Daily Archives: November 1, 2012

Is poor a swearword, grammatically speaking?

他很可憐。– an everyday Chinese sentence which is impossible to translate into an English sentence. My students usually try something along the lines of He is poor — but that’s not right because the intention is just to convey pity or sympathy, not to say that the person in question lives in poverty. The word poor can of course be used in that sense in English — but (I will come back to this point) only in passing, not as the main predicate of the sentence. And no other word will do. Pitiful, pitiable, pathetic, wretched, miserable — the other dictionary translations of 可憐 — all convey a judgment, typically an unkind one, rather than a friendly expression of sympathy. If I tell you that John is in the hospital with a broken leg, it certainly wouldn’t be very nice to respond with He’s pathetic! The best you can do is a sentence fragment like Poor John! — or even the grammatically bizarre Poor him! (Besides poor, the only adjective that can modify a personal pronoun in English is lucky, as in Lucky you!) The unwritten rules of English simply do not allow us to make a sentence meaning 他很可憐。

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I and my fellow English teachers in Taiwan of course have to explain this to students all the time — but the problem is that no one can explain it very well. What exactly is the rule?

Among teachers who go beyond “That’s just the way we say it,” the most common explanation is that poor belongs to a class of adjectives which can only be used attributively — that is, it must be placed before the noun it modifies, rather than in the predicate. An example of an attributive-only adjective would be main. You can say This is the main road, but not *This road is main. (The asterisk indicates an ill-formed sentence.)

Is this rule sufficient to explain the usage of poor? The question is complicated by the fact that poor can have several different meanings; it can indicate (1) poverty, (2) lack of quality or skill, or (3) pity. Most “bad” sentences” (such as He is poor) are not truly ill-formed like *This road is main, but they preclude the interpretation we want — the third one.

Consider the following sentences. The numbers in parentheses indicate which interpretations I judge to be possible, listed in descending order or naturalness.

  1. Many poets are poor. (1)
  2. They are poor poets. (2, 1)
  3. The poor poets were sent to the Gulag. (3, 1, 2)

To my ear, only in the third sentence can poor be interpreted as an expression of pity rather than as a description or a judgment. (The interpretation of the third sentence appears to depend mainly on which word is stressed. If poets is pronounced with greater stress, meaning 3 is conveyed. If the word poor is emphasized, the sentence seems to be contrasting poor poets with wealthy or skillful ones.)

But in both the second sentence and the third one, poor is used attributively rather than predicatively, so that can’t be the only factor. It is certainly true that poor (sense 3) must be used attributively, but there seems to be another criterion as well — namely, that it must be used in passing. The pity can’t be the main point of the sentence. You have to say something else about the poets and mention your pity only, as it were, parenthetically. If the only thing you want to express is your pity for the poets, there is no complete sentence in English that will do the job; your only option is a fragment like The poor poets!

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Are any other adjectives subject to this strange rule, which requires that they be used attributively and in passing in order to make a particular interpretation possible? Yes: adjectival swearwords.

(Warning: If you don’t like seeing unprintable words in print, you might want to stop reading right now.)

Steven Pinker pointed out some years ago (here) that “Drown the fucking cat is certainly not interchangeable with Drown the cat which is fucking.” In other words, for fucking to be interpreted in the maledictive rather than the copulatory sense, it must be attributive rather than predicative. (Did I just write that sentence? Somebody kill me.) As with poor, this is something that non-native speakers don’t automatically understand; a Taiwanese man whose English is otherwise very good once said to me, “Excuse my French, Mr. Tychonievich, but these journalists are just so fucking!”

But, as with poor, the attributive/predicative distinction is not the whole story. Fucking also has three main senses, and to interpret it you need to consider not only its position in the sentence but also whether or not it is used in passing. Consider these examples:

  1. The journalist is fucking.
  2. Of course he can read and write. He’s a fucking journalist!
  3. That fucking journalist is always quoting me out of context.

The first sentence (predicative) can only have a sexual meaning. The second (attributive, but not used in passing) is neither a sexual reference nor a true curse, but is used merely for emphasis; it serves to underscore the word journalist without necessarily showing any contempt for the journalist in question. (You can even use fucking this way to emphasize good things, as in The man’s a fucking genius or My mother is a fucking saint.) Only the third sentence (attributive and used in passing) is a true malediction.

Just as with poor, if you want to use fucking to curse the journalist, but without saying anything else about him, your only option is a fragment like That fucking journalist!

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Other adjectival swearwords like (god)damn(ed) work the same way, and so do some other words which can be used in a maledictive sense, such as stinking and stupid.

Chinese has a close parallel in the word 臭, which literally means “stink” or “smelly” but can also be used as a mild way of cursing — but for the latter sense, it must be used attributively and in passing. Here are some examples.

  1. 約翰很臭。(lit: John is smelly.)
  2. 約翰是個臭男孩。(lit: John is a smelly boy.)
  3. 臭約翰騙我。(lit: Smelly John lied to me.)
  4. 臭約翰!(lit: Smelly John!)

The first two sentences can only be interpreted as referring to John’s body odor. The third sentence and the final fragment would be interpreted as mild curses.

The fact that this pattern shows up in both English and Chinese suggests that it represents some important aspect of the structure of the language, although I’ve never seen it discussed. I think it might be an idea worth pursuing; “must be used in passing” is a little vague, but it could probably be formally defined without too much difficulty. I may post again on this topic later.

In the meantime, I welcome comments — especially from anyone who can point out similar patterns in languages other than English and Chinese.

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