Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Words to Sound Smart by Using

Posted by Neal on November 7, 2011

Grammar Girl has yet another book coming out this week, in what looks like it’s becoming a franchise: the 101 Words series. Back in August, I gave away a copy of 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know and 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, and in the next few days I’ll be running a contest to win a free copy of the latest one, 101 Words to Sound Smart. More on that in a subsequent post. Today, I’m interested in the syntax of that title.

Some infinitival phrases that modify nouns are like relative clauses, because they have to have a “gap” that the noun is understood to fill. Indeed, they’re sometimes called infinitival relative clauses. For example, there’s this title of a book full of blank pages and prompts for artistic inspiration: 642 Things to Draw. The transitive verb draw is missing a direct object, and things fills this gap. For an infinitival relative clause with a subject gap, how about Tales to Give You Goosebumps? The verb phrase give you goosebumps doesn’t have a subject, but it’s understood that the tales will handle the task of giving you goosebumps. The gap could even be the object of a preposition, as in Stories to Curl Up With (a title I made up), in which the stories are the things with which someone could curl up.

But in 101 Words to Sound Smart, there is no gap. There’s no gap in the verb phrase sound smart. There’s no subject gap, either, unless the meaning is that the words themselves sound smart. I suppose that could be one way to parse the title, using smart in its extended sense of things that smart people use (the same way stupid can refer to things that only stupid people would like, and similar cases). But I think that if that’s what Grammar Girl meant, she would have called it 101 Words That Sound Smart, making it more of a certainty. The infinitival relative conveys more of a sense of potentiality: things that you could draw, tales that could give you goosebumps.

The meaning that I’m pretty sure the title is intended to convey is that these are words that you can use in order to sound smart. In other words, to sound smart is a purpose infinitival. These are much more common as modifiers of verbs than as modifiers of nouns. In fact, when I first heard this book title, I would have said that purpose infinitivals couldn’t modify nouns. I would have said that words to sound smart was ungrammatical, and that the only ways to get at that meaning of purpose would be to use an infinitival relative clause. One way would be with an object gap, as in 101 Words to Sound Smart by Using. That sounds really awkward, though; maybe even ungrammatical in its own right (because of so-called relative clause islands). So a better option would be with a subject gap: 101 Words to Make You Sound Smart.

However, a few days after I encountered words to sound smart, I was looking at the cover of Family Tree magazine (my Aunt Jane is really into genealogy and got me a subscription), and saw the teaser for one of the articles: websites to find your ancestors. You could take this to mean websites that will find your ancestors for you, but it’s actually talking about websites that will help you find your ancestors. In other words, it’s another purpose infinitival modifying a noun.

As I was looking over this post, I noticed the phrase contest to win a free copy, with a purpose infinitival following the noun contest, and it sounds completely normal to me. My gut feeling is that the infinitival is a complement to the noun, and not a modifier, but I haven’t thought about it enough to be certain.

Anyway, nouns modified by purpose infinitivals, are hard to search for in corpora, because you can’t conveniently look for entire infinitival phrases that contain no gaps. For that reason, I don’t know how common this kind of construction is; all I know is that it’s unusual to my ear, but that it must not be too strange for others. How do they sound to you? Reactions and additional examples are welcome in the comments.

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24 Responses to “Words to Sound Smart by Using”

  1. I applaud your expertise in grammar, but your grammar is also getting the better of you, I reckon. Yes, “101 Words That Sound Smart” is better perhaps, especially for in-text use. But after 32 years in the publishing industry before switching to the printing business, a book title like that WON’T help sales. Trust me on this – it’s just one of those oddities in publishing that the word “that” is a sales killer. Check out those books that contain “that” in the title, and you’ll find their sales aren’t thrilling, so say the least.

    To be perfectly honest, if looking at things from the man in the street (or, more importantly, from the book customer), a person who would be motivated buy a book like “101 Words…” would buy it TO sound smart. Such a book buyer is highly likely (in my experience at least) to know those 101 words already – just not in the ambit of knowing them to sound smart. So either Grammar Girl (or more likely the publisher) has been smart to use a more ‘connectable’ title. Like I said, “that’ is book sales suicide and well-known in the publishing business.

    And, no, infinitivals don’t sound odd to my (British and Italian) ears, mainly because British society is a high-context society more than American society, where there is a distinct need to spell things out (which I learnt the hard way when I lived in the USA).

    Good post, by the way.

