Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Country Coordinations, Part II

Posted by Neal on October 21, 2004

In my last post, I promised another unusual coordination that I noticed in a country song. This one’s been on my mind since 1992; it’s from Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places.” The refrain goes like this:

I’ve got friends in low places,
where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases
my blues away.
And I’ll be okay.

There are two ways of taking the coordination in this refrain strictly literally. One is to take the the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away to be two full clauses that are coordinated. That is, in these low places of which Garth sings, two things happen:

  1. The whiskey drowns.
  2. The beer chases Garth’s blues away.

The other way is to take the whiskey drowns and just the beer chases as coordinated partial verb phrases. Each of these partial verb phrases is completed by the phrase my blues away. So under this parsing, the two things that happen are:

  1. The whiskey drowns Garth’s blues away.
  2. The beer chases Garth’s blues away.

Under both parsings, the part about the beer is fine. Under both parsings, the part about the whiskey is decidedly unidiomatic. Whiskey doesn’t drown. And even if you drown someone and their body disappears, saying that you drowned them away just doesn’t sound right.

Of course, the intended meaning is that these two things happen (presumably in reverse order):

  1. The whiskey drowns Garth’s blues.
  2. The beer chases Garth’s blues away.

For that to happen, though, the away would have to appear before my blues: where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases away my blues. But if you did that, then you’d have to get rid of the “I’ll be okay” line and replace it with something that’ll rhyme with blues. So for 11 years, I accepted the lyrics as a case of poetic license.

But a year ago I began to question my assumption. I read a news item on Oct. 16, 2003, written by Henry Chu and Megan K. Stack of the LA Times, which said:

The blast upended and nearly sliced an armored Chevrolet Suburban in half….

The nearly sliced a Suburban in half is OK, just as chases my blues away is. Taken literally, the first half of the coordination is saying either “The blast upended,” or “The blast upended the Suburban in half.” Neither works: A blast can’t just upend; it has to upend something. And even if the something it upends breaks in half as a result, you still can’t say the blast upended it in half. Upend just isn’t used that way.

Clearly, the intended meaning is that the blast upended the Suburban. This could have been written more clearly as, “The blast upended and nearly sliced in half an armored Chevrolet Suburban,” and since the sentence isn’t a song lyric, poetic license can’t explain this. It could be an error, but now that I’ve seen this kind of coordination twice, I have to wonder whether it’s a part of some people’s grammar that’s not a part of mine.

4 Responses to “Country Coordinations, Part II”

  1. Anonymous said

    This isn’t really relevant to the specific topic, but as far as song lyrics go…I’ve always gotten stuck by this one line in a dance/techno song I used to hear in night clubs. It goes, “I think of you alone in bed”. I love structural ambiguity.

  2. Anonymous said

    Just wondering… perhaps these coordinations say something about the nature of phrasal verbs? That “chases away” is taken as a single unit, despite the fact that it’s sequentially in two different places?

  3. Anonymous said

    I listen to that song all the time and never heard the words after “chases.” I always thought that the beer chased in the sense of a “chaser” after the whiskey.

  4. Neal said

    To Anonymous #3: Your interpretation is right, which is why the play on words (regardless of the strangeness of the syntax) is is so good. But as that was tangential to my point, I didn’t comment on it in the post.

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