Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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Ass/Fucking Intensification

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2012

Several years ago, when Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic still consisted mostly of scanned images of doodles from his graph-paper notebooks, I got a laugh out of this one:

It’s funny because it’s true: I do the same thing.

In September 2010, Munroe revisited the topic of obscenity-based intensifiers with this diagram:

Although Munroe didn’t include ass in this survey, I’d say the same adjectives that you don’t find intensified with fucking or as shit, you also don’t find intensified with ass. A lot of the discussion on the xkcd forum focused on which adjectives could and couldn’t be intensified in these ways, but as I thought about these three obscenity-based intensifiers, it occurred to me that even one and the same adjective can’t always be intensified by all three of these intensifiers. In fact, I discovered that the rules for how to use fucking, ass, and as shit are pretty subtle.

For comparison, let’s look at the intensifier really. You can use really to intensify a predicative adjective (i.e., an adjective that comes after the linking verb be), as in

This car is really sweet.

You can also use it to intensify an attributive adjective (i.e., one that modifies a noun), as in

He has a really sweet car.

Fucking can intensify both predicative and attributive adjectives, too; you can substitute fucking for really in both of the example sentences with no problem:

This car is fucking sweet.
He has a fucking sweet car.

So can as shit, although as we see below, it starts to get a little awkward before an attributive adjective. That’s probably due to long adjective phrases in general not sounding so good before the nouns they modify.

This car is sweet as shit.
?He has a sweet-as-shit car.

Ass, however, can intensify only attributive adjectives. Put it with a predicative adjective and it’s just silly:

*This car is sweet-ass.
He has a sweet-ass car.

By the way, if someone says something is as “nasty as shit” or “disgusting as shit”, you might be able to interpret as shit is an ordinary comparative phrase. But when they say “sweet as shit”, you know as shit has now become completely grammaticalized as an intensifier. Come to think of it, the same goes for pissed as shit, something I actually heard a dormmate say in college.

So anyway, as I was saying, it looks like two of the obscenity-based intensifiers, fucking and as shit, can go with either predicative or attributive adjectives, while ass is limited to attributives. This peculiarity of ass may be a relic of its origin. Patricia O’Conner writes on her Grammarphobia blog that the original ass-suffixed adjective was big, and at first it was written big-assed, and referred to people that had big asses. She cites the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first attestation, from 1944:

The marines’ chosen name for their female aides is bams, from big-assed marines.

O’Conner continues:

An extended use of this literal meaning—applied to airplanes with big rear ends—was recorded in the military beginning in 1945. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang have citations from that time, when a plane with a large tail section (especially the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress) was referred to as a “big-ass bird” or “big-assed bird.”

The phonetic simplification from big-assed to big-ass is unsurprising; it’s exactly the same change that took place in ice(d) cream and is ongoing in ice(d) tea (which with the right accent can even sound like “ass tea”). The semantic shift from something with a big ass to something that is itself big is understandable as well. The OED‘s earliest example of that is from 1945, referring to a policeman’s “big ass nightstick”.

But the complications don’t end with the limitation of ass to attributive adjective modification. With fucking and as shit both able to modify predicative adjectives, there is the possibility of using both in a single predicative adjective phrase, as in

(That’s) fucking annoying as shit.

You can get a similar doubling fucking and ass with attributive adjectives; for example,

a fucking sweet-ass car

This kind of double intensification is much less natural with other intensifiers; for instance, ?his really very expensive car is questionable. You can also pair fucking with really or very, but there’s a condition: fucking gets to be closer to the noun:

a really/very fucking expensive car
*a fucking really/very expensive car

(You might be thinking that a fucking really expensive car sounds fine, but what’s going on there is that fucking is modifying the entire nominal really expensive car, the same way as it could to with car all by itself: His fucking car is parked across the sidewalk! If you put in some other adjectives and separate fucking from the nominal, the phrase is questionable at best: ?/*a totally awesome but fucking really expensive car.)

I’ve paired fucking with as shit, and fucking with ass, but what about ass with as shit? Sorry, no can do:

*This car is sweet-ass as shit.
*He bought a sweet-ass as shit car.

