Reversed blame

It started on the 18th with Barara Partee’s doing a double-take (in Facebook) on this headline she read in Yahoo! News:

Obama blames Congress Republicans on bus tour

She read it (as did I) as involving blame (A):

(A) blame RESULT on SOURCE

Eventually I came to see another possible argument structure for the headline (in addition to (A) and the intended reading).

[In the template above, RESULT covers RESULT and CONSEQUENCE, and SOURCE covers SOURCE and CAUSE (SOURCE is typically, but not necessarily, human). The template could also be seen as: blame NEW on OLD.]

Barbara commented, “I’m more inclined to blame them on something in the water.” On her reading, on bus tour is one of the two object arguments associated with the head blame — an oblique object, with Congress Republicans being the direct object. Of course, the intended reading is that on bus tour should not be attached “low”, as an argument of blame, but attached “high”, as a modifier of blames Congress Republicans. Low attachment is the default (though other considerations compete with it — see discussion here), so you can see how Barbara and I came to our interpretation (maybe you came to the same one).

I’ll have more to say, in another posting, about high vs. low attachment in this example. But the twist is that after I misunderstood the original as Barbara did, I went on to entertain another argument structure for it:


(that is, it’s the Congress Republicans who are claimed by Obama to be responsible for the bus tour). This would be “reversed blame“, combining the NEW-before-OLD order of

(A) blame RESULT on SOURCE

with the OLD-before-NEW order of the for-marked variant:

(B) blame SOURCE for RESULT

(as in blame Congress Republicans for the bus tour), to yield another OLD-before-NEW variant:

(B’) blame SOURCE on RESULT

(B’) would be a blame counterpart to “reversed substitute” (on which, see here and here).

As it happens, I immediately came across an example of reversed blame on Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words site (#750, August 20):

Cause and effect? A wire-story report from AP that Carola Dunn saw on 6 August in the Register Guard of Eugene, Oregon, also appeared in many other papers: “The oppressive heat already has been blamed on nine deaths in Oklahoma.”

(The oppressive heat … has been blamed on nine deaths … is passive, so we have to undo the passive to expose the argument structure. That gives us: Someone has blamed the oppressive heat on nine deaths, which has the argument structure (B’) blame SOURCE on RESULT.)

On WWW, the example was treated as a one-off error, presumably an inadvertent transposition of the RESULT and SOURCE arguments in structure (A). But, as with reversed substitute, other examples quickly turned up, via the search pattern {“blame the heat on”}, which threw up a huge number of unremarkable instances of structure (A), like

Politicians and climate activists were quick to blame the heat on global warming, even though last summer was not as hot as the summer of 1980. (link)

but also significant numbers of structure (B’), for instance:

I blame the heat on our laziness about taking pictures of ID tags. (link)

I would however like to blame the heat on the rudeness and lack of customer service when I go into wmart. (link)

To blame the heat on rising crime is ridiculous. Everyone is hot, but only a moral and decent person decides not to rob, murder, or assault another human being. (link)

We can blame the heat on the unexpected conversion of a stilton quiche into a stilton tart – I only realized why the volume of the filling seemed pretty slim after I’d put it in the oven. (link)

All you namby pamby northerners cry babying about your cold, you’ve got nothing on us southern states with our blister brain damaging heat. Consequently, you can blame the heat on our voting record. (link)

You can search for things like this only if the search pattern is very restricted; otherwise, you get a zillion hits, most of which are irrelevant. Or you can hope to find the examples fortuitously, which is the way most of the reversed substitute examples were discovered. It’s not an easy process, and all I can do here is make it plausible that reversed blame is abroad in the land, and not just as an inadvertent error or an error from a non-native speaker. (In fact, most of the reversed examples are so clear in context that it’s hard to notice them.)

There are two ingredients to these reversals: a preference for OLD-before-NEW order; and a preference, for any given verb, for a particular preposition to mark the oblique object (in the case of substitute, for for over with/by, and in the case of blame, for on over for). The OLD-before-NEW preference then makes the OLD argument the direct object of the verb, as a result conveying a tighter association between the verb and the OLD argument than between the verb and the NEW argument.

