Spectacular multiple adjunct fronting from Woody Allen

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Carl Voss wrote to me about this sentence in a recent humor piece by Woody Allen in The New Yorker called "Udder Madness (I had already noticed the same sentence when reading the piece):

That's why when included in last week's A-list was a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits although I was unfamiliar with the titles I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day.

It is a remarkable piece of sentence construction. Here's what's going on.

That's is a contracted form of that is, and inside the complement of is we find a fused ("headless") relative clause beginning with a fronted why. Inside the clause thus introduced there is a preposed adjunct beginning with a preposed when.

Inside the clause that when introduces there is another fronted adjunct, with an structure found mostly in main clauses: it begins with a preposed passive clause included in last week's A-list, continues with the verb was, and ends with the subject.

But the subject has two post-head adjuncts, the second of them a very complicated one. The head noun is writer-director; the first adjunct following it is the preposition phrase (or PP) in cinema; and the complicated second adjunct is another PP, with a long list of credits. After that comes a concessive PP, although I was unfamiliar with the titles, which I think (having modified my view since I first posted this) has to be understood as modifying the clause which we now at last arrive at. We have parsed no less than four preposed adjuncts (why, when…, included…, although…), and now we get to I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day. That is the heart of the clause beginning with why.

If we put each of the constituents I have mentioned in square brackets, we get (I think, after several revisions) this:

That's[why [when [[included in last week's A-list] was [a writer-director [in cinema] [with a long list of credits]]]] [[although I was unfamiliar with the titles] [I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day]]].

It's perfectly grammatical, I think; but it's certainly a bit challenging, especially with the startling choice of punctuation: none, no commas at all after any of the preposed constitutents. It makes your pulse race a bit (if you're a syntactically sensitive soul) when you encounter three preposed elements in a row, and then a verb that precedes its subject, and then another preposed element: ([why [when [[included in last week's A-list] wasalthough…). It's like you've opened four successive boxes within boxes within boxes and there still isn't any sign of the gift.

[Many thanks to those who wrote comments telling me I was wrong about where the concessive adjunct fits. I decided you were right, it belongs with the main clause, and I thought this page would be less confusing if I revised the post and removed the now uninterpretable comments that had convinced me to. —GKP]

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38 Comments »

  1. andrew c said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 7:22 am

    I not only read and understood it in one pass, I did a mental Woody Allen voice to go with it. I think that made it easier as the parenthetical asides are usually delimited by changes in pitch in his monologues.
    Still a delight to read which is why we forgive him and not Polanski even though possibly a more reprehensible action because of entertainment value I suppose.

  2. michael farris said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    Doesn't work for me as written at any level whatsoever, the only way I can get those words to make sense is by drastic reordering.

    But if I start with:

    "That's why, when a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits, although I was unfamiliar with the titles, was included in last week's A-list, I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day."

    Which is, I presume, more or less the kind of thing he wanted to say, then there's simply no way my dialect/brain can allow the fronting necessary to get to the sentence as published. In speech, with some pauses and/or intonational clues I'd probably follow it ( It's actually only after I worked the above out that I begin to imagine how it could make sense). ButI'd probably interpret a few elements as false starts and disgard them in terms of interpreting what he was saying.

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    The New Yorker's style is exceedingly comma-heavy. For example, there is almost always a comma separating simple compound predicates: He ran, and caught the ball.

    But the New Yorker is also famous for the extensive battles between copyeditor (and editor) and their authors over such matters. So it's pretty clear that the lack of internal punctuation in the subject sentence was as the author insisted upon and not anything we can attribute to sloppy copyediting (of which there has been quite a lot in recent years).

    I'd love to see the correspondence surrounding the punctuation of that sentence. I'm guessing there was quite a bit of it.

  4. BM said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    Seems to me like this would have been much clearer

    That's why when included in last week's A-list was a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits (THOUGH I was unfamiliar with the titles) I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day.

  5. Mark P said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Reading it takes some effort, but I wonder how he wrote it. Did it spring fully formed from his mind, or did he have to work at it and rewrite before it was grammatical and made sense?

  6. Nightstallion said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    I'm used to that much fronting in my native German, what cost me a few more seconds of time to understand it was the (for me) unusual backing of the subject…

  7. Aaron Toivo said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    Surely this is a strong contender for the prestigious and rarely bestowed Trent Reznor Award for Tricky Embedding?

  8. Bill Walderman said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    It seems to make better sense if "was" is just a typo for "as" and you put commas after "why," "credits" and "titles."

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    @Bill Walderman, in context "as" doesn't fit. (The context is generally easier to understand, although I had to go back to the start to reassess everything I'd read once I realised that Allen was writing as a cow).

  10. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    Yes, I should have mentioned that: this is a first-person piece in which the speaker/thinker/writer is a cow. A murderous cow. This is Woody Allen out on the far reaches of the imagination.

