Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Finders Keepers

Posted by Neal on June 19, 2005

Back in September, I wrote about Adam’s unusual usage of the word keep, as in, It’s keep tipping over! I was guessing that he’d analyzed it as some kind of verbal prefix; commentator Cleek more reasonably conjectured that Adam thought keep was just an adverb, with a meaning similar to that of always. Doug, meanwhile, definitely knows keep is a verb, and uses it the way the rest of us do, putting an –s on it when needed, using the irregular past tense kept. But I learned today that he’s still working out the kinks of what happens to the verbs that come after keep.

He knows that an –ing form is needed, and is quite fluent in producing sentences such as, “Adam keeps trying to take apart my castle!” and “Adam keeps spitting at me!” This afternoon, though, he was proposing a pretend-play scenario to Adam and two neighbor boys; he said they should pretend that the Dilophosaurus figure in his hand was someone who went looking for something or other, and “kept couldn’t finding it.”

The problem: What do you do when the verb phrase after keep has a modal auxiliary in it? You’re not allowed to put –ing on modals, as in *He kept couldn’ting find it, or *He kept coulding not find it. Our solution: replace can with the circumlocution be able, and go from there to end up with kept not being able (or kept being unable). Doug’s solution: just put the –ing at the end of the ordinary verb, same as you’d do any other time.

Actually, this wasn’t Doug’s solution to the problem, because as far as I could tell, combining kept with couldn’t find never even posed a problem for Doug. He rattled off kept couldn’t finding without even pausing for breath, much less to grope for words. Evidently, his –ing can attach not just to base verbs, but to modal+base complexes. I wonder what other unexpected things his grammar can do with this less stringent rule for –ing.

3 Responses to “Finders Keepers”

  1. Russell said

    Hmm…off the top of my head, I can think of potential for “saw him could’nt building the sandcastle,” where some material intervenes between the main verb and the Ving. Then again, maybe the just-begging-to-be-fully-grammaticalized quality of keep has something to do with it.

  2. Connie said

    Actually, I like his solution. I wonder what people would think if I started talking like that….

  3. Rachel Klippenstein said

    A very belated reply: I’ve noticed myself in the last few weeks or months saying or coming very close to saying “I keep can’t [VERB]ing”

    It just occurred to me today that that might have been one of the oddities with “keep” that you had posted about, and sure enough, it looks the same as what you report that Doug was doing.

    Now I wonder if I could have acquired the construction from having read about it in your post, or if it came to me independently.

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