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ENGLISH SENTENCES WITHOUT OVERT GRAMMATICAL SUBJECTS

by Quang Phuc Dong
South Hanoi Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy

There is an exten­sive lit­er­a­ture deal­ing with Eng­lish imper­a­tive sen­tences. As is well known, these sen­tences have no overt gram­mat­i­cal sub­ject: (1) Close the door. There is gen­er­al agree­ment among schol­ars that these sen­tences have deep struc­tures involv­ing an under­ly­ing sub­ject, "you," which is delet­ed by a trans­for­ma­tion.

There is a wide­spread mis­con­cep­tion that utter­ances such as (2) Fuck you, which also appear to have the form of a tran­si­tive verb fol­lowed by a noun phrase and pre­ced­ed by no overt sub­ject, are also imper­a­tive. This paper will study the syn­tax of sen­tences such as (2). While it will offer only a ten­ta­tive con­jec­ture as to what the deep struc­ture of sen­tences such as (2) is, it will at least demon­strate con­clu­sive­ly that they are not imper­a­tives.

One char­ac­ter­is­tic of sen­tences such as (2), which–as has been often noted–is an anom­aly if they are ana­lyzed as imper­a­tives, is the absence of reflex­iviza­tion. While (3) *Assert you, is ungram­mat­i­cal, (2) is not. There are many oth­er anom­alies which are not so wide­ly rec­og­nized. While there are a large num­ber of struc­tures in which imper­a­tives appear either embed­ded in a matrix or with var­i­ous adjuncts …

(4) I said to close the door.
(5) Don't close the door.
(6) Do close the door.
(7) Please close the door.
(8) Close the door, won't you?
(9) Go close the door.
(10) Close the door or I'll take away your ted­dy-bear.
(11) Close the door and I'll give you a dol­lar.

… there are no such sen­tences cor­re­spond­ing to (2) …

(12) *I said to fuck you.
(13) *Don't fuck you.
(14) *Do fuck you.
(15) *Please fuck you.
(16) *Fuck you, won't you?
(17) *Go fuck you.
(18) *Fuck you or I'll take away your ted­dy-bear.
(19) *Fuck you and I'll give you a dol­lar.

Fur­ther, while ordi­nary imper­a­tives can be con­joined with each oth­er, they can­not be con­joined with (2):

(20) Wash the dish­es and sweep the floor.
(21) *Wash the dish­es and fuck you.
(22) *Fuck you and wash the dish­es.

Sim­i­lar­ly, sen­tences such as (20) can be reduced to sen­tences with a con­joined verb if the two con­juncts dif­fer only in the verb; how­ev­er, the fuck of (2) may not appear in such a con­struc­tion:

(23) Clean and press these pants.
(24) *Describe and fuck com­mu­nism.

Like­wise, there are sen­tences con­tain­ing the word fuck which are ambigu­ous between a mean­ing par­al­lel to (1) and a mean­ing par­al­lel to (2): (25) Fuck Lyn­don John­son. This sen­tence can be inter­pret­ed either as an admo­ni­tion to cop­u­late with Lyn­don John­son or as an epi­thet indi­cat­ing dis­ap­proval of that indi­vid­ual but con­vey­ing no instruc­tion to engage in sex­u­al rela­tions with him. When sen­tences with the embed­dings and adjuncts of (4) to (11) and (20) are formed, the result­ing sen­tences allow only the for­mer of these read­ings:

(12a) I said to fuck Lyn­don John­son.
(13a) Don't fuck Lyn­don John­son.
(14a) Do fuck Lyn­don John­son.
(15a) Please fuck Lyn­don John­son.
(16a) Fuck Lyn­don John­son, won't you?
(17a) Go fuck Lyn­don John­son.
(18a) Fuck Lyn­don John­son or I'll take away your ted­dy-bear.
(19a) Fuck Lyn­don John­son and I'll give you a dol­lar.
(20a) Fuck Lyn­don John­son and wash the dish­es.

Con­sid­er­a­tion of these exam­ples makes it fair­ly clear that the fuck of (12a)-(20a) (hence­forth fuck1) and the fuck of (2) (hence­forth fuck2) are two dis­tinct homopho­nous lex­i­cal items. These two lex­i­cal items have total­ly dif­fer­ent selec­tion­al restric­tions, as is shown by the exam­ples:

(26) Fuck these irreg­u­lar verbs.
(27) *John fucked these irreg­u­lar verbs.
(28) Fuck com­mu­nism.
(29) *John fucked com­mu­nism.

