Nonce truncation

From Dana Goodyear’s piece “Dept. of Hoopla: Celebromatic” (New Yorker of November 30, p. 25):

The other day, Francesco Vezzoli, an Italian artist known for his meta-spectacles … turned up in the offices of the architect Frank Gehry with a Prada shopping bag. “Hi, kiddo,” Gehry–small, buoyant, gnomish–said. (They go back.)

What Vezzoli had in that shopping bag was an enormous headdress he had fabricated for Lady Gaga to wear in a benefit performance for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. But the headdress, the benefit, or the people involved are not my concerns here; I’m after the expression “they go back”, with a truncated version of the idiom go back a long way ‘have known each other for a long time’ in it.

This 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 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.

In all these examples, a fixed expression is left incomplete on purpose; the incompletion is strategic. As I noted in my earlier posting, these strategic incompletions can become conventionalized. However, it’s likely that conventionalization proceeds at different rates for different people, so that it can be hard to say when a nonce truncation has become an idiom or construction.

Two cases.

The first is the much-reviled as far as, which I mentioned briefly in my earlier posting. It seems likely to me that nonce truncation played an important role in the development of as/so far as (without a trailing is concerned or goes) as topic-marking idioms, as in these two quotations from John F. Kennedy, taken from MWDEU‘s (1989) substantial article on the subject:

(1960) But as far as whether I could attend this sort of a function in your church … then I could attend

(1964) So far as the next program, it will be developed later

The objections to these usages go back at least as far as Fowler’s 1926 Modern English Usage; in fact, OED2’s (1989) subentry for the usages (in the entry for the adverb far) has Fowler’s admonition not to use them as the first cite for them.

The history of the “short-form” usages is surveyed in some detail in the Rickford et al. article I cited in my earlier posting. There are 19th-century examples of short-form as/so far as X, but they have long and complex X. Instances with short X (as in the second Kennedy quote above) begin to appear in the 20th century and really pick up in the 1950s.

Eventually, as MWDEU notes, the short-form usages are so frequent and unremarkable that they should be treated as established usages (though appearing primarily in speech, and more American than British). And we find advice like this, in Butterfield’s Oxford A-Z of English Usage (2007):

well established in American usage and is a useful shorthand for the older as far as … is/are concerned. Nevertheless, many more conservative British speakers are likely to object to it, so it is best avoided with a British audience. (p. 14)

[A note on objections to the short forms. I know from people’s peeving on the subject that many people think they are inadvertent errors, lapses resulting from inattention (speakers “forget” that a trailing phrase is required). That is, they think that someone who uses a short form is making an error in production. This idea is especially implausible when the X is short, as it is in huge numbers of examples that are easily collected. But the idea is widespread.

If you hold firmly to this belief, and don’t use the short-form variants yourself, then short-form examples will bring you up short; you’re expecting more, and you don’t get it. On the other hand, I’d expect that people would eventually notice the sheer frequency of these variants in speech, especially with a short X. But the power of grammatical egocentrism can be strong.]

That was the first case, where conventionalization has pretty clearly occurred. I’m not so sure about the status of the second case: if-clauses used, on their own, to convey a polite request.

From my own experience at oral examinations: when the examining committee has finished its questions, the chair is likely to say to the student something like: “if you’ll just leave the room for a few minutes”. That functions as a polite request for the student to leave the room for a few minutes. Unlike the previous cases, there are a number of possible continuations (main clauses) that could have been omitted.

The omitted-main-clause strategy can be used in many other situations. You can give someone instructions, for instance, though a series of if-clauses:

If you’ll just make a fist. Then if you’ll press on the bandage …

Strategies like this can be conventionalized as imperative constructions, and might have been for some English speakers in the case of if. In any case, this is one route by which conditional or subjunctive marking (whether via inflectional morphology or special lexical items) can result in an imperative construction, as has happened in many languages.

6 Responses to “Nonce truncation”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    NYC taxi drivers are a notoriously touchy lot, so when I wish to give directions to a driver about how to get somewhere, I phase them in the conditional: “If you turn left on Bowery, and then if you turn right on Broome Street, …” without ever getting to the apodasis, which is something like “then I’ll get to my destination and pay you the fare on the meter, plus 20%.”

  2. Jan Freeman Says:

    “Grammatical egocentrism” may reflect cluelessness, but it’s generally expressed as hostility. Strangers whose usage differs are labeled forgetful, ignorant, pretentious, careless, and worse, and their motives are creatively misread. Just check out the comments* on this week’s Word column, by my new (and deeply appreciated) co-columnist Erin McKean. It was teased on the Globe’s home page, luring readers who’d never read the column before, and who didn’t really read this one, but who saw the phrase “no problem” and started frothing, because they’re sure this reply to “thank you” is a grave and intentional insult.

    An interesting social question: Why do some disputed usages generate this mob response, while others just simmer along without ever developing a unified constituency?

    * Or not. They are depressing, like all mob comment threads.
    [(amz) Erin’s comments are here .]

  3. mollymooly Says:

    I first assumed the post was going to be about the mysterious words “Gehry–small” and “gnomish–said”.

    A voguish truncation, at least among teenage Dubliners, is “End of.” for “End of story.” It’s stressed on “of”. I think there are other similar ones, with final stress on an orphaned preposition or adverb, but I can’t think of any offhand.

  4. James D Says:

    Of course this is far from something we can blame millennial teenagers for. Nonce truncations are an essential part of that popular linguistic game known as Cockney Rhyming Slang.

  5. Dan Scherlis Says:

    @Jan Freeman:
    Your excellent “social question” (why do some usages become peeve magnets, while isomorphic usages are ignored by the peevish) echos Prof Zwicky, roughly in the middle of his “earlier posting”, per his link above.

    Aside from that, wouldn’t a truncation, once comventionalized, be free to drift semantically from the full form? For example, my (teenaged) son told me tonight, “I knew the kid was from California because he said ‘hella’.”

    And ‘hella’ is used not only in the obvious way (“it was a hella party”) but also as a free-range emphatic adverb (“it was hella hot out”).

    “Y’know,” he explained to me, “the way we use ‘wicked'” (here in the Boston area).

  6. vocalised Says:

    At what point does a ‘nonce’ truncation cease to be ‘nonce’? It just occurs to me that “we go back” scarcely strikes my ears as a truncation, anymore. (As you know, I’m a frequent if not exclusive “as far as” user as well…)

    @Dan Scherlis:
    Apologies for potentially hijacking this conversation thread, but I’m surprised that you’d consider “a hella party” more ‘obvious’ than “hella hot out” — I have the reverse intuition!

    @mollymooly:
    I had the same initial assumption! And the “end of” example is great!

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