Excrescent ‘s

Back on May 21st, Victor Steinbok posted an example from a comment on Google+:

(1) Does anyone see what’s the tactic is?

noting that such things were common in comments and in speech, and observing that (1) could be seen as a blend of

(2a) … what’s the tactic?

(2b) … what the tactic is?

(If you’re dubious about (2a), hold that thought for a moment.)

Searching for more examples of the form {“what’s the * is”} was pretty much hopeless, thanks to the flexibility of Google searches, but I did pull up a large number of examples of the form:

 what’s the Expletive is

and then, more generally:

what’s/who’s the Expletive FormOfBE

and also

what’s the Expletive FormOfDO

which have no natural analysis as blends. Instead, the expletive examples look like they have an excrescent ‘s, reinforcing or emphasizing the WH interrogative word — as in non-standard how’s about, how’s come, what’s about, etc. mentioned here (section 11).

1. The expletive examples. There’s a huge number of these, especially with is. A sampling:

What’s the heck is Eugenics? (link)

What’s the frak is at NYC’s Union Square subway stop? Every day — make that twice a day — a vexing questions pops into my head as I stroll through Union Square’s subway stop en route to work: What the heck is this thing/device/contraption? (link) [note what’s the frak is and what the hell is together in this passage — not an uncommon pattern in the data]

What’s the hell is going on in Alabama? (link)

What’s the fuck is wrong with your face? (link)

including examples with reduced is in the second occurrence:

What’s the hell’s a ninja? (link) [Insane Clown Posse song]

What’s the hell’s going on in Watchung? (link)

What’s the fuck’s the matter with you people? (link)

There are also who’s … is examples:

Who’s the hell is Brett? (link)

Forget the Red Baron – who’s the hell is this guy??? (link)

Even the incorrect spelling couldn’t raise your curiosity. C’mon. Who’s the hell does this Cicuta think he his. (link)

And who’s … ‘s:

Wait, who’s the hell’s been saying that Weather Report is lower-tier fusion? (link)

Stanley Motss: Is that true?  Connie Brean: Who’s the hell’s to say? -Wag the Dog (link)

“Who’s the hell’s there? Show yourself, you coward!” Fiona called out as the evil laughter continued to echo through the empty forest. (link)

And what’s … was:

What’s the hell was that oatcake bollocks then? Backward bastards (link)

Hey, @MarquesHouston what’s the hell was goin’ on in ya head when you wore this? (link)

Show me the magic… What’s the hell was that? (link)

And what’s … are:

What’s the hell are they doing? (link)

McLearns: so far Islam is not a race but a religion, so what’s the hell are you talking about racism??? (link)

You’re an idiot. What’s the hell are black geots [getos]? I know what ghetto’s are. (link)

And what’s with forms of DO:

What’s the hell did that have to do with Absolut? (link)

What’s the hell did I just listen to? (link)

Pre-Conceptual Delusion ?? What’s the hell does THAT mean? (link)

2. A blend? It’s possible that some examples like (1) originate as inadvertent blends, but the rich array of expletive examples — which would provide a model for things like (1) — suggests that there’s another source.

Then there’s the question of whether (some of) the expletive examples are blends. In at least some of the cases, there are (not fully standard) counterparts to (2a), which could blend with the (standard) counterparts to (2b) — especially for what’s the hell going on (alongside what the hell’s going on):

What’s the hell going on? (link)

What’s the hell going on with her? (link)

In these examples, the expletive extension is attached to what’s as if it were just another WH interrogative word, rather than a contraction of what is.


(a) some of the counterparts to (2a) — notably, what’s the hell NP (What’s the hell love? What’s the hell a ninja?) — are very rare;

(b) some of the counterparts to (2a) — in particular, those with are and forms of DO in (2b) — are simply unavailable (*What’s the hell [are] they doing? *What’s the hell [did] I just listen to?); and

(c) in any case, the sheer number of expletive examples makes inadvertent blending unlikely as an analysis: in general, these examples look like a pattern (admittedly, a non-standard pattern), rather than a case-by-case production error.

3. Digression on (2a). Not everyone finds examples like (2a) fully acceptable. The problem is that it has SAI (Subject-Auxiliary Inversion) rather than SVP (Subject + VP) in a complement clause; SAI is used in main-clause questions:

What is / What’s  the tactic? [main-clause WH question; SAI]

Does anyone see what the tactic is? [WH complement clause with see; SVP]

%Does anyone see  what is / what’s  the tactic? [WH complement clause with see; SAI]

(This last case isn’t covered in my survey of SAI vs. SVP, here.)

SAI in subordinate clauses is a well-known (variable) feature of AAVE (He aks me did I do it), where it coexists with (variable) lack of SAI in main clauses (Why you don’t like me?), but SAI in speaker-oriented indirect questions has been reported for many non-AAVE speakers as well:

%I asked him when will dinner be ready. [speaker-oriented]

*I told him when will dinner be ready. [addressee-oriented]

The upshot is that (2a) is available for some, but not all, speakers. If you don’t accept (2a), then (1) can’t be a blend for you.

4. Excrescent ‘s. My summary of types of “extra -s” (here) includes two cases where the s represents what was historically as: in the all’s of All’s I know is that … (with relativizer as historically) and in the so’s of I did it so’s you’d be happy (with resultative so as historically). Speakers who use these forms these days don’t appreciate their history; for these speakers, such uses of all’s and so’s are simply variants of (standard) all and so — somewhat weightier and more emphatic variants.

These two make one possible historical source for other instances of excrescent ‘s. Another possible source is the contraction of is with WH words, yielding (as in what’s the hell going on above) an apparently unanalyzable unit, which can then combine with following material, giving things like

how’s about, how’s come, what’s about, what’s if, how’s to, what’s else

(with various spelling variants, like howsabout, howzabout, etc.), which I posted about extensively on ADS-L in 2006, with plenty of citations. These developments are relatively recent; in 2006, Ben Zimmer reported that how’s about

begins showing up (particularly in entertainment and sports columns) in 1933, sometimes in quotes — a fair indicator of the phrase’s novelty. Variants start appearing shortly thereafter.

The next development was for the ‘s to be moved to the end of its constituent (how about’s, how come’s, and what about’s) or duplicated there (how’s about’s, how’s come’s, and what’s about’s). In any case, the ‘s has come to be viewed as simply providing a weightier and more emphatic variant. Which can then be extended to expletive extensions of WH words (giving emphatic what’s the hell is for plain what the hell is, and similar variants).


One Response to “Excrescent ‘s

  1. on many’s the Saturday night | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] spent some time on -s: see here and here, and especially on “excrescent -s” here, From the […]

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