What She’s Doin’ Now Is Tearin’ Me Apart
Posted by Neal on March 3, 2011
Back in January I wrote about an unusual sentence with a fused relative clause (aka a free relative). At the time, I wrote, “This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudo-cleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.”
Looks like I haven’t gotten around to it yet, so here we go. The song is “What She’s Doing Now,” performed by Garth Brooks on his 1990 album No Fences. The title shows up in the lyrics, when Brooks sings that the season of the year
…makes me wonder
What she’s doin’ now.
Nothing remarkable so far. What she’s doing now is the indirect-question form of What is she doing now?, serving as the complement of the verb wonder. But in the chorus, Brooks sings
… what she’s doin’ now is tearin’ me apart
Fillin’ up my mind and emptyin’ my heart
Now we’ve got ourselves an ambiguity, and it’s partly attributable to the ambiguity of the -ing form of any verb. Let’s take the phrase blogging about linguistics in two sentences:
My hobby is blogging about linguistics.
I’m blogging about linguistics right now.
In the first sentence, blogging about linguistics is a noun phrase (more specifically, a gerund phrase), and is is identifying it as my hobby. In the second sentence, blogging about linguistics is a participial phrase; it hooks up with is to form a verb phrase that talks about someone blogging.
Now let’s go back to the sentence in the chorus, and take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as gerunds. In that case, the meaning is basically
Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. X = the act of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.
We’ll call this the specificational meaning. (Free relatives in this kind of specificational construction are also known as pseudo-clefts.) On the other hand, if we take tearin’, fillin’, and emptyin’ as participles, then what we have after the is is a great big participial phrase, which joins with the is to form a verb phrase. The meaning in this case would be
Let X = the thing that she’s doing now. Whatever X may be, it is in the process of tearin’ me apart, fillin’ up my mind, and emptyin’ my heart.
We’ll call this the predicational meaning. This is the easier reading to get, in my opinion.
The other thing that makes this specificational/predicational ambiguity possible is the fact that both people and abstract things are capable of tearin’ one apart, fillin’ up one’s mind, and emptyin’ one’s heart. If we replace those verbs with something that only a human (or at least something animate) can do, then we only get the specificational meaning:
What she’s doin’ now is drinkin’, smokin’, and partyin’ all night. (X = the act of d., s., and p.a.n.)
If we replace it with something that doesn’t make sense with a human subject, we get only the predicational meaning:
What she’s doin’ now is disturbing and possibly illegal. (Whatever X is, it is d. and p.i.)
So how about that, eh? I told you you’d love this ambiguity! Was I right, or was I right? (This is pretty much the same ambiguity, by the way, that I discussed in 2006 for What we waste is a disgrace.)
However, now that I look back on the lyrics, I wonder if the chorus was actually intentionally ambiguous. I’ve always assumed it was, and gotten a linguistic thrill out of hearing it, the same as I get with If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?, but I don’t really see anything in the song as a whole anymore that would suggest the writers wanted you to get both meanings. What do you think?