Each Saturday a small section entitled ‘Chris Maslanka’s Puzzles’ appears on the Guardian newspaper’s puzzle page. One puzzle features a ‘Professor Pedanticus’, who – you guessed it – is a pedant, the sort of old-school fuddy-duddy who wants the English language to stay exactly as it was at some idealised point in his past – probably his schooldays. (I should add that the views of the fictional Professor are not necessarily those of Maslanka himself.)
Pedanticus’s reactions to ‘bad’ or ‘unnatural’ grammar range from the mildly upset to the frankly OTT. An expression may simply get up his nose, or make him choke on his ginger nuts before sighing and hiding his head under a cushion. More seriously, he frequently vents his anger on innocent objects: he once ‘knocked his DAB radio off the mantelpiece with a well-aimed shoe’. Or so we are told.
In many cases, his fury seems both incomprehensible and unnecessary. I’ll focus on one such case, beginning with a little background information.
Here are some examples of a fairly common verb pattern in English:
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go (Bob Dylan song title)
You, you‘re driving me crazy – what did I do? … My tears for you, they make everything hazy (Billie Holliday song lyrics)
The object of the game is to knock your opponent unconscious.
Two gunmen burst in and shot the couple dead.
The pattern can be expressed as:
verb + noun group + adjective
shot the couple dead
So far so good. What infuriated Pedanticus, however, was the variant ordering ‘he shot dead his girlfriend’. This occurred in various unrelated news reports back in October; for example:
A teenage boy who shot dead his girlfriend on his birthday has been sentenced…
Oscar Pistorius plans to write a book about what happened the night he shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp…
Man who shot dead his girlfriend and her daughter says it was a ‘terrible accident’ (headline)
The order of elements here is:
verb + adjective + noun group
shot dead his girlfriend
Hearing an example of this on a news broadcast, Pedanticus apparently threw the offending radio straight through the window. The order should be ‘he shot his girlfriend dead‘, he fumed, and NOT ‘he shot dead his girlfriend’.
He argues that you can’t say ‘he shot dead his girlfriend’ any more than you can say ‘he shot dead people in the street’, presumably because, by analogy, it would be ambiguous. The topic obviously worried him, as he has since complained again about the BBC ‘going on endlessly about people shooting dead people’. This is ‘not natural English’, he maintains; it is ‘mindless barbarism’.
This is a bit strong. I would question the labelling of any language usage ‘mindless barbarism’, although violent reactions like this are commonplace among the so-called guardians of the English language.
But let’s confront the Professor’s claims. First, it’s clear that in fact the reports are not ambiguous at all. Language happens in a particular context, and no one happens to have any reason to say ‘ he shoots dead people’ or mention ‘people shooting dead people’. Instead, a person or specified group like ‘the gunmen’ shoot dead a specific person or specific people – tragic stories each of them, but not the massacre of the zombie hordes.
Occasionally there is a possible grammatical ambiguity, as in the headline ‘Elderly right-winger shoots dead Moroccan couple’, but basic world knowledge tells us that these victims were undoubtedly alive when they were shot. The ambiguity angle is fine if you want to make tasteless jokes, but that’s all.
Second, Pedanticus would be well advised to look at corpus evidence before letting fly. I found over 300 hits for ‘X shoot dead Y’ in the ukWaC corpus (via Skylight) without much difficulty. Here are just two of them:
Government forces shot dead hundreds of unarmed protesters at a demonstration …
… a sniper shot dead the commander of an Iraqi quick reaction force and two of his men.
These sound quite natural to me; ‘shoot dead’ is a common collocation, (in the active as well as the passive ‘was/were shot dead’). Moreover, in cases where the verb and the adjective would be separated by a long noun group, the Professor’s preferred ordering would be quite unnatural, or downright impossible:
? She was serving a life sentence for shooting, in self-defence, a stalker who had broken into her home dead.
The original sentence, of course, was:
She was serving a life sentence for shooting dead, in self-defence, a stalker who had broken into her home.
Michael’s recent discussion of the split infinitive makes a similar point – that a ‘rule’ is meaningless when it results in unnatural sentences and is no longer widely observed for that very reason. So perhaps the imaginary Professor should engage with real language and real grammar, and listen thoughtfully to his radio instead of chucking it out of the window in an act of mindless vandalism.Email this Post