  11. Faldone said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    I, too, first took "was" to be a typo for "as" but that notion ran out of steam when I hit the "although I was unfamiliar with the titles" bit. Other than that I didn't have much trouble understanding it.

  12. John said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    After ruminating over this a bit although I haven't read the original Woody is clearly having a cow
    speak in utterly complex syntax.

    How's the rest of the bovine English?

  13. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    How's the rest of the bovine English?

    In particular, what dialect does she speak?

  14. Roger Lustig said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    Did S J Perelman ever issue a sentence quite that tricky? Allen is obviously channeling Perelman, and not for the first time. SJP would often make convoluted sentences to characterize his imagined narrator in a "take-off" piece, but none quite like this come to mind at the moment.

  15. NW said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    I'm curious about the deleted reasoning. I find it just as easy to read with the 'although'-PP inside the NP as with it as an adjunct in the main clause. However, I can't say quite where it's attached if it's in the NP: not a third PP at a level with the others; possibly a supplement anchored to 'a long list of credits'. The lack of punctuation denies us the deciding intonation.

    [Sorry about the deletions. But they all just said, "Hey, isn't the although clause just modifying the main clause?", and I decided they were right, and it made everything simpler to clear away that red herring. I cannot really see how an although clause could be allowed in NP structure. If it were allowed, you'd find sentences like *A kind man although he is stupid who they recently promoted came to see me today. And I don't think you do. Though Woody's lack of commas makes it very hard to be knock-down drag-out certain that he didn't intend that. —GKP]

  16. John Lawler said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    Is although I was unfamiliar with the titles really a Prepositional Phrase?

    [Yes. See Karl Narveson and me a few comments down the page below. —GKP]

  17. Robert Coren said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    @Dick Margulis: Given that, I wonder if Allen deliberately omitted all possible commas as a comment on The New Yorker's usual style.

    @BM: I don't think he was going for clarity.

  18. Steve Brecher said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    As Roger Lustig mentions above, the sentence evokes Perelman. I wonder if the usage is or was typical of a certain New York, perhaps Yiddish-inspired, patois.

  19. Ken Grabach said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    The suggested revisions for greater clarity are nice for a written thought. This was written, of course, but is simulating a transcription of spoken language, and of a cow, as has been noted. It has been noted in various places, including Language Log, that language as originally spoken often differs from language originally written. In this case, of course, it is simulated speech, not a transcription of actual speech, but still …
    The point is that spoken language allows for inflections, tones, pauses, and so forth, that are difficult in written language.

  20. Lane said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    Hm. I must be the only one, since nobody's mentioned it, for whom "in cinema" is a weird PP. Does it mean "working in film"? Does it mean "currently in a cinema" like "in jail" or (British) "in hospital"?

  21. Robert Coren said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    @Lane: "working in film", I'm pretty sure.

  22. Jason F. Siegel said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    @ John

    I believe you meant “udderly complex syntax.”

  23. Karl Narveson said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    @John Lawler:
    "Although" is a preposition in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. By enlarging the preposition category in one direction to include subordinating conjunctions, and in another direction to include various things that don't take complements ("intransitive prepositions"), we can happily accept "before" as the same part of speech in each of the following sentences:
    I had seen him just before.
    I had seen him just before his heart attack.
    I had seen him just before he suffered a heart attack.

    The case, as laid out in the Cambridge Grammar's preposition chapter, is convincing, though when it is a question of using the new terminology among strangers, my courage sometimes fails me unless I happen to have my copy of the Cambridge Grammar ready to hand.

  24. Karl Narveson said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    I understand

    included in last week's A-list was a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits although I was unfamiliar with the titles

    to be a constituent, the complement of "when". I take the "although" phrase to modify "long". The impressiveness of a long list is mitigated by one's unfamiliarity with the accomplishments it represents.

  25. John Lawler said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Is it even possible to have a copy of the CGEL "ready to hand"? It's — what? — 1600-some pages? I'm not insensitive to the fact that if you write the book you get to name the characters. And I agree that "intransitive preposition" is a good term for what used to be called "particle" in phrasal verbs; that's excellent use of terminology. But there's a long list (several lists, in fact) of what I suppose I should say used to be called "subordinating conjunctions", and it seems somewhat unlikely that they can all be fitted on the prepocrustean bed.

    [The Cambridge Grammar does indeed claim that all the traditional "subordinating conjunctions" are prepositions, with the exception of the tiny list of truly meaningless Subordinators: declarative that, interrogative whether (and its alternant interrogative if), for before the subjects of infinitivals, and possibly one or two other items (CGEL actually treats infinitival to as some weird kind of Subordinator, an analysis that nobody could be very proud of and which I once argued to be incorrect). But these items like although, because, since, lest... prepositions all.]

