Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Fried Eggs in Bacon Grease

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2010

Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s annual fall campout last weekend. For our Saturday and Sunday breakfasts I packed bacon and eggs in our cooler. But as I assembled our camp stove on Saturday morning, I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to pack any butter (OK, margarine).

“Shoot!” I said to myself. “Now what am I going to fry the eggs in?”

Then it hit me: I could fry the eggs in the bacon grease! The way eggs were meant to be fried in the first place! We’ve been using the convenient microwave packets of bacon for so many years that I’ve gotten used to never having any bacon grease to fry eggs in, and using margarine instead. But this weekend, on this campout, with no microwaves in sight, I’d fry our bacon the old-fashioned way, and have fried eggs the way Dad used to make them.

As I fried the eggs, I thought about the phrase frying eggs in bacon grease. I was thinking about it because frying eggs in bacon grease reminded me of a quotation from Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Entertainment Weekly a number of years ago, where she said she liked eating “fried eggs in bacon grease”. Now that, to me, sounded disgusting. Eggs that had been fried in some substance — maybe bacon grease, maybe butter, maybe oil — now sitting in a bowl, in a matrix of gray, congealed bacon grease.

Why does frying eggs in bacon grease set my mouth to watering, while a similar phrase with the same verb, same noun, and same prepositional phrase — in the same order — has me curling my lip in revulsion?

I'm frying eggs in bacon grease.

Let’s take a closer look at the verb phrase frying eggs in bacon grease. In the diagram on the right, the prepositional phrase in bacon grease is modifying the verb phrase frying eggs, labeled VP2. Actually, this diagram isn’t quite accurate. I’d say that the PP is modifying not the entire VP frying eggs, but just the verb frying. If it were modifying the entire VP frying eggs, you’d have the unlikely (but possible) meaning that the person frying the eggs was in the grease. It’s the same way you’d parse frying eggs in the kitchen.) For in bacon grease to mean that the eggs are in the grease, it needs to “get its hands on” just the meaning of frying, to produce something that means “fry something by putting it in hot bacon grease”.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a good way to show this distinction in the tree diagrams I’m using here; no way to show both eggs and in bacon grease grabbing onto just the verb frying. (You can do it with Reed-Kellogg diagrams, but then you don’t have a way of showing modification of an entire VP.) In any case, whether in bacon grease is modifying just frying, or the VP frying eggs, the only place it can go is after the direct object eggs, because in English syntax, after the verb comes the direct object (if there is one), and only then any modifiers.* So what we end up with is this effect of in bacon grease “jumping over” eggs to modify frying.

Fried eggs in bacon grease

Now let’s look at the noun phrase fried eggs in bacon grease. Here, the verb fry is in its past-participial form, fried. It’s acting as an adjective, modifying the noun eggs. The two words together form a nominal, i.e. something that’s bigger than a noun, but not a complete noun phrase yet. Fried eggs could serve as an NP, in a sentence like I like fried eggs, but in this case, it’s acting as a nominal, because it’s modified further by the PP in bacon grease. The nominal fried eggs plus the PP in bacon grease make up the NP fried eggs in bacon grease. This time, in bacon grease is next to eggs because it’s modifying the nominal fried eggs. Being a nominal and not a VP, fried eggs refers to a kind of eggs, not an action you can perform on them. So when you modify fried eggs with in bacon grease, we’re talking about already-fried eggs that are sitting in bacon grease.

But why can’t the PP in bacon grease jump over the noun eggs and modify just the past participle fried, so that we get the meaning of eggs that have been fried in bacon grease? It made the jump in the VP frying eggs in bacon grease, so why can’t it do it here? Is it just that part participles in English can’t be modified? No! They can be! Fried in bacon grease is a fine participial phrase, and you can use it to describe eggs if you just put the whole thing after the noun, like this: eggs fried in bacon grease.

