You look pretty dirty

What her mother says to Ruthie in a vintage One Big Happy comic strip that came up in my comics feed some time ago:

How to understand the sentence (X) You look pretty dirty? Ruthie’s mother intends X to be understood as something like ‘You look rather dirty’, while Ruthie understands X as “You look pretty when you’re dirty’ — no doubt a willful misunderstanding, finding a compliment in her mother’s words — and responds accordingly

Lexical ambiguity. First, the ambiguity of X is attributable to the ambiguity of a particular word, in this case the word pretty, representing two lexical items pretty, belonging to two different syntactic categories: one a (predicative) adjective in X (the first complement of the linking verb look in what I’ll call the double predicative construction); the other a (degree) adverbial in X (modifying the adjective dirty).

On the crucial word, from NOAD:

adj. pretty [used both as attributive and predicative]: [a] attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful or handsome: a pretty little girl with an engaging grin. [b] [attributive] informal used ironically in expressions of annoyance or disgust: it is a pretty state of affairs when a young fellow prefers the company of Italian fiddlers to taking possession of his own first command. [degree] adv. [modifying an adj.] pretty: to a moderately high degree; fairly: he looked pretty fit for his age.

Structural ambiguity. But, second, the ambiguity of X also refects a difference in syntactic structure: whether pretty dirty is syntactic constituent (as Ruthie’s mother intends), or whether pretty and dirty are the two complements of the linking verb look in the double predicative construction (in Ruthie’s inventive interpretation).

(It’s not at all uncomon for lexical and structural ambiguity to go hand-in-hand, as here.)

The double predicative, or dp. Here I’m attempting to describe the facts in terms of argument structures and constructions that assemble the parts of such structures into constituents — in a rather abstract — and intentionally pretheoretical — way.

The argument structure of dp: a V (from the class of linking verbs: be, become, seem, feel, look, sound, etc.), plus a Subject argument (SU) for this verb and two Complement arguments for it:

— a Subject-Predicative (SU-Pred) argument, semantically characterizing SU (Ruthie looks pretty);

— a State-Predicative (St-Pred) argument, semantically characterizing a concomitant state of SU that’s relevant to SU-Pred’s characterization of SU (Ruthie’s looking pretty holds when she is dirty)

Some alternative SU-Preds to the one-word AdjPs pretty and beautiful:

more elaborate AdjPs: pretty as anything, surprisingly beautiful

NPs: a pretty girl, a (real) beauty

Some alternative St-Preds to the one-word AdjP dirty:

more elaborate AdjPs: dirty as sin, really dirty

PPs: in grime, in pink (clothes), without clothing

participial VPs: wearing pink (clothes), covered with dirt

adverbial subordinate clauses: whenever you wear pink, while you’re thinking, when you’re dirty, after you’ve taken a shower

Now, assembling syntactic constituents from the arguments of dp. In particular, the V combines with a following SU-Pred and a St-Pred, in that order to make a VP: look pretty dirty, become a beauty in pink clothes, be surprisingly beautiful covered with dirt — a VP that can then combine with a SU to make a clause (like Ruthie is surprisingly beautiful covered with dirt)

(I’m treating these as three-part VPs, but nothing hinges on that; it might be that the V combines with a SU-Pred to make a small VP constituent (like be surprisingly beautiful), which then combines with a St-Pred to form a full VP (like be surprisingly beautiful covered with dirt).)

2 Responses to “You look pretty dirty”

  1. Mitch4 Says:

    With a little less context (this would be inappropriate for “One Big Happy”), I was about to read your post title as though it had a comma, giving “You look pretty, dirty” — that is, “look pretty when you are [being, acting] dirty”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      This is subtle, so I suppressed it in my posting, but what I wrote was about St-Preds that are really in the VP. What you have here (note the comma) is a loosely adjoined St-Pred functioning as a sentence adverbial. So roughly paraphrasable as “Dirty, you look pretty”. (I’m not sure why sentence-adverbial “dirty” is dirtier — for you and me — than VP-internal “dirty”.)

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