  26. Amy Stoller said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    I It only needs two commas to make sense to me. (I take everyone else's word on fronting and backing, as that goes way over my head.)

    That's why, when included in last week's A-list was a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits although I was unfamiliar with the titles, I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day.

    As for The New Yorker, I can remember when it never had typos. Then Tina Howe became editor and destroyed a once brilliant magazine.

    @andrew c: You have a nice line in this style yourself, but less of the "we," please. I think both Polanski and Allen are reprehensible, even irredeemable – and one is no better than the other.

  27. Roger Lustig said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

    @Amy: do you mean Tina Brown? As to the magazine's brilliance, I'd say it's been in full splendor this last decade; and the later Shawn years weren't exactly scintillating either. Nor was it Brown that did in either copy editing or fact checking. Those were already in full snooze during the Gottlieb years.

  28. Daniel Barkalow said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 11:51 pm

    @Jarek: Bovine Vernacular English, surely. Except, of course, that she adopts a more formal register for The New Yorker.

  29. Joe said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    I'm a bit confused about why the concessive PP wouldn't be inside the NP. Of course, intonation would decide this, and I've gone back in forth: first, I thought it belonged inside the NP, then I thought it modified the main clause, now I am back to thinking it belongs inside the NP. The only way I could see it modifying the main clause would be if the cow anticipated "a particularly scintillating Labor Day" because of the movies(?) the cow would see, even though it had never heard their titles before, because the director of one of those movies had a long list of credits to his name). But isn't the anticipation due to the people on the A-list the cow will meet on Labor Day, especially the person working in cinema who had a long list of (albiet unrecognized) credits in his bio? What are titles of if not those of the credits of the person working in cinema? (Granted, I don't know why "titles" is used instead of "them" if the concessive PP belongs in the NP).

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    @Mark P: I suspect Allen started with something that was grammatical and made sense, and then rewrote it.

    Has anyone ever encountered this "included… was… [subject]" inversion in speech, in New York or anywhere else? Has anyone ever encountered in a "when" clause? (The only kind subordinate clause I can imagine it in is in a cleft sentence.)

  31. Joe said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    I haven't done a corpus study, but I can think of contexts where "included . . . was . . . [subject] is (to me at least) unremarkable: "that's why when I had learnt that [included on the A-list was a famous grammarian] I anticipated a thrilling party." I think the construction "that's why when [past participle] . . . was . . .[subject]" is also unremarkable with verbs like "inform," "tell," "ask," : "that's why when asked whether he would press ahead with health-care reform or turn his attention to the economy, Obama was reluctant to answer." I think the reason such a construction is unremarkable is because "he" and "Obama" co-refer. In Allen's sentence, the subject of the preposed element does not co-refer with the subject of the main clause (and for that reason, the concessive PP actually helps me make sense of the passage: it sounds worse to me without it (e.g., "that's why when included on the list was a famous grammarian, I anticipated a thrilling party" versus "that's why when included on the list was a famous grammarian, although I hadn't read his work, I anticipated a thrilling party." It's still awkward to me,but not as jarring as without the PP.

    Is the real problem the fact that the subject of the main clause can't even be inferred until very end of the passage?

  32. Joe said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    Oops. The example I gave above about "when [past participle] . . . was . . .[subject]" is a different construction. It should be something like, "when asked was surprised with all these comments on this post, the OP refused to answer." So "when [past participle] . . . was [subject]" probably only works for "ask" . . .

  33. danny bloom said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

    Great post, great explanation, and udderly silly at the same time, that this is all the Grate Allen has to write about these days….

  34. Garrett Wollman said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 12:06 am

    Harold Ross would have put commas in.

  35. nbm said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    Sure he would, but that was long ago. Where do we read that Ross's marginal queries included the admirably succinct "Who he?"? In Thurber's The Years with Ross?

  36. Bill Stone said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    Hi, all you experts. Although a month or so off the pace, may I suggest how a mere amateur like me would INITIALLY analyse Mr. Allen's rather clumsy sentence? Here goes:

    The main clause seems straightforward and sensible, even if buried by subordinate clauses: 'That's why…..I anticipated a particularly scintillating Labor Day'. The subordinate clause relating directly to the main clause is, I think, 'when included in last week's A-list was a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits, although I was unfamiliar with his name'. Embedded in that clause is the subordinate clause 'a writer-director in cinema with a long list of credits although I was unfamiliar with the titles'. Finally, embedded within that clause is the SC 'although I was unfamiliar with the titles'.

    So, I see it as main clause with three levels of subordination. If any of the experts should chance to read this post, I'd be grateful to know if I'm anywhere near the mark.

    With good wishes

  37. Aaron Davies said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    "backward ran sentences until reeled the mind"…

  38. Mike Farrell said,

    May 8, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    If you have to struggle to understand it, it's not good writing. Who cares if it's strictly grammatically correct?

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