Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What She’s Doin’ Now Is Tearin’ Me Apart

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2011

Back in January I wrote about an unusual sentence with a fused relative clause (aka a free relative). At the time, I wrote, “This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudo-cleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.”

Looks like I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so here we go. The song is “What She’s Doing Now,” performed by Garth Brooks on his 1990 album No Fences. The title shows up in the lyrics, when Brooks sings that the season of the year

…makes me wonder
What she’s doin’ now.

Nothing remarkable so far. What she’s doing now is the indirect-question form of What is she doing now?, serving as the complement of the verb wonder. But in the chorus, Brooks sings

… what she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart
Fillin’ up my mind and emptyin’ my heart

Now we’ve got ourselves an ambiguity, and it’s partly attributable to the ambiguity of the -ing form of any verb. Let’s take the phrase blogging about linguistics in two sentences:

My hobby is blogging about linguistics.
I’m blogging about linguistics right now.

In the first sentence, blogging about linguistics is a noun phrase (more specifically, a gerund phrase), and is is identifying it as my hobby. In the second sentence, blogging about linguistics is a participial phrase; it hooks up with is to form a verb phrase that talks about someone blogging.

Now let’s go back to the sentence in the chorus, and take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as gerunds. In that case, the meaning is basically

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the specificational meaning. (Free relatives in this kind of specificational construction are also known as pseudo-clefts.) On the other hand, if we take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as participles, then what we have after the is is a great big participial phrase, which joins with the is to form a verb phrase. The meaning in this case would be

Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.

We’ll call this the predicational meaning. This is the easier reading to get, in my opinion.

The other thing that makes this specificational/predicational ambiguity possible is the fact that both people and abstract things are capable of tearin’ one apart, fillin’ up one’s mind, and emptyin’ one’s heart. If we replace those verbs with something that only a human (or at least something animate) can do, then we only get the specificational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is drinkin’, smokin’, and partyin’ all night. (X = the act of d., s., and p.a.n.)

If we replace it with something that doesn’t make sense with a human subject, we get only the predicational meaning:

What she’s doin’ now is disturbing and possibly illegal. (Whatever X is, it is d. and p.i.)

So how about that, eh? I told you you’d love this ambiguity! Was I right, or was I right? (This is pretty much the same ambiguity, by the way, that I discussed in 2006 for What we waste is a disgrace.)

However, now that I look back on the lyrics, I wonder if the chorus was actually intentionally ambiguous. I’ve always assumed it was, and gotten a linguistic thrill out of hearing it, the same as I get with If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?, but I don’t really see anything in the song as a whole anymore that would suggest the writers wanted you to get both meanings. What do you think?

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7 Responses to “What She’s Doin’ Now Is Tearin’ Me Apart”

  1. Glen said

    I’ve never heard the song. But given the earlier lyric that says he’s *wondering* what she’s doing now, I would interpret the following lyric something like this: “I don’t know what she’s doing now. But thinking about what she might be doing now is causing me great pain.” In other words, “what she’s doing now” is being treated as a topic of discussion, not as any particular thing or set of things, and that topic is a painful one to consider.

  2. Ran said

    I agree with Glen. That’s still a predicational reading, but instead of taking “what she’s doing now” to be a fused relative clause meaning roughly “the thing that she’s doing now” (or “whatever she’s doing now”), we take it to be an interrogative content clause meaning roughly “the question of what she’s doing now”. (Compare “what she’s doing now is a secret”.)

    I think the pseudo-cleft/specificational version might also allow an ambiguity between fused-relative-clause and interrogative-content-clause readings, but with the resulting meaning being the same either way; but I’m not sure.

    • Ran said

      I retract my second paragraph; on further reflection, I think the specificational reading requires the “what” clause to be a fused relative clause, as you said, and not an interrogative content clause.

  3. Neal said

    Glen, Ran:

    I kept thinking about this sentence even after I (thought I had) published the post. All the nuances are slippery and it’s hard to keep track of which reading is which. It occurred to me that since we’re talking about two ways of parsing two different things (the be, the wh clause), we should be able to construct four kinds of sentences. I’m going to lay these out more clearly in my next post, and situate the two (or more?) readings of this sentence in that framework.

  4. Ellen K. said

    I don’t know if it was intentional, but if not, I think it was a lucky thing. It adds to the song, in my opinion.

    Either reading means the same thing as far as what she’s actually doing. She’s out there going about her own life, doing whatever, oblivious to him. (The only way I can see to read it where she’s actually doing something different in the two readings would involve literal body damage! And that reading doesn’t fit with the song.)

    But, in one of the readings, what we have is that subjectively, from his experience, the only thing that matters about her actions is that she’s not with him, so whatever she’s doing, from his perspective, it’s an act that tears him apart. And the vividness of that picture of him being emotionally ripped apart by her, that adds to the song. The difference between the two readings is that in one, it feels to him like it’s something she is doing; in the other, it’s simply thoughts of her that tear him apart, without any sense that he feels like she is doing the tearing him apart.

  5. Ellen K. said

    P.S. Relevant to this is last line of the song, “And I wonder if she knows…what she’s doin’ now”. That suggests her as the doer, but as the doer of something from his perspective, not from her own.

  6. [...] in March, I blogged about an ambiguity in a line in a Garth Brooks song: What she’s doin’ now is [...]

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