Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Be Pompous, Obese, and Eat Cactus

Posted by Neal on April 28, 2006

It seems that Eric Bakovic of Phonoloblog has started another blog for non-phonology related postings. He’s still interested in strange coordinations, and writes about one of them in this post:

From this brief NYT piece, a quote from a recent visitor to the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History:

“I just came from Pennsylvania specially for this. And I think everyone from Pennsylvania, Kansas and Pat Robertson should see this. How can you argue with this? It explains so much. But I think it will be preaching to the choir.”
Shelly Payson, 57, specialty toy retailer, Chesterbrook, Pa.

I agree: everyone from Pat Robertson should definitely see the exhibit.

This reminds me of a similar example I heard a long time ago, when I was into Steve Martin comedy albums. It never registered on me then, since I was just barely getting interested in linguistics at the time, but when I happened to think of it recently, I suddenly detected the non-parallelism. The example, from “Grandmother’s Song” in the album Let’s Get Small, goes like this:

Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus.

Martin starts off coordinating adjectives (pompous, obese), and then throws in an entire verb phrase (eat cactus). Unlike Bakovic’s example, which is grammatical and funny when you expand it out (“everyone from Pennsylvania, everyone from Kansas, and everyone from Pat Robertson”), this one isn’t even grammatical when you expand it: “Be pompous, be obese, and be eat cactus.”

What about the fact that this coordination slipped by completely unremarked by me when I first heard it? Me, who had a problem with “There was a farmer had a dog” and “All that glitters isn’t gold“? I guess it means that my rules for parallelism regarding coordination are (or at least were) such that:

If you have

  1. a series of coordinated elements…
  2. that is the penultimate item in a higher-level coordination

then the conjunction signaling the end of this lower-level coordination can be omitted.

This kind of “coordination at unlike levels” is discussed in CGEL on p. 1335, with examples such as this one:

He was middle-aged, of sallow complexion, and had penetrating blue eyes.

So is this kind of coordination grammatical, or just a common mistake? The book says, “The status of such examples is uncertain. They are more likely to be found in casual speech than in more carefully monitored speech or writing–but they do occur in the latter….”

So how about you? If you have one coordination nested inside another, can you take the conjunction from the lower one and kick it up to the next level, so to speak?

4 Responses to “Be Pompous, Obese, and Eat Cactus”

  1. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Remember my earlier comment on the “pharmacist’s coordination”? That multi-level example has appeared in so many prescription drug commercials that it’s almost a cliché: “[Drug name] is not for women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant.” If the writer had added an extra “are” before the first “pregnant” (or substituted “planning to become” for that “may”), the pharmacist’s coordination wouldn’t sound so awkward to this grammar geek. 🙂

  2. […] phrases or participles. For example, the first multiple-level coordination I wrote about was Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus, which coordinated two adjectives with a VP. Anyway, of these 19 examples, 17 of them actually do […]

  3. […] Whitman’s first posting on the subject “Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus” (2006, here) quoted CGEL (p. 1335) on “coordination at unlike levels”: “The status of such […]

  4. […] of MLCs. Whitman’s first posting on the subject “Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus” (2006, here) quoted CGEL (p. 1335) on “coordination at unlike levels”: “The status of such examples is […]

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