Sins against syntax

Posted by on July 17, 2012

Lately I hear two constructions in conversation that bug me: they may both be a case of a common expression morphing toward a simpler form, and not taking all of the grammatical requirements of the earlier form along in the move. Should a person care about such things? Will resistance stop the march of simplification? The answers there are “probably not” and “definitely not,” but for now, it’s disquieting to hear these lapses in concord. I don’t correct them in the speakers who let these expressions fall from their lips, except in my mind. This internal correction is inevitably accompanied by the question: do they know the awful thing that they just did?

The first simplification concerns the phrase “as far as.” The phrase can be complemented in a number of ways. The simplest ways are with the adjective “possible,” or with a noun, when the phrase is used in a literal way to talk about distance: “We cycled as far as the bridge and then had a picnic.” Every other legitimate completion of as far as requires an entire clause: the first as in the phrase is an adverb; the second is a conjunction. The dubious (to my mind) ellipsis of this phrase comes when speakers dispense with the predicate required to complete an “as far as x is concerned” construction. So you hear people say, for example, “As far as dinner, why don’t we just get pizza?” or “He filled me in as far as time and place.” As if as far as were a standalone preposition and could be completed with a mere noun phrase! No grammatical analysis supports this, unless as far as is digested as a unit with meaning equivalent to, e.g., concerning.

The second and more troubling construction is the abandonment of a subordinate clause introduced by the relative pronoun which in favor of an independent clause that doesn’t in fact need the support of which. People who do this seem unaware that once spoken, which cannot be gulped back in, and so they’ve laid down a which that is essentially a bridge to nowhere. Here’s what I mean:

1)    We saw three canoes there yesterday, which they sold them and didn’t tell us.

2)    There were defects, which I was aware, so I asked for a better price.

In both cases, the speaker has failed to properly implement the relative pronoun’s function, which in these sentences is to serve as the object of a verb or preposition in the second clause. In 1), the need for which dies as soon as them is uttered; in 2), the speaker fails to say of after aware, which would supply the necessary bridge between aware and which, while also supplying the only justification for introducing the clause with which.

Is it charitable to say the speakers abandoned the correct construction and finished it in a different way—a case of anacoluthon? Or would it be more accurate to say that the speakers had no awareness of committing grammatical gaffes and were just talking the way that came naturally?

English has a number of expressions that don’t fully make sense grammatically but have become so firmly established that we swallow them whole, easily extracting the meaning from them, without having to understand their grammar or requiring that they even have it. Take, for example, “I couldn’t help but notice you’ve lost weight.” Some say this is a conflation of a can’t help + gerund construction with an older and now mostly obsolete can’t but do something construction. Whatever it is, it is a challenge to tease apart what each word is actually contributing in can’t help but + infinitive constructions. Despite this, people use them all the time and no one loses sleep over the want of a convincing grammatical analysis.

With the expressions above, it’s likely that the possibility of completing as far as simply in some constructions has given license to speakers to complete it simply in cases where grammar in fact requires more complexity. And it may be that which, already a weak connector in English, is becoming weaker all the time and may come eventually to mean no more than and if the speaker wishes it. Which would be unfortunate. But people will talk.

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Comments (8)
  • “As far as” (meaning “as regards”) is a favorite idiom of TV weather forecasters in the Twin Cities. For example, “As far as frost tomorrow morning . . . . “) I don’t think I hear it so much from other reporters here — nor from weather reporters on the east coast.

    Posted by Michael Hancher on 17th July, 2012
  • Interesting observation, Michael. I hear it a lot from folks whose job is to speak publicly. Perhaps those who have to talk a lot are best at finding shorthand ways of doing it.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 18th July, 2012
  • Standalone as far as occurs quite often in the HBO TV series Deadwood, set in 1870s South Dakota. I wondered at the time if it was an archaic or dialectal usage, but I didn’t investigate further.
    Your second item is curious too, and reminded me of a recent Language Log post on wayward which constructions.

    Posted by Stan on 19th July, 2012
  • Stan: Merriam-Webster dictionaries actually lemmatize ‘as far as’ as a preposition and give a date of 1523, which would give Deadwood denizens plenty of time to get up to speed on its use!

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 19th July, 2012
  • It seems to me, as a language learner, such constructions are the impact of foreign speakrs on the native.

    Posted by Mohsen A. J. on 19th July, 2012
  • It also occurs to me that this erroneous “as far as” might be in part due to a conflation with “as for”, as in “As for the weather, well, it’s beautiful here at least!” Or, in your example, “As for dinner, why don’t we get pizza?” Still awkward but I believe it would count as grammatical. Maybe?

    Posted by Nora Miller on 20th July, 2012
  • Orin: For decades I’ve taken for granted that ‘as far as’ is a conjunction in clauses like “As far as flavour goes” and a preposition in prep phrases like “As far as education..” (the ANC exa here is “As far as education I think they rank about 49th…”). I assumed too that the prep use was mostly American. Now, looking at the data, I see that its sources are usually spoken.

    Personally I have no problem with this prepositional use – after all ‘as far as’ is listed as a complex preposition to talk about distance, as in the prep phrase “as far as the bridge” (as you say). So why not when it’s followed by other nouns? Sometimes (dare I say this?) it seems useful, e.g when used to introduce a topic in a long noun group. A ukWaC exa is “As far as our attitudes to the British Government’s position on the possibility of Britain joining the Euro, I think such questions….” By the time he gets to the end of that ungainly mouthful, the speaker has lost any hope of slipping in a grammatical ‘are concerned’!

    Like any other preposition, ‘as far as’ is followed by ‘-ing’ clauses as well as nouns, as in “As far as being a good science communicator, I have a real passion for science…” (ukWaC). This sounds fine to me – American, but familiar. As a Brit though, I’d probably go for the conjunction use, and add ‘goes’ or ‘is concerned’.

    Thanks for raising these interesting questions about ‘correctness’ and legitimacy – food for thought.

    Posted by gill francis on 22nd July, 2012
  • To Mohsen A J: Are you referring to the relative pronoun topic? I think that in Arabic, you need to put the ‘extra’ pronoun in a relative clause, even though you have introcuced the clause with a relative pronoun. So it is understandable if Arabic speakers make this mistake in English. But native speakers are more likely to do it because they find they’ve gone down a blind alley, and need to abandon the relative clause altogether, as Orin suggests.

    Posted by gill francis on 22nd July, 2012
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