Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Roof, Wind, and Water

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2008

The remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through on Sunday, and knocked out our electricity. We got ours back Tuesday night, but in the meantime, I squeezed some more value out of my gym membership by taking my showers there. While I dried off in the locker room Monday, I watched the news on the TV screen mounted there, and heard the reporter mention

…roof, wind, and water damage

Why did that sound so weird? I wondered. Was it because the three categories of damage were not mutually exclusive? After all, roof damage could, and probably did, overlap heavily with wind damage and water damage. But saying “roof, wind, and water damage” gives the impression that we’re talking about three separate, nonintersecting sets.

However, I had to give up that hypothesis. Even though I’ve been similarly confused by phrases such as hard-working, reliable, professional, and friendly people, I also noted that coordinated adjectives didn’t have to mean nonintersecting sets. Chunky and fruit-flavored ice cream is OK even though there can be ice cream that is simultaneously chunky and fruit-flavored. As long as there is chunky ice cream that’s not fruit-flavored, and vice versa, the coordination makes sense.

Before I go applying this logic to roof, wind, and water damage, a disclaimer: I am not saying that roof, wind, and water are adjectives in this assemblage. They’re nouns, serving as the initial element in a complex nominal. What is a complex nominal? (Some of this will be familiar to readers who read Arnold Zwicky’s Big Penis Book post I recommended two posts back.) It’s like a compound noun, but with a looser connection between the two components that make it up. Compound nouns don’t allow you to separate them into their individual elements to coordinate them. For example, you can’t say *wash and dishcloths; it has to be washcloths and dishcloths. But you can say wind and water damage, so the strings wind damage and water damage are classified as complex nominals to reflect this difference. This is a distinction that I learned of only recently myself, and in my category “Compound Nouns,” I’m sure I’ve discussed at least a few complex nominals.

So now, back to roof, wind, and water damage example. Some roof damage is neither wind nor water damage — it could be caused by falling trees, or fires sparked by downed power lines. And not all wind and water damage is roof damage, as owners of uprooted trees and flooded basements can attest. (For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that wind damage and water damage are different from each other, too.)

So it must be something else that’s making this coordination sound strange. My current suspicion is that it’s the different semantic roles that roof, wind, and water play in the complex nominal. In roof damage, the noun roof fills a patient role: It’s what suffers the damage. By contrast, the nouns wind and water play agent roles in wind damage and water damage: Wind and water are what cause the damage.

To falsify this hypothesis, I’ve been trying to think of normal-sounding noun coordinations in the initial slot of a complex nominal, with one noun playing a patient role, and the other one an agent role. None are coming to mind, but maybe a few will occur to you.

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6 Responses to “Roof, Wind, and Water”

  1. I agree with you – I think there’s an impulse to try and translate the phrase as either “damage inflicted upon roofs, wind and water” or “damage inflicted by roofs, wind and water“, both of which are comical.

    (P.S. Due to some mysterious error, I had to log out of WordPress in order to submit this comment. Otherwise it insisted that I hadn’t filled in the required fields.)

  2. Glen said

    How about “homeowners, auto and flood insurance”? That’s three different types of modifier. “Auto” and “homeowners” seem to fill what you called the patient role, and “flood” the agent role. But there is a difference between the first two as well, because for them to be fully parallel, it should be “auto and home” or “auto owners and homeowners.” (The verb “insure” is interesting here, because you can insure an item, or you can insure a person against damage to that item — which is the same thing.)

    Cite: http://www.inzura.com/Inzura-insurance-services.html

  3. Glen: none of those nouns play the active role, for example a flood cannot insure you against anything. A noun playing the active role for insurance would be the name of the insurance company or something.

    You are right that they play different roles (even if those roles are not agent vs patient). Perhaps they would sound more conspicuous together if it weren’t for the fact that they are official titles for types of insurance.

  4. michael said

    how about baby, chili and talcum powder?

    No? Nothing?

  5. The Ridger said

    I not only agree with you, that was the first thing I thought of. (Only thing, therefore…)

  6. […] Roof, Wind, and Water […]

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