I don’t have a deeper answer of why fried can’t be modified by in bacon grease when a noun separates the two. I just know that in English, participles that come with some kind of complement or modifier (in other words, participial phrases such as fried in bacon grease) have to stick tight to them. And since participial phrases can’t be broken up, that also means that they can’t “wrap” around the noun they modify (as in fried eggs in bacon grease). The only option is for the participial phrase to come after the noun it modifies: eggs fried in bacon grease. To illustrate with some non-bacon-grease-related examples:

*The shelter was filled with evacuated from their homes residents. (evacuated plus PP before noun? No.)
*The shelter was filled with evacuated residents from their homes. (evacuated and PP wrapped around noun? No.)
The shelter was filled with residents evacuated from their homes. (evacuated plus PP after noun? Yes.)
*The highways were packed with commanded to evacuate residents. (commanded plus infinitive before noun? No.)
*The highways were packed with commanded residents to evacuate. (commanded and infinitive wrapped around noun? No.)
The highways were packed with residents commanded to evacuate. (commanded plus infinitive after noun? Yes.)

Of course, the English spoken by Julia Louis-Dreyfus apparently does have the option of wrapping participial phrases around the nouns they modify, assuming she didn’t just make a mistake when she wrote about fried eggs in bacon grease. If she wrote what she intended to, maybe she is also OK with the evacuated residents from their homes and the commanded residents to evacuate. But the English I speak doesn’t allow any of these phrasings. Does yours?

Eggs fried in bacon grease

After I fried up our eggs in bacon grease, a not-so-pleasant memory came back to me: The can of solidified bacon grease that we kept in the cabinet under the stove when I was a kid, month after month. We’d use some for fried eggs when we weren’t also cooking bacon, and when we did cook bacon, that just added to the supply of grease. There was never a good exit strategy for that can of grease. Eventually it would get rancid and we’d just throw it out. As I stood there holding my skillet sloshing with hot grease, I wondered what to do next. “Uh, what’s the environmentally correct way to get rid of your bacon grease?” I asked some more-experienced campers than me.* They shared their knowledge: Walk about 20 paces from the cabin and pour it out there.

So I did, and then took Adam’s and my bacon and eggs into the cabin for breakfast. Adam ate his bacon and one bite of his egg, so I ended up finishing his.

*Uh-oh! Did you spot the counterexample to my rule about participial phrases not wrapping around the nouns they modify?

8 Responses to “Fried Eggs in Bacon Grease”

  1. keri said

    what about “eggs fried in bacon grease”? sounds SO much more appetizing. And you now have a single phrase, “fried in bacon grease”, modifying “eggs”, instead of the two split phrases (well, word and phrase)

  2. The Ridger said

    Mmmmmmmm. A much tastier example than the one I use: a big enough for my family house. Of course, “big enough” isn’t a participle…

  3. Ran said

    I don’t think “more-experienced than me” is a participial phrase in this case. “More-experienced campers than me” doesn’t mean that someone has been experiencing those campers. (You once linked to this Language Log posting that deals in part with the two different “-ed”s in question.)

    • Neal said

      I think it is a participial phrase. However, instead of a passive past participle (which is what we’d have if we were talking about campers that someone experienced), but an active past participle, like you get with the arrived guests or my much-traveled aunt.

  4. Maude said

    Wouldn’t the linguistic flexibility indicate that the phrase “fried eggs” has a strong “identity” as opposed to the phrase “evacuated residents”? Several lines in your article do evoke mouthwatering (or less so) experiences and memories…as a matter of fact, offense made to the image of “fried eggs” is the motor of your writing here, isn’t it. For that reason, linguistically-speaking, the trees are correct, but do not pass on the “vécu”, the big picture, the wafting aroma that apparently do prove that it IS possible to bend the rules when the heart (or stomach) leads you 😀 (the proof’s in the pudding). However, when the rules are bent in too much of a personal way, the listener may get offended, may find that the new corresponding image does not match his/her own particular visualization, in this case, of fried eggs.

    This probably applies to food, like “peanut butter and jelly sandwich” (why PBJ and not PJB, and why is jelly more frequent than “jam”, to my knowledge”. Bacon and eggs, as opposed to Eggs and bacon which sounds like a shopping list to me.

    Personally, I like my “fried eggs” in olive oil (screech) which sounds like preserves, because we don’t think of olive oil when we say fried eggs. In fact, I like eggs fried in olive oil, I like frying eggs in olive oil. 😀 have a good day!

  5. Varsh said

    Bacon grease is good.

    I mildly agreed with the article, but found it annoying. Maybe you should have made more useless tree diagrams.

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