E-Mail 'They don’t shoot dead people, do they?' To A Friend

Email a copy of 'They don’t shoot dead people, do they?' to a friend

* Required Field

Separate multiple entries with a comma. Maximum 5 entries.

Separate multiple entries with a comma. Maximum 5 entries.

E-Mail Image Verification

Loading ... Loading ...


  • 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.