Lexicon Valley

Studies in Sweary Syntax

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

In September, Mr. Zimmer wrote a post on Strong Language about the first trailer for the movie, The Martian. The piece focuses on one line in particular, said by the stranded astronaut Mark Watney, i.e. Matt Damon, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” Here, Zimmer explores variations of this syntax.

Last year, in my post on the line from The Martian, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” I took a look at the more general pattern of “VERB the TABOO TERM out of (something).” I noted the difficulty of using that construction with an intransitive verb that takes a prepositional phrase:

Things get a little tricky when you want to intensify the act of listening to or looking at something, as noted recently on Twitter by Stacy Dickerman. An intransitive verb that requires a preposition complicates the construction—can you “listen to the fuck out of” something? For more on this, see Laura Bailey’s “Another Sweary Blog Post” from last year. See also Florent Perek’s “Using Distributional Semantics to Study Syntactic Productivity in Diachrony: A Case Study” (forthcoming in Linguistics), which discusses an example mined from the Corpus of Contemporary American English: “I’ve been listening the hell out of your tape.” (Yes, the problematic to is simply deleted, treating listen as a transitive verb.)

I just came across another example along the lines of “I’ve been listening the hell out of your tape,” from the British stand-up comedian Stewart Lee. The example appears in an episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle that aired on BBC2 on March 15, 2014 (Season 3, Episode 3, “Satire”). The relevant bit starts at about the 1:40 mark in this clip. To my ears, Lee’s line would have sounded much worse had it been phrased as, “No, but I agreed with the fuck out of it.”

Laura Bailey came to a similar conclusion when she saw a tweet from a fellow linguist that read, “Bout to respond to the fuck outta some student emails”: But for me, respond to the fuck doesn’t work so well … out of some emails has to be an adverbial phrase, I think, being something of the location of the whole action. You’d have to respond the fuck out of some emails, and in fact that is much more acceptable to me. And the same goes for the example cited by Florent Perek, with “listening the hell out of.” Here’s the full context, from a 2004 article in the Chicago Sun-Times included in COCA:

“That is how Memphis is cool,” [Sherman] Willmott said. “The main guy Mic Walker was working at Sun Studio. He gives the best Sun Studio tour in town. He moved here from Florida. He’s got the big Elvis pork chop sideburns going. He gave a tour to Joe Perry of Aerosmith and then slipped him the band’s demo. Six months later Joe Perry called him and said,’ I’ve been listening the hell out of your tape. Let’s do something.’”

A response to Stacy Dickerman’s tweet, mentioned in my previous post, mirrors the judgment that “listen the hell out of” is preferable to “listen to the hell out of.”

Acceptability judgments will differ, of course, but it seems that the intransitivity of a verb like listenlookrespond, or agree ends up becoming a secondary matter when the verb is crammed into the Procrustean bed of “VERB the TABOO TERM out of (something).” The preposition in listen tolook atrespond to, or agree with simply doesn’t fit, so it gets deleted for the construction to maintain its idiomatic force.

As Perek says in his forthcoming Linguistics paper, we’re not dealing with a verb alternation in which “the expression … is inserted before the direct object argument and modifies the predication in a quasi-compositional way”; rather, “the pattern cannot be derived compositionally from any other constructions in the language, and therefore forms its own generalization.” I agree the fuck out of that conclusion.