May I truncate?

One of the mysteries of studying advice on grammar, style, and usage is the apparent hit-or-miss character of the advice. One type of expression is labeled as incorrect, illiterate, unintelligible, etc., while superficially similar expressions get little or no attention. There are fashions in grammar/usage peeves, as in so many other things.

Part of the OI! (Omit Needless Words/Include All Necessary Words) project — see some findings here — looks at “truncations”, in a broad sense: shorter constructions that are in alternation with longer constructions that are roughly equivalent semantically (and where the two variants probably spring from the same historical source). There are a huge number of examples, of many different types.

After some background discussion, I’ll look at some no matter idioms, which have undergone initial, medial, and final truncation over the years.

Nonce truncation is very common, especially with fixed expressions, where parts of them can “go without saying” because the expressions are fixed. It’s not hard to find occurrences of above and beyond without the call of duty in contexts where the longer expression is clearly intended, or the whole nine without yards in similar contexts. Proverbs and famous quotations are often truncated in this fashion: Oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

Sometimes the truncated versions become conventionalized, especially when speakers no longer appreciate the source: for example, the idiom trip the light fantastic, which long ago lost its toe for most people.

Other truncations with long histories are now simply idioms: truth be told (no if, no the), truth to tell (no the, not to mention the inverted word order), that said (with several possible historical sources), and so on.

Still others are idioms but still are associated with a somewhat conversational tone or informal style, even though they occur in various sorts of “serious” writing. For instance, truncation of the definite article with certain head nouns in sentence-initial adverbials: time was, point is, and so on. The syntax turns out to be rich and complicated (these aren’t just phonological abbreviations), but in any case the phenomenon is well-attested in editorials in newspapers, in The Economist, etc., in science writing, and so on.

Then we come to truncations that seem to have become conventionalized fairly recently while escaping usage criticism, so far as I can tell: for instance, long story short ‘to make a long story short’, which strikes me as somewhere in the gray zone between standard and non-standard usage.

And then to conventionalized truncations that strike me as non-standard at the moment, but up and coming (they’ve also, as far as I know, escaped the attention of advice writers, though the keen eyes of ADS-L have picked out several of them). Here are two:

reason stands ‘(it) stands to reason’ (ADS-L July 2006)

that being ‘that being said’ (ADS-L June/July 2006)

[Note: I am neither recommending nor disparaging these usages. They are out there, and they are pretty clearly not inadvertent errors.]

Which brings us to the King of Truncation, as/so far as without trailing goes or is concerned. (The classic study is John R. Rickford; Thomas A. Wasow; Norma Mendoza-Denton; & Juli Espinoza.  1995.  Syntactic variation and change in progress: Loss of the verbal coda in topic-restricting as far as constructions.  Language 71.1.102-31.) The amount of venom that has been directed against this usage is hard to believe (it came in second in the Include All Necessary Words competition in the Stanford OI! project’s collection of usage criticism).

The Rickford et al. paper traces its trajectory from as far as NP with a long and complex NP (of some vintage) to the more recent as far as as just a topicalization marker (like as for, with respect to, or the much-despised in terms of).

[I’m somewhat puzzled by many people’s reactions to the usage, but that’s a topic I’ll put off for a later posting. Please don’t write to complain about it; plenty of other people have already done this for you.]

On to no matter constructions. Apparently the historical source is

(1) it’s no matter + Clause

(with no matter conveying ‘of no consequence’), in things like “It’s no matter what you think”. This was then initially truncated to yield a concessive adverbial:

(2) no matter + Clause

(where the clause can be a that-clause, an if-clause, or an interrogative WH clause). Then come the developments of interest. First, a final truncation to an even shorter concessive:

(3) no matter what NP ‘no matter what NP is/are/…’

A recent Google search on {“no matter what your”} pulled up 4,540,000 raw hits, with “what your size/business/taste/skin type/age/…” ({“no matter what your * is”} got a huge number of hits, but not as many as the truncated variant in (3).) Note that the truncated variant in (3) is formally similar to truncated as far as. But it’s amazingly frequent, and seems to have elicited no complaints.

(There are parallels to (3) with other WH words: “no matter how big your debt” and so on.)

The final development is medial truncation of (3), to give an even shorter concessive:

(4) no matter NP ‘no matter what NP’

Again, millions of hits for {“no matter the”} — “no matter the format/context/flavor/locale…” and {“no matter your”} — “no matter your age/route/size/generation…”  And no complaints that I can find.

6 Responses to “May I truncate?”

  1. Nonce truncation « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] is an instance of what I called nonce truncation in an earlier posting, where I noted that Nonce truncation is very common, especially with fixed expressions, where parts […]

  2. Nonce truncations « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] By arnoldzwicky A few months ago, I looked at some truncations in syntax, focusing on a series of developments in no matter constructions, in […]

  3. If only « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] But protasis-only examples like the ones above have become conventionalized in optative uses, so that contextual inference is no longer required (it's "short-circuited", in John Searle's felicitous metaphor). Add this to the list of nonce truncations that have become conventionalized.] […]

  4. Truncation alert « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] For one then goes along with other end-truncated constructions and idioms: as far as, no matter, the whole nine, etc., discussed here. […]

  5. as far as us is concerned « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] astonishing amount of venom has been directed at the truncated construction; some discussion here. For the purposes of this posting, just accept that the truncated construction is widespread […]

  6. Drifting as far as « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] this blog, discussion here, with a followup […]

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