Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Only the Celebrity’s Name

Posted by Neal on June 13, 2011

I was reading an article in the newspaper last week about how celebrity-written novels are almost always ghost-written. It’s kind of funny how insistently celebrities will say they really wrote the novels themselves, and then still admit they used ghost writers. This passage made me laugh:

When [Snooki] Polizzi appeared on Today in January, Matt Lauer asked, “Did you really write this book?”
“I did,” Polizzi said, “because, if you read it, you’ll know the first page that I wrote it — ’cause, like, it’s all my language.” (When pressed further, she admitted she had a co-writer.)

This one, too:

[Hillary] Duff … said in an interview that she came up with the plot and characters. … “It is my story,” Duff said. “It is my book. I wrote it, and she helped guide me through the process.”

But this sentence was quite surprising to me:

When the typical celebrity novel is published, only the celebrity’s name is printed on the book cover.

No kidding? They seriously leave off the title? I thought the celebrity’s name usually went above the title, and in a bigger typeface than the title, but always, there was a title. Looking at the pictures accompanying the article, I could see that Snooki’s book had “SNOOKI” across the top, but underneath was the title, A Shore Thing. Nicole Richie’s book clearly had the title Priceless on it. Turning again to the text, I read on:

Generally, publishers think two names on a cover is a turnoff to readers, especially in fiction.

Aha! It’s another case of only scoping not over an entire noun phrase, but on something within the noun phrase. In 2009, I wrote about thinking the sentence Only the manly men came in meant that no women came in; the only people who came in were men (and manly ones at that). Really, it meant that, in addition to whatever women may have come in, the only men who showed up were manly ones. I was thinking only scoped over the manly men, but really it was scoping over just the adjective manly. This time, I thought only was scoping over the noun phrase the celebrity’s name, but really it was scoping over just the possessive noun celebrity’s.

Once again, it just goes to show that even following the rule of placing only closest to what it modifies won’t always make things clear.

8 Responses to “Only the Celebrity’s Name”

  1. I think, in these two cases (and perhaps all of them in general), have to do with emphasis that would be apparent in speech but isn’t (though it could be) in writing.

    Try these on for size:
    “When the typical celebrity novel is published, only the celebrity’s name is printed on the book cover.”
    “Only the manly men came in.”

    Does that help?

    As for me and the original sentences, I understood what the first sentence said right away, particularly given the context. But without having read the old post, I was wondering about the women in the second sentence. The emphasis for both likely would have cleared that up.

    • Neal said

      True, and in the manly men example, the stress was, in fact, on manly. In the printed example here, there was no stress marked, though once I’d figured it out, I re-read it with stress on celebrity’s.

  2. The Ridger said

    Particularly in English, writing is a poor attempt to represent speech. This is, I believe, one reason good writing is hard: most people hear the words they write and can’t step back to see the ambiguities.

  3. Cobuilder rides again said

    It’s not a problem of ‘only’ as such, but is inherent in the distinction between defining and non-defining adjectives (if I may be permitted to redefine the compound determiner “the celebrity’s” as an adjective for these purposes – the principle is the same).

    Take a sentence like “I ordered the pan-fried mussels”. Without the context, we don’t know how much work the adjective ‘pan-fried’ is doing. Steamed mussels may also be available (pan-fried –> defining), or the pan-fried mussels may be the only mussels on the menu (non-defining). In “only the manly men…”, we don’t know whether there is sub-group of manly men and another sub-group of unmanly men (defining) or whether all the men are manly (non-defining).

    In defining adj+n structures, the adjective is semantically salient; in non-defining adj+n structures, the noun is semantically salient. Put an ‘only’ in there, and we will naturally process it linguistically as attaching to the most salient element.

    In your deliberate misreading of “only the celebrity’s name”, you are treating a defining adjective (determiner) as if it were non-defining, hence the (pretend) confusion over the scope of ‘only’. Context is everything, but no rule or principle is being broken.

    This situation with adjectives is analogous to the distinction between defining and non-defining relative clauses, except that with clauses we mark off the distinction typographically (and phonologically). Compare (and say to yourself): “My sister who lives in London is very rich” (defining) ” / “My sister, who lives in London, is very rich” (non-defining).

    It’s perfectly possible to imagine a language where defining and non-defining adjectives follow different declensions, to make the distinction clearer. Does anybody know of one?

  4. EP said

    Unrelated, but her nickname always gets me. I always assumed that “Snooki” came from the German (Yiddish?) Schnucki for “darling” or “sweetie pie,” but when I read in Wikipedia that “Polizzi earned the nickname Snooki in middle school after being the first of her friends to make out with a boy,” I’m not so sure anymore.

  5. They are celebrities for a reason. People love them for how they look and act and sing or dance, and their books sell not because they write well(if they write anything at all) but because they are popular and selling is what they’re good at.

  6. Buzz said

    As a humorous aside; a friend and I once saw a readerboard advertising “Giant Fish Sandwich Platter.” Was this a sandwich made from a giant fish? Was it, in fact, a giant platter with a perfectly normal sized fish sandwich on it? Or was the sandwich larger than average on a regular platter? We never found out. Sorry.

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