Saving energy and you money!

« previous post | next post »

A new Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opened up in my corner of Language Log Plaza this week, and as I walked through the aisles on the day of the grand opening, I noticed signs that read "look up for savings". This company is apparently committed to green building, so they have a bunch of skylights on the ceiling that let in the abundant natural light that we have here in San Diego. The signs pointing this out continue: "our skylights save energy and you money". Others will no doubt disagree, but that conjunction between the direct object energy and the benefactive + direct object combination you money strikes me as very unnatural. I can't think of a single constituency test that establishes something like you money as a constituent to be coordinated, but then again I've been wrong about this sort of thing before.

Share:



31 Comments »

  1. iching said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    "Our skylights save energy and you money" sounds clunky to me, but not wrong. Both "our skylights save us energy and you money" and "our skylights save energy and also save you money" sound better to my ears, but I don't have the linguistic skills to pinpoint why.

  2. Chas Belov said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 3:25 am

    I would have accepted "our skylights save us energy and you money" but not the way it was actually worded. While I would also accept "our skylights save energy and also save you money," it is too long for a marketing blurb.

  3. Robert said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 3:35 am

    By my unskilled reading of the sentence, it's the (almost) best that could be done; 'energy' and 'you money' could be reversed for a more aesthetic formulation, but it'd introduce ambiguity. Any other rejigging could only accomplish by further clunkification.

    Had I been writing the sign myself, I'd have said "save us all energy" to provide balance, but I'd be happy to see that sign as it stands (or hangs). Those who write supermarket signs — in Dublin, at least — either give the matter no thought at all, or just enough thought to decide to deliberately use the wrong word.

    I suspect that the formulation jars simply because it's unfamiliar, but jar it does. I know that I myself have encountered situations that required a similar construction, and I always wussed out of using the naked phrase by rewriting.

    Not that I think it's wrong in anyway — I don't — I'd just prefer it it weren't used. However, supermarket signs, like newspaper headlines, have extremely limited space to convey an idea, so perhaps it's inevitable that some liberties with aesthetics or grammar be taken.

  4. D.O. said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 3:49 am

    Could it be just typo? — your money.

  5. groki said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 3:54 am

    energy's like: "those skylights are angels, man, helpin' me save money like that!" :)

    maybe the awkwardness is intentional, kinda like the irritating-but-remembered commercial.

    (also, I thought "look up for savings" was going to refer to some kind of in-store search engine.)

  6. Victoria Martin said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 4:30 am

    Perhaps the signwriter had been listening to a little too much Flanders and Swann: "When he cried, 'God in heaven!' she made no reply, up her mind and a dash for the door."

  7. Aaron Toivo said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 4:41 am

    The "you money" appears to be a pretty normal sequence of dative-shifted indirect object followed by a direct object. That is, it cannot be a constituent any more than "my wife flowers" (I gave ___ for her birthday) can.

  8. Joe said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 5:06 am

    @iching,

    I think you are right: "save us energy and you time" would be OK (it needs the right intonation contour to work). Isn't this an example of what CGEL calls "right nonce-constituent coordination" (1341ff)? That is, constituency is established by their relation in the coordination itself, even though they don't form constituents elsewhere. The reason why "save energy and you time" is, well, a bit off is because of the lack of parallelism required in such constructions.

  9. Andrew said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 5:13 am

    Have some Madiera, M'dear…

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 5:29 am

    Does it count as a syllepsis or would that require different senses of 'save'?

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 5:38 am

    Shouldn't somebody come up with a name for this sort of thing? Maybe in Greek, just to pretend they actually invented it? (As if!)

  12. Tom Saylor said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 5:51 am

    Must an expression be a constituent in order to be coordinated?

    He hid the money under a barrel, the key in a vase, and the jewels on top of a beam in the basement.

    Here, "the jewels on top of a beam in the basement" is not a constituent, is it? But then maybe it's not truly coordinated?

  13. Jason Eisner said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 6:15 am

    @Eric, re. your last sentence: "you money" can certainly be coordinated whether it's a constituent or not, as shown by iching's example ("Our skylights save [us energy] and [you money]").

    The problem with your original example is that the two conjuncts, "energy" and "you money," have different syntactic types.

    An appropriate formalization of the syntactic types involved is given by Combinatory Categorial Grammar (CCG), which takes coordination as a decisive test for constituency and so actually does permit "you money" as a constituent, albeit one with a complicated nonterminal. This allows iching's example but excludes yours.

    (Or if you prefer the Chomskyan tradition, you can presumably analyze iching's example more or less as you would analyse a right-node raising sentence ("[We sell] and [you oughta buy] the best skylights in town"), using across-the-board movement or whatever mechanism you prefer. But such a mechanism needs parallelism constraints, e.g., to rule out your example. The CCG account is simpler.)

    I think the bad coordination in "our skylights save energy and you money" would classically be considered a syntactic species of syllepsis, of which there are many amusing examples.

    Now for the digression:

    It is interesting that as hearers we can process such examples at all — the examples are amusing or odd rather than just incomprehensible. I've always wondered what this says about human sentence processing. "Mary threw up the ball and her dinner" is an ordinary conjunction with no gaps, and it has a perfectly good interpretation in which she throws two things into the air. So why would we ever hear it as if there were two copies of "threw up" that refer to completely different lexical entries (throwing and vomiting)?

