What’s wrong with this verb?

From July 18th, Jon Lighter in ADS-L:

[1] A television journalist with an English accent reports from Jordan that after the Tennessee gunman “came back [to the U.S.], he drunk drove.” This reveals the deadly seductiveness of the New Syntax: “drive drunk” takes no longer to say and is arguably more euphonious.

Lighter has a long history of scornfully criticizing innovative back-formed verbs like this one (to drunk drive / drunk-drive). His plaint is that in general there’s no justification for innovating new verbs when we already have a way to express the meaning, though the innovation might be defended if it provided a briefer alternative to the existing expression, which is not the case here; moreover, he assumes that the reason people innovate such verbs is merely to sound fashionable, a motive he deprecates.

There’s a lot to be said in response. I’ll start with some background about syntax and morphology and then move to the functions of innovative morphology and some sage observations by Larry Horn.

Synthetic compounds. We start with an alternation between syntactic constructions and morphological ones, in which a non-subject argument of a verb corresponds to the initial element of a compound word with a fixed form of the verb (most commonly the PRP, or –ing, form) as head:

VP to ride (on) a bicycle  <—>  bicycle-riding

VP to fish with a spear <—>  spear-fishing

VP to drive (while) drunk <—->  drunk-driving

At first, synthetic compounds with PRP heads have only this form, though they’re usable in any function available for a PRP: nominal (Bicycle-riding is great fun), adjectival (Bicycle-riding children are not welcome in the park), verbal (We are bicycle-riding through Provence), adverbial (Let’s go bicycle-riding).

Two-part back-formed verbs. Synthetic compounds are prone to extend their inflectional morphology to a full paradigm: not just PRP drunk-driving, but also BSE in to drunk-drive, PSP in has drunk-driven, FIN in drunk-drives and drunk-drove. Drunk-drive then becomes a two-part back-formed verb (2pbfV). (2pbfVs can have other types of sources: gay-marry from gay marriage, for instance.

The functions of back-formation. Now from the handout from a paper (“Brevity plus”) I gave at the 11th Stanford Semantics Fest in 2010, in which I focused on category conversions (that is, that is, conversions from one category to another) in English, in particular zero conversions (direct verbings and nounings) and subtractive conversions (back-formations):

1. the innovation and spread of lexical items very often is favored by considerations of brevity: items are invented by some people and adopted by others because they are more compact than earlier expressions

[2. digression: other reasons for the innovation and spread of these items, not having to do with formal considerations:

2.1. they often have the virtue of novelty, suggesting fashion, ostentatious cleverness, or playfulness;

2.2. they usually have the virtue of contextual or social specificity, via ties to specific contexts, like sports, journalism, business, radio/television, the tech world, gaming, etc., or to specific social groups, like young people, Australians, women, etc.]

3. these innovations also frequently (perhaps almost always) have the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity; they allow for shadings of meaning that are fuzzed over in the older expressions (which, typically, have radiated and generalized in their meanings over the years)

3.1. often the result is that the innovation has a semantics that is the semantics of the older expression plus something (as in this Language Log posting – “Y is X plus something” – where the focus is not on recent innovations, or innovations believed to be recent, but instead on long-standing choices like difficult vs. hard, nearly n vs. almost n, however vs. but as contrastive connectives, lot vs. much/many)

3.2. the extra something in these cases is variously described as a nuance, connotation, suggestion, implicature, or presupposition; here I won’t explore questions about the formal analysis of the extra something in particular cases – in any case, [they exhibit] semantic/pragmatic specificity

You will see that, unlike Lighter (with his focus on communicative efficiency) I do not dismiss fashion and other social factors, though my concentration is on semantic/pragmatic specificity.

Larry Horn on semantic/pragmatic specificity. Horn, in ADS-L on the 18th, doesn’t dispute Lighter in [1] above, but goes on:

the New Syntax is accompanied with a New Semantics.  I venture to suggest that for someone to choose the journalist’s version … considers “to drunk-drive” as denoting a different action from that of “to drive”, even when the latter is post-modified by the depictive, “to drive drunk”.  “To drunk-drive”, with its incorporation, as is a lexical verb (not a verb phrase), is closer to the sense of “to commit drunk-driving”.  Compare “he walked in his sleep” with “he sleepwalked” (or, depending on your druthers, “he sleptwalked”).  I think what makes the new backformed verb seductive is that it allows the speaker/writer to allude to the special (and presumably for him/her reprehensible) nature of the action.  It would be much less seductive to backform verbs incorporating other manner modifiers, e.g. “I was late so I fast-drove”, “My children were in the back so I careful(ly)-drove”, because there’s no specific category of actions involved here, just different ways to drive.  So I don’t think it’s really “to ___-drive (fill in the blank)”, unless it gets you a new category of actions.

(Quite a number of hits pop up for the New Syntax — or should that be also New Lexicon? — version, most of the first few alluding to a recent event, as in: “Secret service agents drunk drove into White House barrier.”

I’m sure there are other such cases, but I’m not thinking of them at the moment.  If “to skinny-dip” didn’t exist, we could maybe say “they nude-swam”, given that (as in various syntax papers point out) “drunk” and “nude” are among the most frequent depictives.  So let’s try “to nude-sunbathe”.  Yup, a bunch of hits; here are the first few:

– You can’t nude sunbathe with this tip, but this is your only chance to race around your pool stark naked.
– Germans Love To Nude Sunbathe
– She Likes to Nude Sunbathe – I Don’t Want Her To
– When you nude sunbathe, do u keep your legs flat and straight or have them wide open?

That is, to drunk-drive is more specific than to drive drunk, and to nude-sunbathe is more specific than to sunbathe nude.

One Response to “What’s wrong with this verb?”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From John Lawler on Facebook:

    I think Larry’s right. But there’s a qualification. Many of the specificities of the frozen verbs that he mentions are peculiar to the deictic context and interpreted on the spot. Many of the questions and answers encountered daily on ELU Stack Exchange, especially those by native speakers, start off with the presupposition that there HAS to be a meaning difference between two very close lexical items. Often there is; but also often enough, people sieze on some factor as the REAL distinction and then use it themselves. Since there are a lot of variables to sieze on, there are a lot of interpretations available, and they all get used, resulting in situations like using “whom” as a register marker. i.e, individual variation is a feature, not a bug.

    Yes, we’ve commented on this inclination, especially in the linguistically naive, before. (It should get a name. The sophisticated version of it I’ve referred to as Bolinger’s Dictum.)

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