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the publishing-industry perspective. I had heard about the three-to-six-words-title, but had no idea about the curse of that in book titles. Is this actually a statistically significant main effect, or just an anecdotal thing that publishers heed to be on the safe side?

      • Well, I think it’s somewhere between statistically significant and anecdotal – but you can appreciate the nature of the work matters quite a bit too. I’ve not done any statisticising myself, but my own experience of it is geared more towards the statistical and less on the anecdotal.

        I can only speak from my experience, but I (plus my publishing colleagues) noticed that ‘retail’ books (novels, general non-fiction, humour, etc) TEND to not do well with ‘that’ in the title.

        Professional and academic titles will be okay with ‘that.’ Having said that, pro books in law, tax and finance don’t do well with ‘that’.

        Strangely, ‘that’ makes no impact on sales performance for romance novels (and I state this from my extremely short Mills & Boon experience, in which I did ghostwriting!).

        Do publishers heed the title thing? Mostly they do. It’s a kind of superstition in a way. I mean, can’t blame them for it. Publishing is the only industry where the new product launched is already an outdated product, after having spent piles of money on the editing, typesetting, paper-buying, printing and marketing before the launch. Publishers are by nature not risk-averse, but they just don’t want to tempt fate with a ‘weak’ title.

  2. Why do many grammarians sound so full of themselves? I’m sure that you know your grammar, but most of the articles you offer are excercises in mental masterbation. Say what you will, the title of the book is comprehensible to any average reader.

    • Glen said

      It’s interesting enough for me, Palavering2u. If you think it’s just mental masturbation, why do you bother reading this blog? Also, I don’t think Neal is being full of himself at all; on the contrary, he’s admitting that this kind of construction might be acceptable and it just sounds odd to him.

      • Ran said

        I suspect that Palavering2u, like most people, doesn’t really understand what linguistics is, or what a linguist means by “ungrammatical”. Neal seems to have picked up a lot of readers from Grammar Girl; if Palavering2u is one of them, then I could see how he could have misunderstood Neal’s writing in the way that he seems to have. Neal is musing on whether a construction is grammatical; to someone who thinks that the purpose of such musings is to reach a conclusion, either “Yes, the construction is O.K.” or “No, the construction is forbidden” (or perhaps “The construction should be avoided in formal writing”, or whatnot), Neal’s comments will seem mentally-masturbatory because they fail to reach such a conclusion. (I don’t follow Grammar Girl’s podcast, but I somehow doubt that she often concludes that she just doesn’t have enough evidence to decide whether a construction is best avoided. I’m sure she always gives her readers some advice.) Likewise, to someone who thinks that ungrammaticality is a high accusation, like calling someone ignorant, it would be the height of fullness-of-himself to speculate publicly about whether Grammar Girl’s book title is grammatical, without giving any evidence that it isn’t.

      • No, I think Palavering2u does have a valid point here – the point of the man in the street. It can’t all be linguistics or linguistics-related viewpoints – after all, the point about linguistics is to study what ordinary people do on a daily and usual basis (talk, write, otherwise communicate). No matter how far linguistics may go when analysing something, eventually it has to come full circle – back to the ordinary.

        This isn’t chemistry or physics, in which the subject matter or topic can and could be highly removed from daily life. This is not what linguistics was about. For instance, sociology has that problem right now – studying about society while simultaneously forgetting about society, so that quite a number of sociological writings end up talking sociology rather than explain things.

        I’m not saying Neal is like that – he’s actually very good at putting things back into everyday perspective, although he IS a bit literal-minded, but we enjoy that from him.

        If some of us feel that Palavering2u has misunderstood the ‘message’ of Neal’s post, then I think it is good that we have that comment – to remind ourselves once in a while why we have caused others to misunderstand, don’t you all agree?

    • Neal said

      “[M]ost of the articles you offer are excercises in mental mast[u]rbation.”
      You say that like it’s a bad thing!

      “Say what you will, the title of the book is comprehensible to any average reader.”
      Certainly. I even understood the title myself, as I wrote. But not everything comprehensible is grammatical; for example, Bill and Ted think each other is excellent is comprehensible, but not grammatical because of the inconvenient limitations of each other. And not everything is grammatical is comprehensible; for example, You are what what you eat eats pushes the limit of comprehensibility.

      • Steve said

        “Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” -Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

    • –Say what you will, the title of the book is comprehensible to any average reader.–

      “Me going drive car” is also comprehensible to the average reader.

