What was We thinking?

The header is the beginning of a piece in the NYT Opinion section on-line on 9/25/19 (in print 9/26), “Open Offices Are a Capitalist Dead End: One story from WeWork’s inevitable blow-up: Our offices offer few spaces for deep work” by Farhad Manjoo. The first two paragraphs:

What was We thinking? That’s the only question worth asking now about the clowncar start-up known as The We Company, the money-burning, co-working behemoth whose best-known brand is WeWork.

What’s a WeWork? What WeWork works on is work. The We Company takes out long-term leases on in-demand office buildings in more than 100 cities across the globe (lately, it’s even been buying its own buildings). Then We redesigns, furnishes and variously modularizes the digs, aiming to profitably sublease small and large chunks of office space to start-ups and even big companies. Well, profitable in theory: The We Company lost $1.7 billion last year.

The business story is remarkable — you don’t see expressions like clowncar start-up in the pages of the NYT very often — but my point here is a narrow linguistic one and (at first glance) an extremely simple one, which is that

Names Is Names (NIN): A proper name is a name.

Which is to say:

A proper name is a (meaningful) expression, and not merely a form. So that, in general, a proper name has the morphosyntax appropriate to any expression with the referent of that name.

/wi/ (conventionally spelled We) is the name of a company and consequently has the morphosyntax of such a name: 3sg verb agreement (We is ambitious), possessive /wiz/ (We’s business model), etc.  — like /ǽpǝl/ (conventionally spelled Apple): Apple is ambitious, Apple’s business model. The fact that English also has a 1pl pronoun /wi/ (conventionally spelled we) — (we are ambitious, our business model) — is entertaining, but essentially irrelevant, even though the name of the company was chosen with the pronoun in mind. The name was a little joke, a pun on the slant, and now Farhad Manjoo for the NYT has wielded it for a bigger joke, salting his article with instances of conspicuously 3sg (rather than 1pl) We.

Well, I will say a bit about the business story, because it’s funny-awful all on its own, and I’ll say a little more about NIN, both when it’s sturdy and straightforward (as here) and when it’s entangled in complexities.

A big hat tip to Sim Aberson, who alerted me to the pleasures of the Manjoo piece; I’d already gotten the skinny on the We Company from a dead-serious (but still gripping) piece in the NYT Business section on-line on 9/24/19 (in print 9/25), “WeWork C.E.O. Adam Neumann Steps Down Under Pressure” by  David Gelles, Michael J. de la Merced, Peter Eavis and Andrew Ross Sorkin. But I’d missed Manjoo’s piece. Sim notes some of its stand-out subject-verb agreements, starting with the

We redesigns, furnishes and variously modularizes the digs

above and going on to

We stands out for its brazenness.
We is saddled with a self-evidently faulty business model
We is considering laying off up to a third of its work force.
We wasn’t thinking.

The business plan involved creating large numbers of temporary open-office spaces all over the world, with the expectation that office and (especially) technical workers would set up in these places for various spans of time. This required an enormous infusion of start-up investment. But, not to worry: Adam Neumann was some kind of genius at talking big investors into throwing piles of money at him. Here he is in mid-shtick:

… wearing a jokey t-shirt, with We (a proper name) as the object of the preposition by

A lot of money went in, but not much came out. Meanwhile, there are serious questions about what the office of the future should, or will, look like.

The power of NIN, and some messy spots. The case of /wi/ is really very simple, but there are some messier NIN cases out there.

A relatively straightforward one: plural proper names of businesses — restaurants, for instance. A restaurant is an entity much like a business company (legally, restaurants are business companies, but we’re talking ordinary language here, not legal language), so we would expect that the names of restaurants will have the morphosyntax of a 3sg nominal. Mostly, these names have the form of a 3sg nominal; some examples in Palo Alto:

Oren’s Hummus, Coupa Café, St. Michael’s Alley, Blue Bottle Coffee, Tin Pot Creamery, Anatolian Kitchen, Gravity Bistro, Birch Street, Pizzeria Delfina, Gordon Biersch, Coconuts Caribbean Restaurant, Village Cheese House, Peet’s Coffee

A special case: stand-alone possessives understood as having an unexpressed head N: Oren’s, St. Michael’s, Peet’s, etc. So, once again, 3sg nominals.

Then a minor complexity: the occasional restaurant with a name that’s clearly 3pl in form. For example: the SF restaurants Outerlands (in the Outer Sunset) and Sons & Daughters (in Union Square), the NYC restaurant Quality Eats (in the West Village). Plus Coconuts in Palo Alto, which is clearly abbreviated. Whether or not you think of such names as abbreviations, they are all 3sg (Sons & Daughters is/*are in Union SquareQuality Eats offers /*offer good food at reasonable prices). Because the referents of these names are restaurants.

Then a major complexity with certain proper names that are 3pl in form — in particular, band names. To avoid  problems that arise from conventions affecting specific band names, consider a made-up pl band name (almost any example I invent will probably have been used by some band, sometime, somewhere, but bear with me anyway and suppose you are hearing the band name for the first time), say: Hot Mice (a name I’ve wanted to use for years; it’s ultimately related, erroneously, to the French for ‘bats’), Awesome Pencils, Fracked Tongues.

So is it Hot Mice is playing here tonight or Hot Mice are playing here tonight? And so on for the others.

People dither. Often they will come up with situations where they’d prefer one or the other, but basically the answer is: either is possible. In real life, sometime the bands themselves will have opinions, sometimes one variant has become fixed (the name The Beatles is always pl), but generally both variants are in principle allowable. Because a band can be treated as a holistic referent which happens to have parts (and so as syntactically sg) or as a gathering of individuals (and so as syntactically pl).

So it turns out that NIN is still at work here: what’s at issue is the nature of the referent, not the form of the proper name. But it’s complex (and I’m hiding another level of complexity from you — a level at which only We is probably going under is an acceptable verb agreement (sg), but We have announced contractions in the business (with pl agreement) is acceptable for certain groups of (British) speakers in reference to the parent company of WeWork, as well as in reference to you and me together).


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