More­over, fuck2 has a pecu­liar restric­tion on the deter­min­er of the fol­low­ing noun phrase, a restric­tion not shared by fuck1, name­ly that the deter­min­er must be either def­i­nite or gener­ic …

(30) Fuck these sev­en irreg­u­lar verbs.
(31) Fuck irreg­u­lar verbs.
(32) Fuck all irreg­u­lar verbs.
(33) *Fuck sev­en irreg­u­lar verbs.
(34) *Fuck any irreg­u­lar verb.

… but,

(35) Fuck sev­en old ladies by mid­night or I'll take away your ted­dy-bear.
(36) Fuck any old lady you see.

(The lat­ter two involv­ing fuck1). It should be not­ed that the word "gener­ic" must be inter­pret­ed in a sense such that all is gener­ic (cf. exam­ple (32)) but each is not: (37) *Fuck each irreg­u­lar verb.

Indeed, sub­sti­tu­tion into the frame "Fuck____irregular verb(s)" is an excel­lent diag­nos­tic test for gener­ic­ness. As exam­ple (35) makes clear, the two fucks also dif­fer in their poten­tial for co-occur­ring with adver­bial ele­ments; while (35) is nor­mal, (38) *Fuck you by mid­night. is not.

More­over, note the exam­ples:

(39) Fuck my sis­ter tomor­row after­noon.
(40) *Fuck these irreg­u­lar verbs tomor­row after­noon.
(41) Fuck my sis­ter on the sofa.
(42) *Fuck com­mu­nism on the sofa.
(43) Fuck my sis­ter care­ful­ly.
(44) *Fuck com­plex sym­bols care­ful­ly.

Evi­dent­ly, fuck2 does not allow any adver­bial ele­ments at all. This restric­tion sug­gests that fuck2 not only is dis­tinct from fuck1 but indeed is not even a verb. Chom­sky observes that the adver­bial ele­ments of (39)-(42) are out­side of the verb phrase and that only ele­ments with­in the verb phrase play a role in strict sub­cat­e­go­riza­tion of verbs. That prin­ci­ple would clear­ly be vio­lat­ed if fuck2 were a verb. While the "prin­ci­ple of strict­ly local sub­cat­e­go­riza­tion" pro­posed by Chom­sky is in fact not valid in pre­cise­ly that form, the fact remains that no case has been report­ed of any Eng­lish mor­pheme which is unam­bigu­ous­ly a verb and which allows no adver­bial ele­ments what­ev­er.

Since the only rea­son which has ever been pro­posed for ana­lyz­ing fuck2 as a verb is its appear­ance in a con­struc­tion (that of (2)) which super­fi­cial­ly resem­bles an imper­a­tive but in fact is not, one must con­clude that there is in fact not a scrap of evi­dence in favor of assign­ing fuck2 to the class "verb", and indeed, assign­ing it to that class would force the recog­ni­tion of an anom­alous sub­class of verbs which vio­late oth­er­wise com­plete­ly valid gen­er­al­iza­tions about "verbs".

If fuck2 is not a verb, then what is it? To make some head­way towards answer­ing this ques­tion, let us con­sid­er the fol­low­ing expres­sions, which have much in com­mon with (2):

(45) Damn Lyn­don John­son.
(46) Shit on Lyn­don John­son.
(47) To hell with Lyn­don John­son.
(48) Hooray for Chris­tine Keel­er.

These expres­sions like­wise exclude adver­bial ele­ments and require the fol­low­ing noun phrase to be def­i­nite or gener­ic:

(49) Damn those irreg­u­lar verbs.
(50) *Damn those irreg­u­lar verbs tomor­row.
(51) *Damn sev­en irreg­u­lar verbs.
(52) Shit on all irreg­u­lar verbs.
(53) *Shit on each irreg­u­lar verb.
(54) *Hooray for an irreg­u­lar verb last night.

