Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

It’s Not Easy Bein’ as Green as You Are Young

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2005

I’ve been reading an article by Christopher Kennedy and Louise McNally in the June 2005 issue of Language, about how the semantics of gradable adjectives affects how they can be used in comparative constructions. In particular, K and M talk about the measurement scales that are built into the semantics of various gradable adjectives, and near the beginning of the article, they discuss three parameters for any such scale: the set of measurement degrees, the ordering relation on this set, and the dimension (i.e., the property that’s being measured). Most of the article focuses on semantic consequences that depend on the first of those parameters, but K&M talk a little bit about the other two. Regarding dimension, they say (351-352):

As shown by the examples in 16, it is possible to construct potentially quite complex comparisons out of distinct gradable adjectives as long as they map their arguments onto scales that share the same dimension. Thus, wide and tall in 16a both involve orderings along a dimension of linear extent, and long and old in 16b involve orderings with respect to temporal extent.

  1. They call him ‘The Bus’ because he’s kind of as wide as he is tall.
  2. [This comparison] is unfair both to him and the quarterbacks like Dan Marino and John Elway who excelled for almost as long as Manning is old.

In contrast, comparatives formed out of adjectives that do not use the same dimension are anomalous.

  1. ??They call him ‘The Bus’ because he’s kind of as wide as he is punctual.
  2. ??These quarterbacks excelled for almost as long as Peyton’s Manning is talented.

Their examples illustrated the point well, but I had this feeling that I’d heard a comparison somewhere of adjectives that didn’t have the same dimension, which was nonetheless OK. Yesterday, I finally remembered it when John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” played on the radio. The comparison was in this verse:

You don’t have to be so excitin’
Just tryin’ to give myself a little bit of fun, yeah
You always look so invitin’
You ain’t as green as you are young

The first time I heard this verse, I had to perform some meaning-preserving operations on it until I could figure out what it meant. “You ain’t as green as you are young,” eh? So in other words, you’re younger than you are inexperienced (green). Or looking at it from the other direction, you’re more experienced than you are old. Ah, now I get it: You’ve been around a bit, and more than one should expect for someone your age. Now according to K and M, this comparison shouldn’t work at all. The dimension for the adjective young is age, while the dimension for green is naivete.

Even so, there is a strong positive correlation between youth and naivete, so maybe we could say that inorder to be compared, adjectives must use scales whose dimensions are saliently related to each other (possibly by being identical, but not necessarily). I wonder if a strong negative correlation for the dimension scales would work, too. Could we say the following?:

You ain’t as green as you are old

At first, I thought not, but I don’t know: If it were followed by, And that’s just as it should be. If you were as green as you are old, it’d mean your learning ability must be profoundly impaired, I might take it.

Or maybe we just say you ain’t as green as you are young flies because it’s a song lyric, and can get away with stuff that ordinary prose can’t. That strikes me as something of a cop-out, but in its favor, I will say that once I’d rephrased Mellencamp’s lyric as “you’re more experienced than you are old,” as I did above, it sounded pretty strange–worse than the original phrasing, even though the meaning was clearer.

After being reminded of the green/young comparison, I remembered another unusual adjective comparison in a song lyric, but it’ll have to wait for another post, since this one is probably already longer than it is interesting.

5 Responses to “It’s Not Easy Bein’ as Green as You Are Young”

  1. Blar said

    Does the phrase “as * as the day is long” count as a comparison with gradable adjectives that map onto different dimensions? The problem with using different dimensions in the ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples is that the original versions use absolute numbers, not relative position on the scale. That is, they are implying that The Bus is high on the scale of width and Marino and Elway are high on the scale of time excelling, but they are not doing this by saying that The Bus is tall and Manning is old. They are suggesting (with some hyperbole) that the number of inches of width (or the number of years of excelling) is the same number as the number of inches of height (or the number of years of life). It is easier to use different dimensions if you are comparing the relative position on the two scales and if the comparison is metaphorical, as in “as happy as the day is long”. The Mellancamp example is an interesting one, because it fits in between the purely metaphorical “…as the day is long” and the highly concrete and quantitative ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples.

    The more common way to say “you’re more experienced than you are old” is “you’re wise beyond your years“. This phrase is already taking “wise for your age” in a metaphorical, multiple scales direction.

  2. Blar said

    I’m back with plenty of examples from Google:

    “…King was as much despised as he was respected.”

    But the ataman was as crafty as he was cruel.”

    During our conversation in my hotel room, Dawkins was as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft blazer.”

    Roisart’s mouth was tight, and he was as concerned as his brother was angry.”

    There are many, many more. Was as generous as he was * ” shows hits for rich, successful, mean, talented, technically brilliant, brave, sometimes enigmatic, tall, and several other adjectives.

  3. […] what you use when you’re comparing different qualities. It shows up in phrases like as green as you are young or as weird as it is creepy. Why do they call it subdeletion? Because you don’t have the full […]

  4. […] done to make this work in English? In English, we can compare different adjectives; for example, “You ain’t as green as you are young”, but it’s a bit harder to do it with different adverbs. It sounds awkward to say things like, […]

  5. […] Literal-Minded on They Swim As Good As They LookSoftly and Slowly « Literal-Minded on It’s Not Easy Bein’ as Green as You Are YoungSoftly and Slowly « Literal-Minded on J. Philip Whitman Joins the BlogosphereGPHemsley on […]

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