Bits of culture

… and truncated expressions. From Sam Anderson’s “New Sentences” column in the NYT Magazine on the 20th (on-line) and 25th (in print), “From Morgan Parker’s ‘There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé’”, about ‘Summertime and the living is extraordinarily difficult’:

Every culture is a vast carpet of interwoven references: clichés, fables, jingles, lullabies, warnings, jokes, memes. To be a part of that culture means that it only takes a few words, the tiniest head fake, to set your mind racing along a familiar track. You can lead a horse to. There once was a man from. When the moon hits your eye. If you liked it then you shoulda.

One trick of art is to constantly invoke — and then manipulate and complicate — these familiar mental scripts. The artist sets your mind on a well-worn road, and then, just as you settle into that automatic groove, yanks you suddenly in another direction. It’s the same trick as a crossover dribble. Great art is always, if you will, breaking your mind’s ankles.

— From Morgan Parker’s “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” (Tin House Books, 2017, Page 30). Parker, a poet and an editor, is also the author of “Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.”

Anderson continues:

In [section 4 of] her poem “The Book of Negroes,” Morgan Parker hits us with a nasty crossover in the very first sentence. She invokes one of the most famous opening lines in American music — Gershwin’s “Summertime, and the living is easy” — a cultural script so powerful that, even without music, even as just words on a page, our internal orchestras automatically swell, and we hear the mournful crooning of Billie Holiday or Sam Cooke or Janis Joplin or Billy Stewart or Bradley Nowell of the band Sublime — whichever version you happen to know best. The familiar melody unrolls, slowly. “Summertime, and the living is. … ”

Just as we reach that final, crucial word, however, Morgan replaces “easy” with its opposite: “extraordinarily difficult.” It’s a perfect little moment of comic whiplash. A negative in place of a positive. Two clunky Latinate words in place of the easy “easy.” And it tells us, very clearly, that what’s coming is not what we have been taught to expect.

You can read the full poem in the appendix to this posting.

Filling in the reference. Anderson gives four examples of formulaic expressions (a proverb, a classic limerick, two lines from familiar songs) that can easily be “filled in” given their beginnings, plus the Gershwin song from Parker’s poem:

You can lead a horse to [water, but you can’t make it drink] – proverb

There once was a man from [Nantucket…] – limerick, with many continuations, many of them vulgar (with rhyming “suck it”, “fuck it”)

When the moon hits your eye [like a big pizza pie] – song (“That’s Amore”, made famous by Dean Martin in 1953)

If you liked it, then you shoulda [put a ring on it] – song (Beyoncé’s 2008 “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”)

Summertime, and the living is [easy] – Gershwin song

For any one of these, you could say, or write, the initial part as set-up and convey either the following part or the content of the entire formula, as tacit pay-off. When the moon hits your eye can convey ‘That’s love’. You can lead a horse (to) can convey ‘You can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to’. There once was a man from can convey ‘Fuck it!’.

There’s a conversational strategy here: producing just the beginning of a formula can convey the whole thing; conversational truncation — just truncation, for short — is an effort-saving scheme (and also serves to bond speaker and hearer socially, through their sharing the materials of culture).

Such nonce truncations (as I called them in a 3/7/10 posting here) are very common. A few examples from the many in my files (mostly based on idioms):

[in a Cold Case episode] You think he had a snowball’s chance [in hell]?

Law & Order S12 E9 “3 Dawg Night” (2001), cop: “Why not kill two birds [with one stone]?

Law & Order S4 E4: ‘Everyone swears on a stack [of bibles]: perfect marriage”

take a load off [your feet] – heard on a CSI re-run 5/24/16

I get the motivation from my boys winning, never did it with a co-sign / We built the whole machine, we go the whole nine [yards] – lyrics to “The Whole Nine” by Packy

They really went above and beyond [the call of duty] – TripAdvisor review of The Fairmount Express in Victoria BC

Discussion: conventionalization. If a conversational truncation is made sufficiently often, hearers will be inclined to understand the truncated version as an idiom or construction in its own right (and not as a skillful manipulation of language in use); the truncated version becomes conventionalized. The process will obviously proceed at different rates for different people, but eventually the historical source can come to be no longer psychologically salient. So we end up with, for example, the idiom trip the light fantastic ‘dance’, once a truncated version of the Shakespearean [correction: Miltonian; see comments] quotation trip the light fantastic toe. (Some of my conversational truncation cases — have a snowball’s chance, take a load off, go above and beyond — are probably moving in this direction.)

And on a somewhat larger scale, from the topic-restricting constructions as far as X is concerned / as far as X goes, by tuncation we get as far as X, and that eventually becomes (despite a considerable amount of disapproval from usage advisers) a topic-restricting construction on its own. The development, which began in the early 19th century, is tracked in detail in:

John R. Rickford; Thomas A. Wasow; Norma Mendoza-Denton; & Juli Espinoza. Syntactic variation and change in progress: Loss of the verbal coda in topic-restricting as far as constructions. Lg 71.1.102-31 (1995)

A roughly similar development, from no matter what X is to no matter what X (but without the usageists’ disdain), is sketched in my 8/29/09 posting “May I truncate?”

