??That is aliens for you.

From Mike Pope on Facebook a few days ago, this excerpt from Ian Frazier’s “New York’s Majestic Passage in the Sky: Revamping the Bayonne Bridge to make space for megaships” in the 11/13/17 New Yorker:


Mike wrote:

I can’t decide here whether this is weird. In the New Yorker, a sentence where I think I’d expect a contraction (“That’s xxx for you!”). Is this an editor bending the idiom to house style, or is this a not untypical variant?

Two things: the acceptability of the example (at best, it merits the stigma ?? of great dubiousness); and the circumstances that might have given rise to ??That is aliens for you (not at all clear, but advice on style and usage might be part of the story).

The bigger picture:

(#2) (Photo by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao)

Ian Frazier (born 1951 in Cleveland, Ohio) is an American writer and humorist. He wrote the 1989 non-fiction history Great Plains, 2010’s non-fiction travelogue Travels in Siberia, and worked as a writer and humorist for The New Yorker. [His humor collections include Dating Your Mom (1986) and Coyote v. Acme (1996).] (Wikipedia link)

It’s significant that Frazier is a careful stylist and writes in several genres, including expository non-fiction (as in this New Yorker piece) and humor.

Linguistic background on “contractions”. Two very different phenomena are commonly called “contractions” in popular writing about English; in the orthography, both are written with an apostrophe indicating omitted letters in some class of words (in auxiliary verbs like is and has, written as ‘s; in the negator not, written as n’t), and both have these words written as units with a preceding word (that’s < that is/has; don’t < do not):

Auxiliary Reduction (AuxRed): a “contracted” auxiliary verb is attached to a preceding word. The conditions under which AuxRed is possible are complex; see the reading copy for Pullum & Zwicky’s 1997 LSA talk “Licensing of prosodic features by syntactic rules: The key to Auxiliary Reduction”.

Auxiliary Negation (AuxNeg): the “contracted” negator is attached to a preceding auxiliary verb; in fact, this n’t is properly analyzed as a negative inflection on that auxiliary, as argued by Zwicky & Pullum on clitics and inflections (“Cliticization vs. inflection: English n’t”, Language, 1983).

What these two phenomena share is a sensitivity to style and register, to levels of formality and to contexts of discourse. Crudely, the contracted variants are less formal than their uncontracted counterparts, either because the contracted variant is notably informal or because the uncontracted variant is notably formal — but the details are different for the two types of contraction and also different, within a type, for different subsets of combinations.

In particular, certain words — “little” grammatical words — are especially accommodating hosts for AuxRed: expletive it, expletive there, demonstrative that, interrogative what, who, where, and how, personal pronouns I, you, it, she, he, we, they, complementizer and relativizer that. With these, unreduced auxiliaries are likely to convey either notable formality or emphasis.

As a result, an informal-style idiom that has one of these accommodating hosts followed by the very easily reducible auxiliary is is very likely to be frozen in its AuxRed version: the formality of the unreduced auxiliary would conflict fatally with the informal style of the idiom as a whole. So we get “obligatory AuxRed idioms like these two:

How’s the boy? ‘How are you?’ (a greeting from a man to a male familiar)

What’s up? ‘What is the matter?’ or ‘What is happening?’

And, apropos of #1:

That’s NP for you ‘That’s characteristic of NP’, ‘That’s the way NP is/are’

So: That’s aliens for you ‘That’s the way aliens are’, but ??That is aliens for you.

[Digression. You might be inclined to pick on the apparent number disagreement in That is aliens for you as the problem: sg verb is, pl predicate nominal aliens. But (a) subject-verb agreement (agreement here with sg subject that) trumps predicate-verb agreement, as in It was artichokes that I bought; and (b) the problem with That is NP for you persists with a sg NP (where there’s no number conflict), as you can see from the following variant of the passage in #1:

He is at home when the monster Damien appears. It looms over the K.V.K. from the Newark Bay side and shoots rays at the bridge and smashes it to smithereens. That is Damien for you.

— also decidedly odd.

(Digression within the digression: note the -AuxRed He is at home in the passage, which isn’t problematic; this is a context in which ±AuxRed variants are both acceptable.)]

Advice about “contractions”. There’s a school tradition for banning contractions, of both types, in all kinds of writing — on the belief that contractions are suitable only for informal speech, and not for formal speech or any kind of writing. Many people — I am one — can recall suffering various sorts of penalties for using even one it’s or don’t in a school essay.

Somewhat hedged versions of this bizarre prohibition persist; from the APA Style blog on 12/10/15, “Contractions in Formal Writing: What’s Allowed, What’s Not” by Chelsea Lee:

when it comes to writing, some ways of expressing yourself are more formal than others, and different contexts come with different expectations about what is appropriate. On the informal end of the spectrum you have texts between friends. In the middle of the spectrum you have things like these blog posts. On the formal end of the spectrum, you have the scholarly writing you do for classroom assignments, theses and dissertations, and publications.

Contractions are a part of informal writing. Thus, avoid contractions in scholarly writing, except for under the following circumstances:

– If you are reproducing a direct quotation that contains a contraction (e.g., a quotation from a research participant), leave the contraction as-is.

