Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

When Awe Strikes

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2010

I stole this title, but more on that in a minute. I said in my last post that in my next one, I’d have more to say about whether who and what was found was a true case of VP ellipsis. I’m still looking into that, but in the meantime, Visual Thesaurus has published a column I wrote on the words awesome, awful, and awe, and I wanted to do a tie-in post here with some stuff that didn’t make it into the column.

Near the end of the column, I mention some alternatives to awesome that still have a primary meaning of something that induces fear. Some of the alternatives were awe-inspiring and awe-commanding. One that I didn’t put in was awe-striking.

Awe-striking? If you’re like me (or at least, if your mental grammar is like mine), this is your reaction to the participial adjective awe-striking. It’s just wrong. That was certainly the reaction of Laura in a post at Terribly Write–the very post, in fact, whose title I stole. (Thanks, Laura! Great title!)

But why is awe-striking so bad? It comes, of course, from the adjective awe-struck, which uses the past participle struck instead of the present participle striking. Compound verbal adjectives like this, following the Noun+Past_Participle pattern, usually have that noun referring to the agent of the action named by the verb. Let me illustrate. Take a look at this famous actor:

No doubt you will have noticed her bee-stung lips and wind-swept hair. In bee-stung, we are to imagine that a bee did the stinging. In wind-swept, the wind did the sweeping. Similarly, in awe-struck, awe did the striking.

But when you make a compound verbal adjective with the Noun+Present_Participle pattern, the noun doesn’t refer to the agent; it refers to the patient, as in heartbreaking. It can’t refer to the agent. That’s reserved for the noun the adjective modifies, or the subject of the sentence if the adjective finishes out a verb phrase headed by be. For example, man-eating tiger refers to a tiger that eats men, and This movie is heartbreaking means that the movie breaks hearts. For that reason, the adjective awe-striking suggests you can strike an intangible thing, awe, because it certainly can’t mean that awe does the striking.

Or can it? On a sudden suspicion, I Googled awe-striking, and found this page on Wordnik, with some examples as early as the 1800s, like this one from Mary Shelley:

Strange system! riddle of the Sphynx, most awe-striking! that thus man remains, while we the individuals pass away.

Wha–? How is this possible?

Here’s what I think now. For people like me, the awe in awe-struck refers to an agent, and therefore can’t participate in an adjective like awe-striking. However, some speakers think of the awe in awe-struck not as an agent, but an instrument. Awe doesn’t strike people; someone or something strikes someone else with awe. It works the same way as faith in faith-healing evangelist: The evangelist heals people (the patient) with faith (the instrument).

Even so, the precedent’s a bit shaky. I can get faith-healing evangelist, but hand-making ice cream artisan sounds like someone who makes hands out of ice cream, not someone who makes ice cream by hand. Steel-cutting oatmeal manufacturer sounds like an oatmeal manufacturer who, for whatever reason, likes to cut steel, not someone who makes oatmeal by cutting (oats) with steel.

If awe-striking is a part of your lexicon, let us know what it means to you. If not, why isn’t it?

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10 Responses to “When Awe Strikes”

  1. Ellen K. said

    Not a part of my lexicon. I’ve no problem with it. Sounds like an appropriate word to describe something that makes someone awe-struck. But awe and all it’s derivatives that come from the present word aren’t part of my vocabulary. “Awe” is just not something that’s part of my conception of the world, so I don’t use the word.

    “Awesome” and “awful” (and maybe awfully) I use, but those no longer derive their meaning from “awe”.

  2. Faldone said

    Your problem here is that you are expecting language to be rational, logical. There’s too many counter-examples to allow anyone to hold to this belief for very long.

  3. gacorley said

    I hadn’t had any problem with the construction. I suppose semantically awe has a different nature for me than the other instruments you mention. Perhaps it’s not even an instrument at all, but more of a result of the action.

  4. Ran said

    I dunno, for me “awe” in “awestruck” doesn’t feel like an agent, but I also reject “awe-striking”. But then, I’m not sure it feels like an instrument to me, either, but it may just be that I don’t have a good grasp of that theta-role. To me the “awe” in “awestruck” plays the same sort of patient/instrument/something role as the “fear” in “strike fear into the hearts of men” or “stricken with fear”.

    That said, I really can’t think of any “awe” + “strike” constructions that do feel right to me; “struck awe into me”, “struck me with awe”, and “awe struck me” all sound weird. And even though for me “struck” is a preterite, never a past participle, I find “it awestruck me” and “I’m awestricken” to be absolutely ridiculous; only the adjective “awestruck” works for me.

  5. Laura said

    I’m glad you liked the title of the post from Terribly Write. I admit that I’m not knowledgeable enough to follow your argument completely, but I’m sure it’s brilliant.

  6. Hannah said

    I’m afraid this comment isn’t specific to the post, but the post did make me laugh out loud, so I thought I’d tell you in dramatic fashion:
    Your blog makes me feel less alone in the world :)
    In the next year of my degree, the majority of my papers will be in linguistics and I love reading blogs like this and knowing that I’m not the only one who cares – also that I’m not the only one who is amused!
    Thank you!

  7. Estel said

    ‘awe-striking’ sounds a bit odd, but not outright ungrammatical. I may be basing it not on rearranging the pieces of ‘awe-struck’ but rather based on phrases like ‘it strikes awe into me’ (‘strikes/struck awe into’ gets quite a few Google hits.)

    • Estel said

      Actually, I’m not sure if that makes sense. Was writing sort of spur-of-the-moment without really thinking it through.

  8. Jennafer said

    Normally, I would not use “awe-striking”. I do not use it in my everyday lexicon, and I consider it a bit borderline on the “correctness” scale. However, I do like “awe-striking” in a few instances. It works much better when playing the role as a cheerleader (“You are awe-striking”) than saying “Make them awestruck”, particularly if trying to emphasize the impact nature of “to strike”, which is more invigorating (and perhaps masculine) than “awe-inspiring”. Usually, however, I prefer “awe-inspiring”.

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