Discussion: related phenomena. From my 6/30/15 posting “That goes without”, about I can’t even and related phenomena:

this formal feature — omission of material that “goes without saying” — is very widespread.

… ellipsis and truncation. There are two large classes of phenomena here, both characterized by omission of material that has to be supplied by the hearer.

In [syntactic] ellipsis, the omitted material is anaphoric, understood by reference to some antecedent in the linguistic context.

… In [conversational] truncation, on the other hand, material is omitted when it can (at least you hope) be reconstructed on the basis of common-sense reasoning, with no requirement for a linguistic antecedent.

The modifiers added in square brackets above are to make it clear that the term ellipsis here refers to a grammatical, in particular syntactic, phenomenon, while the term truncation here refers to a phenomenon of language use. (On the contrast, see the handout for my 1999 Forum Lecture at the LSA’s Linguistic Institute, on “The grammar and the user’s manual”.)

There are further distinctions to be made here. On the grammatical side, in addition to a number of types of anaphoric ellipsis, there’s also omission of elements in argument structure, for instance the “indefinite object deletion / omission” with certain otherwise transitive verbs (as in Terry ate quickly). And in addition, there’s a kind of truncation in morphology rather than syntax (giving new lexical items, like attending ‘attending physician’ and graveyard ‘graveyard shift’), a phenomenon I now refer to as beheading rather than truncation; see my 12/3/17 posting “Off with their heads!” and the Page on beheadings on this blog.

Then in the world of usage phenomena, there’s a difference between nonce omission of material at the end of an utterance unit and at the beginning, between back and front (conversational) truncation. Back truncation is (largely) tied to formulaic expressions of all kinds and depends on the hearer’s ability to supply material from familiar formulas. Front truncation, as in You wanna go? and Wanna go? as alternatives to Do you wanna go?, or  Thing is, we have to leave as an alternative to The thing is, we have to leave — which I’ve written about occasionally under the heading of initial material deletion — is (largely) tied to the phonological and semantic lightness of the omitted material.

Then there’s an alternative account of what’s going on in some occurrences of back truncation. In  my 7/5/15 posting “I can’t even”, I quote from a letter to the NYT about this usage:

I’m old, but it’s obvious what ‘‘I can’t even’’ means: an expression of high feeling so powerful that the expression itself cannot be completed.

It’s a respectable and familiar rhetorical device called aposiopesis, defined as ‘‘a sudden breaking off of a thought in the middle of a sentence, as if the speaker were unwilling or unable to continue.’’

My comment:

This is an alternative to my suggestion that the formula is a truncation, used when the speaker thinks that it’s not necessary to continue the sentence, because hearers can supply a range of relevant continuations; the completions “go without saying”.

Even if it is (sometimes) aposiopoetic, it does seem to have conventionalized fairly rapidly: I can’t even (together with its variants) is now an idiom on its own.

Appendix. “The Book of Negroes”


You see the commercial on BET
while you’re painting your nails.

The women are only crying.
The cabins are dull. You’re trying

to text this dude. Negro, please,
why sleep when the world so bad.

Twisted golden butt in ash. You crazy.
D’Angelo. Slum Village. That good good

memory of skin. For him you would
be pumice shined to pearl.

He makes you wanna write your name.


This book is spit, cum, cloud cover.
We Definite people.

This book is about lying down quietly.
No one wrote the blessing of our ankles

in foamy water. We always emerge.
We sing because we cannot bear the heat.

We wear black. We cannot bear the heat.
We don’t call the police. We fill bathtubs with

windchimes and lower them in the ground.
We Nothing left.

This book is uncorrected proof. You read it
on your eyelids. You sleep under it.

You give it away. You tear out whole chapters.
You say you read it but you didn’t.


What to a slave is the fourth of july.
What to a woman is a vote.
What to a slave is an award show.
What to a slave is a story book.
What to a slave is fine china.
What to a woman is a canopy bed.
What to a slave is the hard sky.
What to a woman is the bottom of a glass.
What to a slave are flatlands from an aircraft.
What to a woman is a missed call.
What to a woman is the milky way.
What to a slave is a square technically it’s perfect.


Summertime and the living is
extraordinarily difficult. The sunset

seems unimportant. It becomes
a calm. Sunglasses, white

wine spritzers. Would you hate yourself
less if you picked your fruit from trees.

You prefer friends to remain
in train stations. What side the mountain

is home. You were not invited
into the orange groves.

Sometimes you go outside
and control is possible.

Everybody has an opinion.
Everything rolls off your shoulders.

[Addendum: The poem deserves some extended analysis — among other things, for the way in which it shifts into and out of AAVE.]

3 Responses to “Bits of culture”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The light fantastic toe is Miltonian rather than (as well as?) Shakespearean; from Milton’s L’Allegro:

    Com, and trip it as you go
    On the light fantastic toe….

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Note to self: never rely on memory. Memory is a devious idiot.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        Well, my memory was solidified in this instance by having sung Handel’s setting of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso more than once, but I still went to Google to make sure I quoted the lines correctly.

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