It’s no surprise that predicative sweet-ass as shit is no good, given that predicative sweet-ass is no good, either. Attributive *sweet-ass as shit may be ungrammatical simply because it’s a long adjective phrase coming before the noun it modifies–the same thing that happened with ?sweet as shit car, but made worse now with the addition of ass-intensification.

Another wrinkle turns up when it comes to comparative forms of adjectives; i.e. their -er or more ___ forms. Fucking, like really and very, can’t modify comparative forms, whether they’re predicative or attributive adjective. The same goes for ass with its attributive adjectives:

*This car is really/very/fucking sweeter.
*He has a really/very/fucking sweeter car than me.
*He has a really/very sweeter car than me.
*He has a sweeter-ass car than me.

So early in 2011 when the question came up on Twitter on what the proper comparative of bad-ass should be, the answer should have been not worse-ass, bad-asser, or even badder-asser, but none of the above.

Once again, though, the obscenity-based intensifiers are different from ordinary intensifiers. They can modify comparatives after all, provided they get introduced by a lot:

This car is a lot fucking sweeter.
He has a lot fucking sweeter car.

(There’s also the question of why it’s not *an a lot fucking sweeter car, but that’s another story.)

But wait a minute! What about as shit? It has complications of its own. I said above that it has been completely grammaticalized into an intensifier, but I lied. It still has some of its original meaning–not in the shit part, but in the part that compares some property of the modified noun with that of shit. Sure, to be dumb as shit means to be really dumb, but if we’re talking even dumber than that, we don’t just say *dumber as shit; it has to be dumber than shit.

Intensification with fucking, ass, and as shit: a taste of syntactic anal-ysis.

Posted in Comics, Morphology, Potty on, dudes!, Syntax, Taboo | 10 Comments »

Minding the Gaps (Again)

Posted by Neal on October 29, 2011

I was reading an article in the Life & Arts section of the Columbus Dispatch this morning, about what effect the iPod has had in the ten years since its introduction. A sidebar had quotations from people in the entertainment industry giving their thoughts on the iPod. One Martin Atkins had this to say:

It’s made some music less special — more of a background incidental thing than something to sit in the middle of the stereo field and listen to uninterrupted.

It was a nice specimen to add to my pile of coordinated verb phrases (VPs) in which one VP (or more) contains a gap, but not all of them do. I’ve written about these in various other posts, so I’m tempted to just document this example and leave it. But I’ve learned that I do pick up a new reader now and then, so I’ll say again why coordinations like this one are interesting.

It is commonly said that items joined by a conjunction have to be “parallel”, but what exactly is meant by parallel varies from person to person. Examples like this one are non-parallel in a way I’ll describe shortly, but are usually not even noticed by native speakers.

The non-parallelism in this example has to do with whether the coordinated VPs contain gaps, i.e., a place where something like a subject or object (or even an adverb) is missing. The VP listen to __ uninterrupted is missing an object of a preposition (specifically, the preposition to). That gap corresponds to the pronoun something. You could move something into the gap and end up with listen to something uninterrupted. In contrast, the VP sit in the middle of the stereo field does not contain any gap to correspond to something. Try putting something into that VP, and you end up with something ungrammatical, like *sit in the middle of the stereo field something. Now I suppose you could insert something as a direct object of sit, if your dialect allows sit as a transitive verb, and get sit something in the middle of the stereo field. That might be grammatical, but it’s not what Atkins meant. He wasn’t talking about placing a music-playing device in the middle of its own stereo field and listening to it; he had in mind sitting down in the middle of the stereo field of a music-playing device and listening to it.

Non-parallel coordinations like these are said to violate the “Across-the-Board” (ATB) constraint, to the effect that if one of the coordinated elements has a gap, all of them do. Clearly, this constraint is invalid, but the name is well-enough known that examples that violate it are sometimes known as “non-ATB coordinations”. Non-ATB coordinations that refer to related activities that occur together in some larger, typical situation, usually have a gap in the last item in the coordination, and this example is true to form, with the gap occurring in the second element, listen to uninterrupted.

The iPod article on the front page, and continued on page 2, where I found that non-ATB coordination. When I finished reading about iPods, I turned to the funny pages. There I read Sally Forth, a comic that I don’t even know why I read anymore. I don’t like the stories much, and I hate how they’re drawn. So I won’t bother linking to today’s strip in any online comics archive or anything; I’ll just go straight to the utterance I read in one of the word balloons:

I found it, Sal! The perfect course for me to enroll in and meet new people!

