Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Posted by Neal on October 23, 2011

Last Friday I found myself talking with Sarah Wayland, a linguist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, not so much about linguistics, but about another point of commonality between us: being a parent of a son (in her case, two sons) with an autism spectrum disorder. But of course, that topic soon turned back to matters of language. One of her sons, Sarah told me, had a tendency to criticize himself harshly, and she and others would tell him, “Don’t beat yourself up.”

Knowing, as you do, about the literal-minded tendencies that people with ASDs often have, you’re probably imagining this kid objecting that he wasn’t hitting himself. But he didn’t. He got the intended message just fine. That’s because he had had the good fortune never to have been beaten up, hadn’t seen people getting beaten up, simply hadn’t had the right kind of experiences tagged with the verb beat up to have that as its literal meaning. As far as he was concerned, “criticize harshly” was the literal meaning.

No one was the wiser until he came home from school a couple of times with stories of how “my teacher beat me up today.” Luckily, they got that resolved before police or social workers got called in.

I had never thought about how the phrasal verb beat (someone) up has only a literal meaning with most direct objects, but only a figurative meaning when it takes a reflexive direct object. Or does it? Let me just fact-check my ass…

The Corpus of Contemporary American English returns 170 examples of beat up with a reflexive pronoun for a direct object. Most of them are examples of the figurative “criticize” meaning, as I expected, but seven of them had a still-figurative but closer-to-literal meaning of “subject oneself to physical hardship or damage”. Four were from sports magazines; two were from musicians talking about the exertion of giving a concert (Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi); the last one was from Martin Scorsese talking about a drug abuse problem:

  1. The tendency is to beat yourself up with a 125-or 150-mile ride, then take the next day off.
  2. You have to be in great shape,’ he says. You beat yourself up every week. We use a lot of ibuprofen and Gatorade.
  3. Before, I’d do hill repeats and beat myself up until I was ragged and then recover in a few days….
  4. From the top, skiers look across into the glaciers of 11,000-foot Marmolada, the tallest peak in the Dolomites, and back down into challenging runs toward Arabba. After beating ourselves up on these steeps, we barely had time to zip through our fourth valley of the day, Canazei, and get back to Val Gardena at sunset.
  5. “This is not an easy job,” Joel said. “This is how you beat yourself up. You run around on the stage, you smash into things. I wake up with black and blue marks, scrapes and cuts. You’re so adrenalized you don’t realize it happened.”
  6. I have to think every night like I’m a prizefighter going out on that stage, that it’s going to be the last fight. You’d think, why would I beat myself up like that after 25 years?
  7. After it was released, he began abusing drugs, eventually winding up in the hospital from a near-fatal mixture of asthma medication and cocaine. Mr-SCORSESE: I beat myself up so much that the doctors said,’ You just have to stay here until we can — listen — look, you may get a brain hemorrhage at any moment.’

In addition to those somewhat-literal examples, I was surprised to find two fully literal ones. The first one is from a Geraldo Rivera TV show about people with multiple personalities, and the other from a police-beat section of a newspaper:

  1. Woman 3: Thank you. How can you beat yourself up with concrete and not realize you’re hurting yourself? Even though it’s a different personality, it’s the same body.
  2. A man beat himself up and got arrested for it about 10:30 Sunday evening. He is 21 and was very intoxicated and unruly, a witness said, when he began hitting himself in the face with his fists.

So reflexive beat up can have a literal meaning after all; in this corpus, it happened 5.3% of the time. Now, what about beat up with non-reflexive pronouns? Does it ever occur with a figurative meaning?

I found 30 examples of beat up with indefinite pronoun (somebody, someone, anyone, everyone, no one, etc.), all of them literal; that is, 0% figurative. For beat up with personal pronouns, there were 710 examples, less two for beat it with the idiomatic meaning of “depart quickly”. That’s too many for me to check for a blog post, so I just checked the first example of each set of strings returned. For example, beat him up had 160 examples, of which I examined only the first. If I wasn’t sure about the first example, I moved to the second one. I found the following examples with the meaning of “criticize”:

  1. HANNITY: I thought the speech was extraordinary well delivered. I thought it was eloquent at times. I thought he hit the right pitch and the right tone. That surprises you? WILLIAMS: I’m speechless. I’m not allowed to be speechless. But basically, you know, I mean you beat him up a lot, so yes.
  2. Ms-IVEY: Well, I think Taryn really is just backpedaling now because she knows Dani and I were going to beat her up in the elevator. MARTIN: No violence. (Soundbite-of-laugh) MARTIN: This is a civil zone.
  3. In politics, when you fail, it’s like the end of the world because the press keeps piling on you and beating you up and all of those kind of things.

That’s three out of 25 examples, for 12% figurative. Just today, I also heard a broadcaster talking about politicians “getting beaten up” in the news, which is a reminder that transitive beat up can be passivized, too, so you also have to check for figurative meanings there. COCA returns 494 examples of beaten up, and I’m not going to check all those out, either. And never mind all the examples of beat up with non-pronoun direct objects, which I’m also not going to check. But from the searches I did do, it looks like beat up with non-reflexive direct objects really is used for the most part in a literal way, though it ventures into figurative territory more often than reflexive beat up goes literal.

I don’t recall having come across other verbs that tended to have literal vs. figurative meanings corresponding (more or less) to reflexive vs. non-reflexive uses. Other examples are welcome in the comments.

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5 Responses to “Don’t Beat Yourself Up”

  1. Glen said

    How about ‘watch’? When you say “watch yourself,” it usually means “be careful.” But when you say watch “watch Bill,” it means to use your visual sense to see what Bill is doing, or (somewhat more figuratively) to be alert to Bill doing anything dangerous.

    • Ran said

      Nice one! Along the same lines, I think “forget oneself” is usually figurative, whereas “forget someone” is usually literal.

    • Neal said

      Good examples. You’ve reminded me of one: “let yourself go” (figurative) vs. “let (someone) go” (often literal, though with a figurative sense in the idiom “Let it go”). A possible objection: Is “let (someone) go” a complex verb, or just one of the many strings that the syntax generates? After all, you wouldn’t want to say that “let (someone) swim” or “let (someone) vote” are verbs worthy of a dictionary entry.

  2. I’ve always had a problem with the stereotype that people with ASD take everything literally. For the record, I was diagnosed with asperger’s syndrome when I was eleven years old, back in the late eighties when most people had never heard of it.

    Sometimes, I would take things literally that other people meant non-literally, which is consistent with the stereotype, but I felt patronised if accused me of habitual literalism, because what about all the times when other people took things literally that I meant non-literally, or when I failed to realise that something was in fact literally meant?

    It was perhaps less a case of taking everything literally by default, and more one of not attending to the same social cues concerning whether or not to take a particular thing literally.

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