Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Backformation to School

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2004

Here it is the beginning of August, and you know what that means. It means that for two or three weeks now, there have been “Back to School” displays in the stores. To my longstanding complaint about this shameless and tasteless jumping of the gun, I’ll add a morphosyntactic one.

Back to school is an adverb phrase–it can modify a verb, as in It’s time to go back to school! From here, it’s an easy step to turn it into an adjective: Just stick it in front of a noun, and maybe hyphenate it if it’s in written form: Back-to-school time, back-to-school sale, all your back-to-school needs. I have no problem with this; it’s the same thing that goes on with lots of phrases that get turned into adjectives, as in your I-don’t-care-about-anyone-but-myself attitude, or the appalling there’s-no-right-no-wrong-it’s-all-OK approach to grammar that these linguists have. What I don’t like to see is back to school as a noun. That’s what happens in these examples:

  • Getting Ready for Back-to-School
  • Back To School and Student Loans
  • A teacher’s guide to online resources for back to school!
  • Make Getting Ready For Back To School a Snap with this CDROM!
  • Primary Teacher Time Savers For Back to School and Beyond!
  • National survey shows back to school isn’t just pens and pencils anymore.
  • Songs & Poems for “Back to School” and more!
  • Make getting ready for Back to School fun with a supply list sponsored by Purell!

Why did back to school start acting as a noun? The most reasonable scenario for me involves my previously blogged-about, favorite morphological process, backformation. If we start off with a noun, it’s no big deal at all for it to be used as an adjective. This happens any time we make a compound word whose first element is a noun: spiral notebook, chemistry lab, hall pass, metal detector. But what happens if the adjectival use comes first, as in back-to-school anxiety? Then the usual analogy can go through:

spiral notebook:spiral::back-to-school anxiety:X

There. I’ve laid aside my animus toward this form long enough to analyze it. Strange, though. Why do I hate the backformed noun back to school, while I’m fascinated and amused by backformed verbs like peoplewatch or underage drink? It must just be because I had a grudge against back to school in all its uses years before I ever studied linguistics.

8 Responses to “Backformation to School”

  1. You’re letting ’em off too easy! Just because you can come up with a quasi-logical explanation doesn’t make it right. How many other adverbial phrases can you think of that people use as nouns? Does the president ever respond to a question with an “off the cuff”? Do you go to the drug store and buy an “over the counter”? Do Beavis and Butthead ever sneak off to have a “behind the toolshed”? Aside from confused uses of foreign phrases like “apple pie with a la mode” and “roast beef with au jus,” I can only think of one example: “afternoon.” And note that it’s achieved single-word status.

  2. Neal said

    First of all, let me distinguish between looking for (or finding) a quasi-logical cause for X and approving of X. When you say, “I think prescriptivism is good” and expect me to disagree with you, it won’t happen. It is good for facilitating communication, etc., but is still out of place when you’re trying to understand the patterns in people’s behavior, whether you approve of the behavior or not.

    Your examples are interesting. In fact, I could see “off-the-cuff” and “over-the-counter” becoming nouns, but interestingly, they’d have to be nouns having the meaning of the longer noun phrase “off-the-cuff remark” or “over-the-counter drug”. “Behind the toolshed” as a noun doesn’t sit well with me, though, and I wonder if that’s because it hasn’t progressed to the adjective phase yet. If we talked about a “behind-the-toolshed whacking-off session” (or perhaps “off-whacking session”), then I think people might eventually be talking about BTS’s, and it wouldn’t sound too bad to me. But none of these semantically parallels “back-to-school” as a noun. The meaning of this noun is not “back-to-school sale” or “back-to-school depression” or any other BTS compound. It is just the event of kids returning to school, and I hate it.

    Another difference between your examples and “back-to-school” is that your hypothetical nouns are all count nouns (AN off-the-cuff, AN over-the-counter, A behind-the-toolshed), but “back-to-school” is an abstract, non-count noun: People don’t say “It’s time for a/the/my/etc. back-to-school.” So maybe it’s the use as an abstract noun that is snagging on my internal grammar. Or maybe it’s the combination of both that tripped the alarm. Must have more data!

  3. […] Here’s one more from Pullum, which I bring up because it’s on one of my favorite topics, backformation. And since we’re on the subject of backformation and it’s time for going back-to-school, here’s a link to a post of my own for those who haven’t been reading this blog since August 2004. Explore posts in the same categories: Linkfests […]

  4. I’ve got no problems with “back-to-school” used as an adjective, or with “back to school” as an adverb phrase without hyphens. Like Neal, however, I cringe whenever someone uses either version as a noun. Would most educated Americans say or write these sentences in the proper context?

    * I’m preparing for off to Florida [referring to a future trip].
    * I made a phone call to out of town [for a long-distance call].
    * The race driver wore a special suit for in the car.

    None of those examples sound right in my English, at least: making a prepositional phrase into a noun (especially a non-count noun) is very awkward when it describes that kind of situation.

  5. […] Top Posts Rhyming Words Don’t Sound the SameFully Frontally NudeWaxing OnLike a RacehorseThe Beloved Sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon in DWhomever Is Never Actually RightVerses vs. versusBooger-Eating and Eating BoogersApe-Human Hybrid!Backformation to School […]

  6. […] by Neal on September 3, 2009 I wrote about this a few years ago; here’s my updated report at Visual Thesaurus, using corpus resources that […]

  7. […] back to school, as discussed by Neal Whitman in a recent Visual Thesaurus column (with a link to an earlier posting on his […]

  8. […] by Neal on August 3, 2010 Wow, here it is August and it’s almost time for back to school. We got a letter from Doug’s school today, telling us when to drop by the school to […]

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