“The hell is that guy doing?”: predator-truncated QuEx

The word from predators, in this Jake Likes Onions cartoon (by Jake Thompson):


(#1) Title: “Maybe he’s running from the truth”

Predator 2 omits the what of what the hell (in a Wh, or constituent, question What is that guy doing? with the question word what emphatically extended by the expletive the hell).

About the syntax, and then about the strip and the artist…

(Hat tip to Melinda Shore.)

Truncations, front and back, conversational and conventionalized. Material at the margins of sentences, front (initial) or back (final), is often omissible in informal conversation — because it’s predictable from the remainder of the material in the sentence or from context (and, especially for initial material, because it’s both semantically and phonologically light). Typical (attested) examples:

initial truncation [aka initial material deletion]: Turns out that, again like Stonewall, someone is making a movie about it. [omitted: it]

final truncation [aka just truncation]: England expects, Jones. [omitted: every man to do his duty]

Many truncations are nonce omissions, off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment events, crafted to save effort for the speaker while still getting the intended message across to the addressee, who has to work out what the speaker was getting at; that’s surely the case for the England expects example. Call these conversational truncations.

But through repeated use, some truncations can become conventionalized for some people: they no longer require calculation on the part of such people as speaker or addressee, but are just new linguistic forms for them, new constructions (or idioms). Brief discussion in my 3/29/18 posting “Bits of culture”, with the examples of the development from as far as X is concerned / as far as X goes by truncation to as far as X, which is then conventionalized as a topic-restricting construction on its own; and from no matter what X is by truncation to no matter what X, which is then conventionalized as a concessive construction on its own.

This conventionalization seems to be in progress for the truncation of what the hell/fuck questions (in what I’ll call the QuEx construction, for short), as in the cartoon. And in this 3/26/13 posting “Truncated what the fuck“, about an example from an interview that has

the fuck standing for what the fuck.

… I don’t recall having seen or heard this truncation before, and it’s hard to search for without picking up lots of occurrences of the full idiom. (Similarly for the hell as a truncation of what the hell.)

Searching is indeed difficult, but I’ve managed to find one more the hell example, from the CHEEZburger site:


(#2) Title: “The Hell Is That?!”

The 2013 posting goes on to distinguish truncated QuEx (TruncQuEx) from another expletive-initial construction, used for dismissal or denial, as in the defiant response The hell/fuck I will! (I’ll call it NoWayF for short).

The constructions (untruncated) QuEx and NoWayF in a 12/27/17 posting “Expletive syntax: I will marry the crap out of you, Sean Spencer”, in an inventory of constructions using expletives:

6. QuEx: interrogative postnominal expletive. An interrogative (not relative) word (not phrase) with a postmodifying definite expletive (the hell / heck / fuck / shit) or locative PP (in (thehell / on earth / in the world):

e.g., What the fuck / the hell / in hell / on earth were you thinking? I wonder where the hell / the shit / in the world I put my glasses.

There is a modest literature on this fascinating construction.

5.  NoWayF: dismissal/denial the hell/fuckmodifying a following elliptical clause. The pattern is: the Ex + Pro Aux (with VPE), conveying ‘no way Pro Aux, Pro Aux not’:

e.g., the hell you are ‘no way you are, you are not’, the fuck he will, the hell they can

There’s a large collection of examples (from 1845 through 1998) in GDoS

[Note. Both TruncQuEx and NoWayF are main-clause phenomenon (not generally acceptable in embedded clauses); as a result, they’re essentially restricted to sentence-initial, not merely clause-initial, position.]

[Further note. There’s another path for the development of TruncQuEx, regardless of its position within sentences: what I’ll call the Generalized Jespersen Cycle, generalized from the history of negation in several languages. Brutally simplified from the history of French:

(a) ne marks plain clausal negation; (b) emphatic negation is marked by ne plus one of several emphatic extensions; (c) the particular extension pas ‘(a) step’ becomes specialized in this emphatic function; (d) pas is increasingly reanalyzed as the primary marker of clause negation; (e) ne becomes optional.

Then the new primary negator will itself pick up emphatic extensions, and the cycle turns on.

From Tracking Jespersen’s cycle (by Paul Kiparsky & Cleo Condoravdi), in M. Janse, B.D. Joseph, & A. Ralli (edd.), Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference of Modern Greek Dialects and Linguistic Theory (Mytilene: Doukas, 2006):

Observation of such patterns of change in Germanic and Romance negation led Jespersen (1917 [Negation in English and Other Languages]) to posit a historical process of repeated weakening and reinforcement now known as JESPERSEN’S CYCLE, which he summarized as follows:

. . . the original negative adverb is first weakened, then found insufficient and therefore strengthened, generally through some additional word, and this in turn may be felt as the negative proper and may then in the course of time be subject to the same development as the original word. (Jespersen 1917:4)

The development of TruncQuEx could be seen as parallel, with the emphatic (expletive) extension coming to be reanalyzed as the primary subordinator, so that the Wh element is omissible.

(I’m not offering this proposal as a competitor to the initial-truncation proposal, but rather as a possible reinforcement of it.)]

Jake Thompson and his cartoons. Thompson has been drawing the Jake Likes Onions webcomic for several years (and is now being carried by GoComics); check out his website, or follow him on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. And consider his book:


(#3) Note the stick-figure faces

His cartoons are often darkly funny and sometimes raunchy. Three further examples. First a penguin toon that’s really about guys (and butt sex):


(#4) Title: “penguins are just like us”

Then Thompson’s version of Labels Are Not Definitions:


(#5) Title: “Labels are bad”

And a strip on one of the senses of straight:


(#6) Title: “Okay less straight than that”

From NOAD, the run-down on senses of the adjective straight and the relevant entry for the adverb straight (with the relevant senses boldfaced):

adj. straight:1 extending or moving uniformly in one direction only; without a curve or bend: a long, straight road. [with various specialized uses] 2 properly positioned so as to be level, upright, or symmetrical: he made sure his tie was straight. [with various specializations] 3 [a] not evasive; honesta straight answer | thank you for being straight with me. [b] simple; straightforward: a straight choice between nuclear power and penury. [c] (of a look) bold and steady: he gave her a straight, no-nonsense look. [d] (of thinking) clear, logical, and unemotional. [e] not addicted to drugs. 4 [attributive] [a] in continuous succession: he scored his fourth straight win. [b] supporting all the principles and candidates of one political party: he generally voted a straight ticket. 5 (of an alcoholic drink) undiluted; neat: straight brandy. 6 (especially of drama) serious as opposed to comic or musical; employing the conventional techniques of its art form: a straight play. 7 informal [a] (of a person) conventional or respectable: she looked pretty straight in her school clothes. [b] heterosexual.

adv. straight: …3 [a] correctly; clearly: I’m so tired I can hardly think straight. [b] honestly and directly; in a straightforward mannerI told her straight — the kid’s right.

#6 uses sense 3b of the adverb, which is based on sense 3a of the adjective.

Note on graphic style. For the most part, Thompson’s artwork is detailed and wonderfully textural — except that almost all of his human faces are crude stick-figure faces: in #1, dramatically in #3 and #6.

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