’s how I parsed what he said:
It took patience, it took perseverance, but we never gave up.
My syntax sensors began tingling. Something about the sentence sounded like a non-parallel coordination, but when I took it apart, it seemed to check out: The coordinated elements (aka conjuncts) were three independent clauses:
- It took patience.
- It took perseverance.
- We never gave up.
So what was non-parallel about that? For comparison, what about these coordinations involving three independent clauses?
It took patience, it took perseverance, and at times we almost gave up.
You’ll need patience, you’ll need luck, or you’ll need a lot of money.
If you were to expand out these coordinations with a conjunction between every two conjuncts, they would be
It took patience and it took perseverance and at times we almost gave up.
You’ll need patience or you’ll need luck or you’ll need a lot of money.
The grammar term for doing this, by the way, is polysyndeton. Now let’s polysyndetize Obama’s coordination:
#It took patience but it took perseverance but we never gave up.
The # indicates that there’s nothing actually ungrammatical about this sentence, but that it’s something that wouldn’t ever be appropriate to say. It’s not that you can’t use multiple buts in a coordination, but they have to flip-flop you from one side of the issue to the other and back again, like this:
I’d like to have a Coke, but I don’t want the calories, but dang, it sure would taste good!
We go from Coke-positive to Coke-negative to Coke-positive again. But in the tweaked Obama sentence we’re going from hardship (it took patience) to more hardship (it took perseverance) to success (we never gave up).
However, that’s not to say that Obama’s actual utterance was inappropriate. Some reports of his announcement punctuate it like this:
It took patience, it took perseverance. But we never gave up.
They took the two clauses showing hardship linked into a single sentence with no conjunction at all. The grammar term for this is asyndeton. You also see it in sentences like, I laughed, I cried, I kissed ten bucks goodbye. The clause starting with but is broken off to stand alone as its own sentence, and now it’s clear that the contrast is between the hardships on the one hand, and success on the other. But I heard Obama speaking, and it didn’t sound like this. For an asyndeton, I’d expect to hear a falling intonation at the end of it took perseverance, but I thought I heard a rising intonation, as if another element in a list were coming.
Other reports turn all three clauses into their own sentences:
It took patience. It took perseverance. But we never gave up.
Again, I heard Obama speak it, and it didn’t sound like either this. For this analysis, I’d have expected falling intonations on both it took perseverance and it took patience, but I thought they each had rising intonations, like non-terminal items in a list.
So do we need to allow that in Obama’s grammar, the conjunction introducing the final item in a list need not be the same as the understood conjunctions for the preceding items? I don’t think so; at least not yet. Until I hear a lot more of this, I’m inclined to call it a performance error in intonation.