– If you are writing about contractions (e.g., in a paper about language), naturally you must be able to use contractions as linguistic examples.

– If you are reproducing an idiom that contains a contraction (e.g., “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”), leave the contraction (no need for “do not count your chickens…”). [Do I have to point out the problem here? How on earth is the student supposed to know that they’re faced with an idiom that contains a contraction? That’s linguists’ or lexicographers’ knowledge, not ordinary speakers’ knowledge. All ordinary speakers know about is contracted or not contracted. And you can’t tell them to look it up, because there isn’t any source that tells you which idioms contain a contraction, and even if there were, how would you know when you needed to use it?]

– If you are making an off-the-cuff or informal remark within an otherwise formal paper, it is okay to use a contraction as part of your writing voice. You might find this kind of remark in a footnote or a parenthetical statement. Scientific writing should be formal but it doesn’t have to be stuffy. It is okay to have a moment of informality as long as the overall tone is appropriately formal.

Bryan Garner (Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), p. 198) is more tolerant, up to a point:

Many writers, especially those who write in formal situations, feel uncomfortable with contractions. And perhaps contractions don’t generally belong in solemn contexts.

But why shouldn’t writers use them in most types of writing? Some excellent writers use contractions to good effect, even in books

OMG, even in books!

Garner gives examples from respectable writers, and advice from several authorities who say not to avoid all contractions, in fact to treat some as correct in almost all types of writing, including business and professional writing.

Ian Frazier and the New Yorker. Back to the fact that Ian Frazier’s piece on the Bayonne Bridge did indeed have That is aliens for you in it, rather than That’s aliens for you. Where did it come from?

Ben Yagoda commented on Mike Pope’s posting:

It’s not house style, or, rather, contractions aren’t prohibited in house style. The tenth sentence of the first article from the current magazine listed on newyorker.com [the first thing framed as an article, but the tenth piece – not that that should matter]: “This audience is large enough to make the site one of the twenty most trafficked in the U.S., yet it’s perhaps more apt to measure Twitch against a different medium.”

I agree with you that it’s off. Learning the piece is by Ian Frazier makes sense, as he is often deliberately “off” in his wording.

Ah, a familiar problem here. First, we have what the writer wanted to write. Then, what the writer, taking into account their understanding of the publication’s preferences on usage and style, actually wrote. And finally, what got printed, after the text had been through the hands of copyeditors. A further twist: putative rules of house style are often followed very imperfectly (at the New Yorker specifically, but also more generally). And then looming over all this is the fact that we can’t consult the New Yorker‘s style book, because it doesn’t have one. So who knows where That is aliens for you came from? (Maybe Ian Frazier does, but writers are understandably disinclined to spend their time answering nitpicky questions from academics, unknown to them, about the fine details of their writing process.)

On contractions at the New Yorker, I’ve long thought that the magazine was decidedly wary of them, but that it made a distinction between more formal pieces (of editorial opinion and expository non-fiction) and fluffier less formal ones (humor, shopping, the lighter Talk of the Town features), and that its stace was that of preference rather than rigid rule.

Investigating this idea would be a seriously complex project, but here are a very few notes, from the issue in which Frazier’s Bayonne Bridge piece appeared.

From the first Talk of the Town feature, which is always an editorial column. Here (outside of quotations) I see

-AuxRed: It is shocking that only now, …

-AuxRed: he has apparently been cooperating with Mueller’s team

+AuxRed: it’s not known whether Papadopoulos did this

Expletive it + is is a prime candidate for AuxRed, so the third example isn’t surprising. But that same combination in the first example goes the other way, perhaps to provide a certain amount of weight to the observation by slowing the reader down a bit.

Then in the next two, more informal, pieces, outside of quoted speech, one AuxRed example each:

+AuxRed: The previous day, she’d commuted in from Bensonhurst

+AuxRed: He’d launched it in the wake of news articles that …

Then from the first few paragraphs of Frazier’s expository piece:

-AuxRed: It is the color of lead and looks beat-up and hard-used.

+AuxRed: The beauty of the bridge influenced their decision, as did the fact that it’s a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark

+AuxRed: From where I live in New Jersey, it’s about twenty-five miles to the bridge.

-AuxRed: Sometimes they are in a slow-moving line, and one tug will become impatient and pull out and pass another.

-AuxRed: The maneuver is like carrying a dining-room table through a bedroom door while stepping on slippery carpets.

+AuxRed it’s twice (one referential, one expletive), and one -AuxRed (referential) it’s, again perhaps for some weight. The other combinations are -AuxRed.

Merely exploratory observations, of course.

As Ben Yagoda suggested, That is aliens for you might have been a bit of Frazierian playfulness (which copyeditors who dispreferred contractions would not have noticed). Or it might have been the consequence of such a dispreference, with the added virtue that -AuxRed that is would lend some weight to the sentence, which is a sort of punch line in the text.

One Response to “??That is aliens for you.”

  1. [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes a look, linguistically, at an Ian Frazier phrase: “That is aliens for […]

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