linguistics and lexicography Love English

They don’t shoot dead people, do they?

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesEach 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.

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Gill Francis

5 Comments

  • I agree that Pedanticus is overreacting and it is not always bad English to put the adjective before the noun group in sentences like this; and that when the noun group is a long one, it is actually better to put the adjective first. But it started me wondering why, with short noun groups, the adj-before-noun-group pattern sounds perfectly OK with some verbs but not with others. For example, “A neighbour forced open the front door”, “We made clear our intent in our manifesto”, and “Wipe clean the inside of the oven” sound fine to me. But things like “He drove crazy his mother” and “We decided to paint black the door” sound unlikely and weird.

  • Good point about ambiguity, Gill (and the complete absence of it in the examples you quote). Prescriptivists are fond of arguing that if older distinctions aren’t maintained, utterances become ambiguous. But as you say, context almost always resolves any potential ambiguity. I’ve heard people argue that using “disinterested” to mean “uninterested” is hazardous because how will the listener know which meaning the speaker intends? But this is a fatuous argument, since most (common) words have more than one meaning and we usually manage to work out which one is right in a given context. I checked this a while back by looking at 100 corpus examples for “disinterested”, and I couldn’t find a single case where the speaker’s intended meaning was unclear or ambiguous

  • Thanks Elizabeth; you’re quite right about long noun groups – that’s a given, and is recorded in our Cobuild Pattern Grammar: Verbs, so ‘verb + adjective + noun group’ is given as a variant of ‘verb + noun group + adjective’. As you say, though, some verbs have an adjective and then a short noun group. In the case of ‘force open the door’ etc, it seems to be the adjectives ‘open’ and ‘shut’ that select the pattern, e.g I found ‘force/blast/click/crack/kick/prise/prop/pull/push open [the door]’ and many others. But in the case of ‘make clear’ it seems to be the verb ‘make’ that selects the pattern: there are some shortish noun groups as in ‘this makes illegal the activity of hacking’ and ‘…[it] made possible a much wider choice’. As usual there is no answer to the question ‘why’ – it has a lot to do with how something ‘sounds’, but in the end collocation is collocation – and the ‘rules’ of Pedanticus and his ilk don’t take sufficient account of this.

  • Pedanticus is well aware of the fact that if a long noun phrase comes after “shoot” it is better to put the “dead” straight after “shoot”; but I have to squeeze his remarks into a tiny space on the obits page; so there wasn’t room to say what you can say at leisure.

    Secondly the main point was not that he had heard “shot dead the man” on one occasion; but that this had become the ONLY way in which Radio 4 newsfolk could express this idea. We have stopped hearing “he shot the man dead”.

    I often wonder whether this was due to some memo telling newsfolk not to use the simple word “shoot” when death resulted; but to use “shoot dead”; and that this became ossified in the inseparable form “I shoot dead” as exemplified by “He shot dead the man. Whatever the cause, this is an interesting linguistic shift. One such language shift first railed at by Pedanticus is now the subject of academic research on language change. I have hopes for this one also.

    Pedanticus was originally incorporated as an occasional joke in my column put there to encourage people to think about language usage. It has unfortunately now become so popular that I spend more time answering mail than writing fresh copy. Most of the examples I list have been sent in by readers.

    Keep up the good work!

  • It’s good to have some considered feedback from the beleaguered Pedanticus himself! I have sympathy for Maslanka on this, especially if, as he indicates, the questionable form has become the R4 default. Leaving aside those hilariously ambiguous plural-noun examples, my own feeling is that “Clapton shot the sheriff dead” sounds slightly more natural than “Clapton shot dead the sheriff”. On reflection, it occurred to me that, whereas you could use pronouns in “he shot him dead”, it would be aberrant to say “he shot dead him”! A comparable sentence which is surely invariable would be “he frightened the deputy witless”.

    On the other hand, few people would have any issue with the sentence, “von Richthofen shot down many British planes” as opposed to “eventually somebody shot von Richthofen down”. I suspect this issue is largely a question of conventions rather than quantifiable grammatical rules. Now I have to finish painting white my walls before I go and paint red the town.

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