Another non-ATB coordination! In this one, the VP enroll in __ has a gap for the object of in, corresponding to course. The VP meet new people, on the other hand, has no gap. Its direct object is right there in plain view: new people. This coordination of VPs is referring to a sequence of events in a cause-effect relationship: enrolling in the course will result in meeting new people. This kind of non-ATB coordination usually does not have a gap in the final coordinated element, and this example bears that out. It’s the first VP, enroll in __ that has the gap, not the second.

As I said, I’ve written about these before, but it was fun to find an example of two varieties of non-ATB coordinations within five minutes of one another in a single section of the newspaper.

Posted in Comics, Non-ATB coordinations | 12 Comments »

Not As Much As You!

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2011

On April 30, I tweeted about an episode of The Big Bang Theory I’d watched the night before. I said

This is the kind of situation where grammar sticklers point out that there can be a big difference between more than I and more than me. In a nice summary of both sides of the argument, Grammar Girl writes:

[People who maintain that than is a conjunction rather than a preposition] would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things–you don’t care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings [was] intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.

Of course, this distinction only works when there actually is a difference between nominative and accusative forms, which limits us to pronouns, and not even all of those. In particular, you can be either nominative or accusative, so Leonard could be saying either “Not as much as [I hate] you!” or “Not as much as you [hate Greek food]!”

I’d venture to say that in most cases, the ambiguity is only what Arnold Zwicky calls a potential ambiguity; not a realistic one that will confuse people. What’s fun about this example is that neither of the possible readings jumps out as the intended one. Sheldon is such an insufferable character, with so many showstoppers when it comes to food preferences, that you could imagine his roommate Leonard getting so fed up with Sheldon that he decides to punish him with that night’s purchase of take-out food for their group of friends. There are two ways doing this could punish Sheldon. On the one hand, Leonard could reason that although he (Leonard) hates Greek food, he’ll eat it because he knows Sheldon hates it even more. On the other hand, Leonard might reason that he (Leonard) hates Greek food, but he hates Sheldon more, so he’s willing to eat Greek in order to make Sheldon eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of the show even intended this ambiguity.

Karen Davis (aka The Ridger) sent me another example of an ambiguous VP ellipsis that hinges on the pronoun you. It’s exactly parallel to the Big Bang one, except that here, instead of finite clauses like I hate Greek food, we have a nonfinite “small clause”: your ex living with us. In her email, Karen wrote:

Today’s Tiny Seppuku answers a question from someone whose parents like her ex enough to let him live with them. … In one panel, the parents say to the woman: “Let us tell you how much we enjoy having your ex living with us instead of you.”

One reading has …your ex living with us instead of [your ex living with] you; the other has …your ex living with us instead of you [living with us] Both were plausible, because the strip is about someone whose parents like her ex so much that they’re letting him live in their home, in their daughter’s old room. At least in print, you’re left wondering which meaning is intended. However, if you actually heard it spoken, the ambiguity would probably disappear. They would say either “your EX living with us instead of YOU [living with us]” or “your ex living with US instead of [living with] YOU”, and the focal stress would make things clear.

You get this kind of ambiguity with ordinary noun phrases, too. In my dad’s logic textbook from his college days, there’s an example of spurious reasoning that takes advantage of it. A passage goes something like this:

A psychological survey has revealed that whereas the value Mr. Jones places on money is slightly more than the societal average, the value Mrs. Jones places on it is slightly less. We can predict, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s marriage is unlikely to last. How could it, when Mr. Jones loves money more than his wife?

Again, the stress could disambiguate the spoken sentence: “Mr. JONES loves money more than his WIFE” vs. “Mr. Jones loves MONEY more than his WIFE.” But you can also pronounce it with a carefully evened-out stress that leaves the ambiguity open, which is nice because it lets you make the joke and confound your unwary listeners.

Go ahead and distinguish between than I and than me if you want to. There may be times that there are two plausible meanings to distinguish, but if you’re dealing with anything other than I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, you’ll have to disambiguate some other way.

Posted in Comics, Ellipsis, Prescriptive grammar, TV | 4 Comments »