Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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:

  1. It took patience.
  2. It took perseverance.
  3. 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.

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3 Responses to “It Took Patience, It Took Perseverance”

  1. The Ridger said

    Okay, I admit it. I don’t get it.

  2. Herb Stahlke said

    Apparently there is no link to “Read more of this post” other than to the single comment. But I’ll bite.

    Coordination doesn’t always mean coordination. In a sentence like

    Sammy ate three green apples, and he got a belly-ache.

    We don’t have two separate and equal events; the second is clearly the consequence of the first and so is at least pragmatically subordinate. This relation shows up syntactically in the fact that C-command works. We can reverse the pronominalization and get the same reading:

    He(i) ate three green apples, and Sammy(i) got a belly ache.

    The pronominalization argument doesn’t apply to the Obama parallelism, but it supports the claim that parataxis can mask hypotaxis.


  3. kip said

    Is “A, B, but C” ever used in English, the same way that “A, B, and C” and “A, B, or C” are used? I don’t think it is; I can’t think of a case where you would hear someone say “A, B, but C” and think that should be equivalent to “A but B but C”. If you tried to convert your example back to the “A, B, but C” form, it doesn’t sound right:

    I’d like to have a Coke, I don’t want the calories, but it sure would taste good! (I took out the “dang,” to avoid confusion with other commas.)

    I think “A, B, but C” would have to be interpreted as “A, and B, but C”. And it only seems to make sense if A, B, and C are independent clauses. (I think that’s the right term. I mean they are sentences that could stand on their own.)

    My guess is that our minds parse “but” as kind of a special form of “and”. Meaning something like “and yet”. So “A, B, but C” would be something like “A, B, and yet C”. That would be correctly expanded to “A, and B, and yet C”.

    But I’m still not convinced that “A, B, but C” is even valid in the general case. Obama’s statement makes sense to me, but only because the A/B/C clauses are all short. Like your example “I laughed, I cried, I kissed ten bucks goodbye.” If the clauses were long, that would be considered a run-on sentence, and the commas would be changed to periods or maybe semicolons. If Obama’s statement is punctuated with commas, I think those commas are really acting more like weak semicolons, not like the commas in “Please get lettuce, bananas, and grapes from the store”.

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