Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Jeepers Keepers

Posted by Neal on September 14, 2004

More of Adam’s developing morphosyntax: Today his sippy cup tipped over one too many times on the carpet, and he complained:

Hey! It’s keep tipping over!

It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, either, putting the –s one word ahead of where he meant to put it. That’s what I thought it was on the first several occasions when he said “it’s keep [VERB]ing,” but it’s now very clear that Adam is putting in a be, and inflecting it instead of keep with the 3rd person singular present-tense morphology. How does he come to be doing this?

It looks like he has taken keep to be some kind of verbal prefix, so that there exist verbs such as keep-tip, keep-go, keep-eat, etc. Once he’s taken that step, then generating forms like is keep-tipping or was keep-going is trivial. But now the question becomes, Why has Adam analyzed keep as a verbal prefix?

Sure, he’s done it with go, as in I’m go-getting Mommy. But with the go+VERB construction, the only form he ever heard from us was the uninflected, base form go (never goes, went, going, or gone) followed by the base form of another verb, which doesn’t offer any clues to show that go isn’t a prefix.

By contrast, it seems to me Adam would have heard plenty of instances of keep+GERUND where keep was inflected with person or tense morphology:

  • He keeps hitting me!
  • You kept trying to hit Doug, so you got a time out.

Furthermore, even when keep is in its base form, there are still clues to show that it’s not a prefix. In the list below, if keep were a verbal prefix, then the –ing suffix should not be put on the verbs following it. We’d have *Keep-eat!, *Why do you keep-do that?, and I’ll keep-look for the toy. In fact, I’d expect Adam to say things like this every now and then if the keep-as-a-prefix analysis is really what’s going on in his head.

  • Keep eating!
  • Why do you keep doing that?
  • I’ll keep looking for the toy while you put on your PJ’s.

All I can guess is that Adam is generalizing his rule of analyzing go in go+VERB as a prefix to analyzing the initial verb in other two-verb clusters as a prefix. With that in mind, I’ll have to be listening for utterances like, “You’re start reading before I’m ready,” or “They stop sang.”

2 Responses to “Jeepers Keepers”

  1. Anonymous said

    another possibility: he sees ‘keep’ as an adverb along the lines of ‘still’ or ‘always’.

  2. cleek said

    that was me. didn’t mean to be anonymous.

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