Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Till Death Do Us Part

Posted by Neal on March 19, 2005

Reading about the Terry Schiavo case, I got to thinking about the phrase till death do you part. It never made much sense to me as a kid. It was years and years before I finally was able to undo the old-fashioned syntax and morphology to arrive at a clear and sensible reading:

  1. As is: till death do you part
  2. Undo the reversal of verb and direct object: till death do part you
  3. Turn the subjunctive do into indicative does: till death does part you
  4. Replace the emphatic does part with the ordinary indicative: till death parts you

Ah, much better! Until I was able to get from till death do you part to till death parts you, I kept trying to parse the phrase like this:

  1. Instead of taking till to introduce an entire clause, taking it as a preposition with death as its object, to form an adverbial prepositional phrase.
  2. Taking do you as a subject-auxiliary verb inversion, such as you might have after negative adverbs, as in Never have I been so insulted. (To which the proper reply is, “That’s because you don’t get around enough!”)

In other words, I was trying to read it as, “You part until death!” But that didn’t work because first of all, till death didn’t contain a negation, so it shouldn’t trigger the do you subject-auxiliary inversion. Second, even without the inversion, You part until death doesn’t make sense because part is a telic verb, but you need an atelic verb to go with the till/until adverbial. That is, since “until X” refers to an interval of time, you need a verb that refers to something that takes place over an interval, not at a single point in time. The only way it could work would be to imagine a continual sequence of parting, coming back together, and parting again, until death puts an end to the cycle.

So for me, the unworkable semantics trumped the otherwise good syntactic interpretation I put on the phrase, and I just had to wait until I knew enough about the language to make the syntax match up with what I knew must be the intended meaning. But it looks like there are others for whom the syntax won out over the semantics. You wouldn’t know it just by hearing them say till death do you part, because you is the same whether it’s a subject (in the nonsensical reading) or an object (in the intended but harder-to-reconcile reading). But the covert reanalysis becomes overt when you is replaced with us or them, and you find till death do we part and till death do they part occurring along with till death do us/them part.

As a linguist, I can understand it, but I don’t have to like it. Why, if I were a little more uptight, I might be asking myself, “How dare them!”

4 Responses to “Till Death Do Us Part”

  1. Anonymous said

    It is amazing how people can get so worked up about a person who has been brain dead for 20 odd years. For mercy sake, pull the plug already! Or feed her chocolate Hagen-Daz tubally until she has an infarct. I wish those self-rightous cretins would care about those who can still be helped. Sorry, I couldn’t help the commentary.

    That is a lot of convoluting to arrive at a “clear” meaning. I would have simply added to the existing sentence to get: Not until death do you (de)part. “Till death parts you” could mean “until death pulls you limb from limb” or “until the death train departs for Auchwitz with you on board.” I ran out of mental gas after the first part because you went into rabid technical linguistic mode. That is when we parted company till your next post. I’ll just have get a copy of “Linguistists for Dummies.” Oh, will have to wait “till death do I part” for someone to write it?

  2. Neal said

    So putting in a ‘not’ is simpler than the convolutions I had to go through? I’m glad you got me hip to this simplification. I can think of a lot of situations where I’d get a much more satisfactory reading by putting in a ‘not’ where the speaker clearly forgot it.

    As for ‘death parting you’ meaning death tearing you limb from limb, that’s only if we’re talking about you singular. For the identical-sounding you plural, it can mean parting the two of y’all from each other. Of course, the tearing limb-from-limb meaning is still possible, even if we’re talking about more than one person being parted, but it’s not the only one.

  3. […] in which my mom and dad had been “sealed” to each other, not just “till death do [them] part”, but “for time and all eternity.” From the perspective of the LDS Church, […]

  4. […] on describing language, not passing judgment on points of syntax or word usage. But as I’ve said before, just because you can describe or analyze some phenomenon doesn’t mean you have to […]

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