The Irish singer Van Morrison was well into his set at a concert in his native isle before a crowd in high spirits. Enthusiastic applause followed every song. At one point in the excited hubbub as Van tried to signal the band to start a new song, a voice yelled out over the crowd, "We love you, Van!". This moved the dour and laconic performer to make his only remark of the evening to his audience. Said Van emphatically to his adoringly ebullient fan: "Fucking shut the fuck up."
My friend Jim McCloskey, the Irish syntactician (in both senses of that phrase) told me this story. He was present at the concert and reported the event. He is a great Van Morrison fan, and I think he views the incident as just a disarmingly inappropriate verbal symptom of Van the Man's well-known shyness and stage fright. I like the story too, but on a less sympathetic basis: I happen to detest Van Morrison's music. His bare, strained voice appeals to me not at all, and I hate even his most popular recordings. (I once offered to put five dollars in the tips jar at the Stevenson College Coffee House at UC Santa Cruz if they would stop playing the Van Morrison CD they had put on. They did, and I did. So his music has negative cash value for me: I have actually paid money to not hear it.) For me the story is about a foul-mouthed verbal indication that the curmudgeonly Celtic soulster is as gratingly unpleasant to his public as his music is to my ears. But no matter. Never mind the man or his music. We are here to try to learn what we can from the syntax of the interesting expression he used.
The main syntactic problem is to determine whether the fuck is being used as an pleonastic (semantically empty) direct object of shut or as a pre-head modifier of the preposition phrase (PP) headed by up. (Yes, the up of shut up is a one-word PP. It is not an adverb — all the traditional grammars are flat wrong on that. The arguments are given in chapter 7 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, or more tersely in A Student's Introduction to English Grammar.) And I think we can do this.
Note first that we also have examples like Get the fuck up those stairs, where again the fuck is after a verb before a PP, and is semantically inert (the utterance means "Get up those stairs"). And in both these cases, the PP is obligatory: neither *Shut the fuck nor *Get the fuck are grammatical with the pleonastic reading of the fuck.
Second, the fuck can co-occur with a direct object NP:
- I don't know how a full-grown Burmese python got into this maternity ward, but get it the fuck out of here before it eats any babies.
Third, the expletive in question can also occur with intransitive verbs:
- I was trapped in the crowd at a Van Morrison concert and I was wishing I had wings so that I could just soar the fuck out of there.
I conclude that in colloquial English the NP the fuck (and it does indeed have the form of an NP) can function as a pre-head modifier in a PP, including the light one-word PPs (like up) that are known as particles.
The fact that there can be such a modifier underlines the correctness of treating up as the head of a phrase, of course. Van Morrison's bracingly filthy put-down had the structure shown here in tree form:
The Adverb and the NP are both functioning as modifiers. The Clause is of imperative clause type. Shut is (as usual in the shut up idiomatic construction) intransitive.
I will leave the comments area open below, but fucking try to exhibit some fucking phraseological delicacy.
[Addendum: The distinction between intransitive uses of expletive NPs as in this case (get the hell out of here) and the transitive ones from which they may derive (beat the hell out of him) is drawn in a interesting — and not too technical — recent paper by Jack Hoeksema and Donna Jo Napoli on the syntax, semantics, and history of such idioms, "Just for the hell of it: A comparison of two taboo-term constructions", published in Journal of Linguistics 44:2 (2008), 347-378. —GKP]