Like a Dog Ellipsis
Posted by Neal on September 18, 2010
I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s much-criticized “They talk about me like a dog” remark. You can read what Language Log had to say about it here. It’s a bit out of the news cycle by now, but Ben Zimmer’s current “On Language” column got me thinking about it again.
So what was it about They talk about me like a dog that struck people as odd about it in the first place?
For a while, I was looking for syntactic reasons. Like a dog is a case of ellipsis, a clause with some stuff left unpronounced that we are to recover from the context. One way to interpret it would be to treat a dog as the subject, and supply the V(erb) P(hrase) talk about me from the first clause:
They talk about me like a dog (talks about me).
This would be no big deal syntactically; it’s the same way you’d interpret You throw like a girl (throws), or Walk like a man (walks). Semantically, of course, it doesn’t work. Dogs don’t talk, and if they did, they wouldn’t talk about Obama.
Another way to interpret it this kind of ellipsis, although it won’t work for this particular example, would be to take a dog to be a direct object. To do that, you’d have to find a transitive verb in the context to fill in the blank. For example, it could work in a sentence like this:
They treat me like (they treat) a dog.
But since that won’t work for Obama’s sentence, we have to dig a little deeper for something to put together with a dog to make a clause. The solution is to supply the entire chunk They talk about, and use a dog as the object of the preposition about:
They talk about me like (they talk about) a dog.
Well, that works pretty well! All we have to do now is accommodate (i.e. accept as true for the sake of the conversation) the proposition that people don’t talk about dogs in a complimentary manner. So what’s so strange about that? Is it so unusual to have this kind of ellipsis? No; it’s the same kind of ellipsis as you get in lie in it like a bed, sleep in it like a hammock, or step on him like a bug.
I thought that maybe this kind of ellipsis was harder when the preposition is used in an abstract way, as about is, instead of in a more physical-location way like in or on in the above examples. But I can also find examples of depend on it like a crutch. So I don’t think that’s it, either.
When I taught ESL composition, sometimes I would mark a phrase on a student’s paper with the word “unidiomatic”. The phrasing didn’t break any syntactic rules, but it just wasn’t how a native English speaker would put something. It’s like saying, “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a pie” instead of “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake”, or “I’m going to punch you a new asshole” instead of “I’m going to tear you a new asshole.” Zimmer’s latest column is about how much of the language we learn is set phrases, idioms, collocations, “chunks” of words. These chunks conform to the rules, more or less, and some of them even allow variation in the choice of words they contain; for example give me a break and cut me a break. But their existence makes a language inhospitable to similar chunks with similar meanings but with words that are not in the accepted set of components.
The perceived problem with They treat me like a dog, I think, is not that it breaks any grammar rules, but it’s a little too much like the idiom treat [someone] like a dog in form and meaning, with the unexpected phrasal verb talk about where treat should be. Maybe if he’d used some other noun than dog, like in these examples here, it would have been different enough to escape notice.