  3. To me, the Grammar Girl title and your other examples are still mildly ungrammatical. (That is, I often notice them when reading, would correct them when editing, and wouldn’t write them myself, though certainly I understand them.) Interesting that American Heritage, in its version of the same book, did it the old-fashioned way: “100 Words to Make You Sound Smart.”

  4. Jonathon said

    I have to admit that I find the title ungrammatical, or at least awkward. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make sense—it’s still clear what’s intended—but it’s definitely a turnoff. I’d much prefer something like “100 Words to Make You sound Smart”.

  5. Sometimes, for some things, grammar isn’t everything, you know. There’s another longtime trick in the retail publishing business: best titles are three words, but no more than six. Not a hard and fast rule/trick, but works most of the time.

    The objective of getting a book out is, frankly speaking, to generate sales. We can be as grammatically correct as we want inside the pages. The title only needs to be 90% grammatical. Good enough is already 100% perfection. Nothing is so imperfect as perfection.

    • My thinking as well. I see as fitting a certain sort of book title template. Definitely not grammatical in ordinary English, but this isn’t ordinary English, it’s a book title.

      • Precisely, Ellen. Grammar only goes so far. Sometimes the cash has to take precedence. That book title might not be 100% grammatical as text, but it’s 100% grammatical as a book title, and a sellable one at that.

  6. Donna said

    I agree that the title isn’t catchy. I would have called it, “Sound Smart” but I don’t know how that would appeal to everyone else. I would pick it up just to see what made them call it that.

  7. Jonathon said

    It’s all well and good to say that titles are special and don’t have to follow the rules of grammar, but you’re overlooking the fact that some readers will be turned off by a poorly worded title, especially when it’s on a book on words by someone called Grammar Girl.

  8. [...] or Treat!Neal on Trick or Treat!Flesh-eating Dragon on Trick or Treat!Jonathon on Words to Sound Smart by UsingDonna on Words to Sound Smart [...]

  9. I’m totally coloured by my publishing experience, so I offer these:

    – 101 Words To Sound Smart By
    – 101 Smart-Sounding Words To Use [for the Home and Office]
    – 101 Smart Words for Smarting the Smarts
    – 101 Smart Words for Smart Alecks
    – 101 Smart Words to Win People Over

  10. I’m trying to think of other examples that match the “I’ll be running a contest to win a free copy” pattern.

    Of the nouns that accept this kind of complement, most of the obvious ones have a closely associated verb that accepts the same complement. Thus, “I’ll be running a competition to win a free copy” corresponds to “You can compete to win a free copy“. “I’ll be overseeing a challenge to sound smart” corresponds to “I challenge you to sound smart“. Plenty of other examples: attempt, plan, encourage[ment], …

    “Contest” has a verb form, but it doesn’t work in the right way. But it’s synonymous with “competition”, so I guess it’s allowed by association into the club of to-complement-accepting nouns.

    I’m now trying to think of nouns that have a suitable verb form yet don’t accept the complement, or nouns that accept the complement but don’t have a suitable verb form.

    On the former, I think they’re all at least somewhat acceptable. “My jump to get over the wall was the highest I’ve ever attempted” seems fine, if needlessly wordy, and “The crossing to get to the other side was the most dangerous the chicken had ever attempted” seems marginal and more than a little forced, but still plausible. I think any other comparable example will be at least as acceptable as that.

    On the latter, all I have are other words (like “contest”) that don’t quite have a suitable verb form of their own, but are similar in meaning to nouns that do. For example, in “My effort to sound smart was unsuccessful“, “effort” is synonymous with “attempt”. Likewise, “method” is (somewhat) close to “plan”, and works in similar examples. This example leads me to think that a noun will accept such a complement if the meaning is right, and that the existence of a corresponding verb is not as important as I thought at first.

    I don’t really have a conclusion. I’m just thinking aloud. And now my head’s starting to explode.

    • Neal said

      Nice analysis so far. I agree with your thoughts about closely associated verbs, but didn’t commit it to the post for the same complication about “contest” that you bring up. As for whether “the meaning is right”, maybe it’s right when the noun refers to a consciously performed action.

      It seems to me that CGEL would have something to say about this, but I haven’t thoroughly searched it yet. I’m checking the index entries for “infinitivals, functioning as purpose adjunct” and working through the relevant pages.

  11. [...] November, I blogged about the title of one of the books in Grammar Girl’s “101″ series: 101 Words to Sound [...]

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