[Final digression. For substitute, the argument structures are

(A) substitute NEW for OLD

(B) substitute OLD with/by NEW

(B’) substitute OLD for NEW

And for blame, they are:

(A) blame NEW on OLD

(B) blame OLD for NEW

(B’) blame OLD on NEW

The histories of the two cases are not, however, entirely parallel.

For substitute, (A) is the oldest, and still the only fully standard, variant; (B) is a long-standing innovation (with the virtue of putting OLD before NEW), though still disparaged; and (B’) is a much more recent, though rapidly spreading, innovation. But for blame, (B) is the older variant; (A) was an innovation, but after vituperative criticism by some advice writers 100-150 years ago, it has become a standard variant (discussion here and here), an alternative to (B), with (A) and (B) differing in the tightness of the relationship between the two NP arguments (RESULT and SOURCE) and the verb; and (B’) seems to be a recent innovation, though it might just have escaped under the radar.]


9 Responses to “Reversed blame

  1. crumpetkitchen Says:

    Thanks for highlighting my slip-up! Oh the joys of living in bilingual confusion where everything slips with ever-increasing frequency…
    Verity at Crumpetkitchen

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Sorry, I missed that you weren’t a native speaker. But there are lots more examples I didn’t cite in the posting.

      • crumpetkitchen Says:

        Oh but I am an native speaker who once crowed of her prowess! I have however shifted from many variants of English – Irish to British to American and even a bit of Australian – and have been living and working in French and Italian for the past decade, so my expressions tend to be “fluid” (to put it politely).

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Robert Coren on Google+:

    A similar reversal occurs in a radio ad (that I’ve heard far too many times) for an auto-glass company: “Don’t trust your family’s safety with anyone else!” I want it to be either “Don’t trust anyone else with your family’s safety” or, if they insist on maintaining the order of ideas, “Don’t entrust your family’s safety to anyone else”.

    Yes, along with the dignify examples you added in a comment to a posting of Mark Liberman’s, here.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    David Kathman on Facebook:

    Hmmm. With “Obama blames Congress Republicans on bus tour”, I got the intended reading immediately, and it took me a while of actively thinking about it, after reading what you wrote, to get the reading that you initially got. Not sure why that is — I want to say it’s because of the semantics, which renders your initial interpretation nonsensical, but presumably that was pretty much the same for both of us.

    The drive for low attachment and the drive for comprehensibility are not infrequently in conflict.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Derek Wyckoff on Facebook:

    I actually got three readings all at once: the above two, plus “blames [those] Congress Republicans [who are] on [the] bus tour [for X]”—a structure I often see in headline truncations: think “Congressional panel blames BP,” with what the blame is being assigned for is (supposedly) understood. Though the initial (mis)reading is still my favorite: were it true, I suspect the number of bus tours paid for by tax dollars would plunge.…

    Cute. A combination of an argument structure with elliptical RESULT and a “reduced relative clause” (another source of low attachment).

  5. via « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] The Facebook usage has the virtue of putting the discourse-salient participant — your Facebook friend (Wilson Gray in the example above; I have plenty of other examples) — first. That would explain the ordering of participants. But then the preposition via (rather than from) seems to come from the construction with the opposite ordering (iconically reproducing the path from SOURCE to INTERMEDIARY to you). So the apparent reversal represents a combination of two different constructions, one contributing the ordering (more salient before less salient), the other the preposition (via).  Compare the discussion of “reversed blame” and “reversed substitute” in this posting. […]

  6. Complex reversal: confuse « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] In any case, the developments for confuse involve choosing a P and, more generally, choosing an argument structure (as in the case of blame, with its alternation between blame SOURCE / CAUSE for RESULTANT / CAUSED SITUATION and blame RESULTANT / CAUSED SITUATION on SOURCE / CAUSE — see here). And then a connection to reversals: simple semantic reversals (for example, benefactor/beneficiary, ancestor/descendant, here) and argument-structure reversals (for substitute and blame, for example, here), […]

  7. Dance with the one that’s nearest? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] C is a PP serving either as a modifier or an argument: from “Reversed blame” on 8/27/11  (here): […]

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