Only rarely have hypothe­ses been advanced as to the deep struc­ture of expres­sions such as (45)-(48). One hypothe­ses has been that (45) has an under­ly­ing sub­ject God, which is delet­ed. How­ev­er, this pro­pos­al is unten­able since it would exclude the com­plete­ly accept­able sen­tence (55) Damn God. and imply the gram­mat­i­cal­i­ty of the non-sen­tence (56) *Damn Him­self.

It is inter­est­ing that in this respect god­dam works exact­ly like damn:

(57) God­dam God.
(58) *God­dam Him­self.

While the assump­tion of a delet­ed sub­ject, God, has seman­tic plau­si­bil­i­ty in the case of sen­tences such as (46) and (2), such an analy­sis must be reject­ed for the same rea­son as in the case of damn, name­ly, the gram­mat­i­cal­i­ty of (59) Fuck God, (60) Shit on God, and the ungram­mat­i­cal­i­ty of (61) *Fuck Him­self, (62) *Shit on Him­self.

Con­sid­er now the seman­tics of fuck2, damn, to hell with, shit on, hooray for, etc. A sen­tence con­sist­ing of one of these items plus a noun-phrase has nei­ther declar­a­tive nor inter­rog­a­tive nor imper­a­tive mean­ing; one can nei­ther deny nor answer nor com­ply with such an utter­ance. These utter­ances sim­ply express a favor­able or unfa­vor­able atti­tude on the part of the speak­er towards the thing or things denot­ed by the noun-phrase. The fact that they have such a seman­tic inter­pre­ta­tion explains the restric­tion on the deter­min­er of the noun-phrase; the noun-phrase must spec­i­fy a thing or class of things in order for the utter­ance to be seman­ti­cal­ly inter­pretable.

Note fur­ther the pos­si­bil­i­ty of using most of the words in ques­tion with­out any fol­low­ing noun-phrase:

(64) Fuck!
(65) Damn!
(66) Shit!
(67) Hooray!

These sen­tences indi­cate the atti­tude in ques­tion but do not spec­i­fy what object that atti­tude is direct­ed towards by the speak­er.

The fact that sen­tences of the form fuck2 plus NP are not known to be valid­ly ana­lyz­able as NP + VP in deep struc­ture, the fact that they are not embed­d­a­ble in any sen­tences, and the fact that they allow none of the adjuncts which all oth­er sen­tences allow, makes high­ly plau­si­ble the hypoth­e­sis that they should not even be ana­lyzed as sentences–that the cat­e­go­ry "utter­ance" be divid­ed into two sub­cat­e­gories, "sen­tence" and "epi­thet" (the lat­ter class includ­ing utter­ances such as (2), (46) and (64)), that only "sen­tence" and not "epi­thet" be embed­d­a­ble with­in an utter­ance, that "epi­thet" involve a lex­i­cal cat­e­go­ry of "qua­si-verbs" (this cat­e­go­ry con­sist­ing of fuck2, shit on, etc.), that there be a phrase-struc­ture rule Epi­thet –> Qua­si-verb NP and that "Qua­si-verb" appear in no oth­er phrase-struc­ture rule.

In clos­ing, I should men­tion cer­tain prob­lems which I have not dealt with and which the read­er should be aware of. First, there is the mat­ter of stress in "epi­thets." I know of no non-ad-hoc treat­ment of the stress dif­fer­ence between:

(78) Fuck you.
(79) Damn you.

More­over, qua­si-verbs have a ten­den­cy to take pri­ma­ry stress. Stress may dis­am­biguate (63) (although the dis­tinc­tion is lost when con­trastive stress is placed on the NP):

(80) Shit on the car­pet. (= Fuck2 the car­pet.)
(81) Shit on the car­pet. (= Defe­cate on the car­pet.)

A sec­ond mat­ter which deserves a full treat­ment is the process of his­tor­i­cal change where­by nor­mal lex­i­cal items become qua­si-verbs. I con­jec­ture that fuck2 arose his­tor­i­cal­ly from fuck1, although the pauci­ty of cita­tions of fuck makes the philo­log­i­cal val­i­da­tion of this con­jec­ture dif­fi­cult. How­ev­er, it is clear­ly no acci­dent that many qua­si-verbs are homopho­nous with nor­mal mor­phemes.

South Hanoi Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy
Revised ver­sion, Feb. 5, 1967
WE SUPPORT OUR BOYS IN THE U.S. EMBASSY, SAIGON.

