Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

DGM and WTF

Posted by Neal on July 18, 2005

DGM is the online handle of my brother’s co-blogger’s wife. She has a blog of her own, where you can find funny stories about vomit, sibling rivalry, or her kids (sometimes the categories overlap). DGM’s most recent post contains this sentence:

I don’t do well with humidity; it makes my hair big and my pits sweat.

This sentence now enters the growing corpus of what linguabloggers have come to refer to as WTF coordinations. Following makes, one of the coordinated chunks consists of an NP (my hair) and an adjective (big). The other coordinated chunk comprises another NP (my pits) and, this time, a base-form verb (sweat). I’m OK with makes my hair big, and also makes my pits sweat, but having a single makes work both ways in the same sentence? It sounds a little weird. On the other hand, also sounds weird to say makes twice: It makes my hair big and makes my pits sweat.

In fact, the phrasing kind of grows on you, and sounds almost normal after a while. Especially if you’ve already been exposed to this kind of coordination, like say in a kids’ book published in 1998:

The jigging made Tabby nervous and Zeke itch.
(Cynthia Rylant, Mr. Putter and Tabby Toot the Horn)

It’s the same double use of make, right down to the ordering of NP+Adj first (Tabby nervous) and NP+Verb second (Zeke itch). I wonder if that’s a coincidence. What happens if we do this?:

The jigging made Zeke itch and Tabby nervous.
It makes my pits sweat and my hair big.

About the same acceptability as the others, I’d say. But what if you try to factor out not only the verb, but also the NP that follows it, leaving only a verb and an adjective to be coordinated? On one of the posts I linked to above, they talk about a sentence that does just that:


The sun makes you hot and sneeze.

Whoa! In light of that one, it seems like DGM’s and Cynthia Rylant’s coordinations ought to be downgraded from WTF status to a mere “Hmm.”

12 Responses to “DGM and WTF”

  1. Hmm. I’m still confused about the difference between a WTF coordination and a mere zeugma. Is it just because the complements aren’t both NPs?

  2. blahedo said

    “hot and sneeze” is definitely a WTF, but the others all read just fine to me. I think it’s because “make” is acting as such a light verb there; the real predication is being done in the coordinate phrases (“hair big”, “pits sweat”), so the “big” there is, um, verby enough to coordinate happily.

    But independent of the explanation, it’s really 100% fine for me, and was on first reading. I had to go back and reread it to see what you were complaining about.

  3. Neal said

    The difference between WTF and zeugma (mere zeugma) is that the latter is done for humorous effect. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

  4. Russell said

    For me the “hair big and pits sweat” version is better than the reversed one, whereas the “hot and sneeze” one definitely causes a double-take. To me, it seems to have to do with the semantics of the predicators – “hot” and “sneeze” are definitely different types of concepts – one is a state and the other is a (punctual-like) event. On the other hand, with the verb “sweat,” the real point (or rather the annoyance on the part of the sweating person) is the annoying excretion, not the -event- of sweating.

    (though a dictionary search reveals that the noun is attested later than the verb. interesting, I thought)

  5. Anonymous said

    I apologize, this is off topic. I don’t see any other way to post a question to you. What is the etymology for the phrase, “my ass?”

    For example, you can say, “cheap, my ass!” or “running, my ass.”

    Furthermore, can this phrase be extended to things such as “my dick” or “my labia?” Is it merely colloquially acceptable due to it’s pervasiveness and not the actual body part?

  6. Neal said

    Hi, Anonymous,
    I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I searched the online archives of the American Dialect Society, and also Evan Morris’s Word Detective website, and couldn’t find anything. I do know that the expression also allows foot and eye (the latter also appearing in an exactly parallel expression in French, with similar meaning).
    Although it won’t answer your current question, you might enjoy this recent post from Arnold Zwicky, about rude language, on Language Log.
    Finally, you can find my email address on my web page, accessible from my blog profile.

  7. chris said

    This is a strangely cerebral exercise for me because if you come from German, as I do, many of the WTF coordination look totally unremarkable. That is, once you get the cases of any factored out element to be correct.

    Zeugma only for comical effect? I’ve always thought of it as a stylistic device with a larger scope.

    Blogslot had a post some time ago with some WTF coordinations inside:

    “Members of the platoon testified that they punched, kicked and struck the detainee with their rifles.”

    “In the players’ box was Tony Nadal, the uncle and coach of Rafael Nadal since he started playing as a youngster.”

    “Coordination” is on the linguistics part of the syllabus of an exam I might take next year. Any recommendations for a good introduction?

  8. Hi,
    Love your blog and its theme. Was wondering what would be the favourite books of a person like you. So have tagged you with the book meme at GWBE‘s.

    Do oblige if interested!

  9. dgm said

    hmmmmm, indeed. now i’m thinking of changing that line in the post to read: “i hate humidity; it embiggens my hair and makes my pits sweat.” or “i hate humidity; it makes my hair all embiggened and my pits sweaty.” what do you think?

  10. Matt said

    I’m not sure on this but would the sentence be better if it read “…makes my hair become big and my pits sweat”? Because then you would have the parallelism with the two verbs. Interestingly enough, I think the sentence sounds weirder this way than it does as a WTF. But I’ve seen a lot of WTF sentences where there’s almost an “implied” verb there that is omitted.

  11. Neal said

    Chris: Thank you for reminding me that there’s some literature on “asymmetric coordination” in German that I need to take a fresh look at. Thanks also for the pointer to the WTF coordinations, one of which is even a Friends in Low Places coordination, as I’ll point out in a later post.

    As for what to read on coordination, I guess I’d say look at what an introductory syntax text has on the subject, or look it up in the Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Then you could follow up on whatever references they give that seem most useful.

    Matt: You’re right; when you say makes twice to achieve parallelism, it sounds weirder than it did with just one makes. That happens with a lot of strange pieces of syntax: You start off thinking, “Wait, that’s not right, is it?” but then after you check the alternatives you end up thinking, “OK, I guess that’s how you do it, after all.”

  12. […] Longtime readers may remember this quotation from a while back: It makes [my hair big] and [my pits sweat]. […]

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