Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

He Protests Corners

Posted by Neal on June 2, 2005

Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden writes about Jim Tennyson, a guy who’s been protesting the war in Iraq several times a week since October 6, 2002. This is what Tennyson had to say about the corner where he usually does his protesting on the weekends:

“This is a good corner to protest,” Tennyson said of 3rd and Perry. “Major east-west thoroughfare….”

Hey, where’s the on? This guy doesn’t protest corners, he protests the war in Iraq, and he does so on corners! So what he really meant was that 3rd and Perry was a good corner to protest on, right?

Well, maybe not. A small number of nouns denoting place, time, direction, manner, or reason can go without prepositions in this kind of relative clause. In fact, sometimes they have to:

  • a place to sleep
    ?/*a place to sleep at
  • a good day to die
    ?/*a good day to die on
  • the way we did it
    *the way we did it in
  • one good reason to stay
    *one good reason to stay for

Usually, the nouns that can do this can also (sometimes) act as adverbs themselves:

  • a place to sleep / he slept the same place I did
  • *a hotel to sleep / *he slept the same hotel I did
  • the year we met / we met that year
  • *the era the dinosaurs lived / *the dinosaurs lived that era
  • the way you walk / walk this way
  • *the manner you walk / *walk this manner

But every now and then, I’ll find a noun that can be modified by one of these adverbial relative clauses but cannot be used as an adverb itself. For example, you can say I just need a spot to sit down, but not *I sat down that spot. And now, with corner, we have another possible addition to the list: a good corner to protest, but not *I protest this corner every weekend. For even more additions to the list, see this post from Mark Liberman at Language Log. This post from Rachel Shallit talks about adverbial nouns, too.

And finally, my favorite story about adverbial nouns. [Cue music and wavy screen] Sometime in the mid-90s, I saw a list tacked to a bulletin board in the OSU Linguistics Department, titled “Healthy Places to Eat.” Being the way I am, I got out my pen and changed the title to “Healthy Places to Eat At.” A day or two later, my at had been scratched out, and the title had been further emended to read, “Healthy Places At Which to Eat,” with a little note added to those who didn’t get it, “Don’t end sentence with preposition.” Of course, that couldn’t stand unchallenged in a linguistics department, and a day later someone had written in response to that message, “Don’t be prescriptive!” That was actually one of two responses. The other one said, “Ha! What a shmoo-brain!”

One Response to “He Protests Corners”

  1. […] might also accept spot, but not location (or corner, either). Even though these words are all synonyms, only place has the ability to go with these relative […]

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