(Here's the begin­ning of an expla­na­tion of the above) …

Date: Sat, 2 Oct 93 10:04:55 ‑04Haj = Quang, not
From: Randy Allen Har­ris raha@watarts.uwaterloo.ca>
Sub­ject: Haj = Quang, not

"Quang Phuc Dong" is a nom de guerre (lin­guis­tique) … of James D. McCaw­ley, who "cre­at­ed the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field of porno­lin­guis­tics and scat­olin­guis­tics vir­tu­al­ly on his own" (Zwicky, viii).

Ross, under the name "E. Clifton Gamahuche", took the first and only steps towards devel­op­ing meta­porno­lin­guis­tics, with his "Con­junc­tive Order­ing" (where, among oth­er obser­va­tions, he notes that in the absence of Cop­u­la agree­ment, the only option is Reflex­iviza­tion).

Quang's, Gamahuche's, and sim­i­lar­ly mind­ed people's research can be found in the recent­ly reis­sued _Studies out in left field: Defam­a­to­ry essays pre­sent­ed to James D. McCaw­ley on his 33rd or 34th birthday_, intro­duced by Arnold Zwicky (whence the above quo­ta­tion), and edit­ed by him et al. The reis­sue is by John Ben­jamins (Ams­ter­dam and Philadel­phia, 1992), for about $15 U.S., and, like the orig­i­nal (1971), is not for the squea­mish.

Randy Allen Har­ris
Rhetoric and Pro­fes­sion­al Writ­ing
Eng­lish, U of Water­loo
Water­loo ON, CANADA, N2L 3G1

Thanks to Lon­nie Chu, whose orig­i­nal post­ing of this got me inter­est­ed in the sto­ry of Quang Phuc Dong.

9 replies on “ENGLISH SENTENCES WITHOUT OVERT GRAMMATICAL SUBJECTS”

How do i gram­mat­i­cal­ly struc­ture this sen­tence in brack­et below

(He has an out­side-the-box think­ing approach yet con­form­ing to stan­dards set there­in to make process­es more effi­cient which in turn effec­tive­ly reduce down time)

"He has an out­side-the-box think­ing approach, yet con­forms to stan­dards set there­in to make process­es more effi­cient, which in turn effec­tive­ly reduce down­time."

This sounds a bit awk­ward. This makes it seem like the act con­form­ing to the "stan­dards set there­in" makes the process­es more effi­cient. Using "reduce" links the reduc­tion of down time more strong­ly to the process­es than to him. Part of the awk­ward­ness can be mit­i­gat­ed by sim­ply chang­ing "which in turn effec­tive­ly reduce" to "which effec­tive­ly reduces", but this links the reduc­tion of down time to his approach rather than the process­es.

"He uses an out­side-the-box think­ing approach, yet con­forms to the stan­dards set there­in, to make process­es more effi­cient, which effec­tive­ly reduces down­time."

I think this sounds less awk­ward. I think this would be slight­ly strange in writ­ing. To make it more nat­ur­al for writ­ing, you could use paren­the­sis around "yet con­forms to the stan­dards set there­in". For writ­ten lan­guage, this is fine, but for it to sound nat­ur­al in spo­ken lan­guage, I think "which effec­tive­ly reduces down­time" would have to be used as an aside or an after­thought. If you need more empha­sis on reduc­ing down­time, you could either put it into its own sen­tence, or move it to the front of the sen­tence.

Hope this helps. Also, I'm nei­ther lin­guist nor gram­mar expert, so it's pos­si­ble I made a mis­take or that some­one else can offer a more thor­ough expla­na­tion.

Quang is too quick to write off god as the under­ly­ing sub­ject. He assumes 'the only god' is implied. It could eas­i­ly be a dif­fer­ent god or 'an unknown pow­er'. Con­sid­er the fol­low­ing:

May Zeus shit on God.
May an unknown pow­er damn God.
May Suf­fer­ing Jesus shit on Baby Jesus. (Anachro­nis­tic, but gram­mat­i­cal­ly cor­rect.)

This allows 'fuck you' sub­tleties of inten­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion:

May Frey­ja fuck you!
May Thor fuck you!

@Mark, I agree. It is indeed an imper­a­tive inso­far as the implied sub­ject is not "you" but rather "god", "the uni­verse", "fate", "the pow­ers that be" etc.

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