    This is not merely an ambiguity or pun like "The carpenters saw the wood," where you vacillate between two different global interpretations because of competing influences. If it were just an ambiguity, you would be unsure whether Mary threw both things into the air or vomited both things. But most people never seem to entertain those interpretations consciously, instead being sure that Mary did one of each.

    And syntactic syllepsis in the original skylight example is an extreme case of this. So you're certainly not vacillating between two global parses because there is no global parse. To interpret the skylight example at all, you have to parse it like "our skylights save energy and save you money." The two uses of the verb have not just different meanings but also different syntactic requirements. Yes, you are unhappy with the original sentence, but not so much that you can't recover a syntax tree. How do you even represent the syntax tree unless you make two copies of "save"?

    It's not too hard to come up with other syntactic syllepsis examples where the funny interpretation seems accessible but has no coherent syntax tree: "He looked up his old friend and then her skirt" (verb+particle+nounphrase or verb+prepositionalphrase?). "The groom's mother gave him a ring and to the bride" (is "him" dative or accusative?).

    (Of course, it's true that hearers can repaiir all kinds of ungrammatical sentences, including by filling in missing words, so I ought to sharpen my argument that there is something special about this variety.)

  14. Alexander said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    To amplify Jason's discussion of coordination with respect to Eric's original observation: the big theoretical question has always been why sequences like "you money" in "save you money" can be happily coordinated, but not happily fronted, extraposed, pronominalized, or (putting it all together) questioned. There is a vast literature.

  15. logodaedalist said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    It seems to be just an omission of "us". "Save us energy and you money" would be perfectly fine in my ears.

  16. blahedo said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    @Jason "It is interesting that as hearers we can process such examples at all…":

    I'd actually like to see a comparison of processing ability (or processing time) between educated and uneducated (possibly illiterate) speakers on this kind of WTF coordination. On the "save" example as well as your "threw up" example, my ability to process it involves first a mental parse fail, and then a retreat to a backup strategy: pretend the "and" is conjoining two complete sentences but with a string-of-words (note: not necessarily constituent) elided from the second. I *don't* need to resort to this strategy to interpret coordinations that are merely complex, as with "saves us energy and you money".

    The elided-string-of-words explanation is the treatment of the topic often given in grade school grammar class as to "how conjunctions work", and as weak as it is in describing non-WTF sentences, it does provide me a technique for interpreting the sentence, so I can get a clear and unambiguous intended meaning from it despite the syntactic problems. But I conjecture that someone who was a fluent speaker of English but lacked this sort of training would have to resort to a purely semantic guess as to what might be meant and how to interpret it.

    I'm a bit stumped how you'd set up the experiment, though. Too many confounds.

  17. Theophylact said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    My favorite example of this sort of thing is from Flanders and Swann:

    When he asked "what in Heaven?" she made no reply,
    Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

  18. KevinM said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    Isn't this what is known as a zeugma? "You held your breath/And the door for me." Alanis Morissette.

  19. Eli said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Yeah, I think this shows that the coordination test for constituency is quite a weak test, and it also shows how little we know about how coordination works.

    Personally, I suspect that there is an elided save in the second coordinate, though why or how it gets elided I'd have to take some serious time to think about.

  20. Diane said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    While "save us energy and you money" does sound better grammatically, it also sounds wrong logically to me. Skylights don't save the store energy. They save the store money, perhaps, because the store doesn't have to spend money on buying as much energy, but since the energy doesn't belong to the store until they buy it, it doesn't make sense to me to say that skylights save *the store* energy.

    How often do you really say something like "turning down the thermostat saves [him, her, you, me, us] energy"? No. You say, "turning down the thermostat saves energy."

    At least, I do.

  21. John Cowan said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    Alexander: I grant that such coordinations happen, but I deny that they are particularly happy: save us energy and you money is barely tolerable stilted style, resembling legalese.

  22. Mary Bull said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    I got it without even a double-take, though I didn't like the awkwardness. My double-take came as I wondered whether this was a dialect usage — "you money" with a possessive "you." I can't find any examples of this with a google, but I hear it from time to time in colloquial speech here in the U.S. South. Fats Waller's "Your feet's too big" comes to mind — I know all the lyrics on the web spell it "your feet's" but listening to it I hear, "You feet's too big." (I enjoyed reading all the erudite discussion in the comments above. Just wanted to raise this mundane possibility.)

  23. Brian said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    I don't think it's at all stilted. But then, I didn't even notice the zeugma in the original version until the second reading. I'm surprised that so many people consider it awkward. I mean, I grant you that it is structurally awkward to analyze, but how many people would really notice or care?

    Though I suspect that in this case it was just an oversight on the part of the copywriter, it's exactly this sort of compact rhetorical playfulness that ad writers are frequently trying to achieve. It draws attention to the text while also reducing space. (Just so it comes off as "clever" and not "awkward" or "uneducated"….)

  24. mollymooly said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    The "look up for savings" sign suggests the shop has a zany, wacky, fun element in its branding. In that context, I vote for deliberate playful syllepsis rather than unintentionally clumsy phrasing.

  25. Aaron Toivo said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    Diane is right. The only thing remotely awkward about "saving us energy and you money" is that it does not communicate what the store is trying to say. The intended benefactee of energy savings is the energy itself (or society-at-large's supply of it), not the store – they are saving energy in the same sense they would save children from harm, not in the sense they would save for retirement. (Which rules out "us"-elision as an explanation for the original example.)

    But structurally it would be sound. There is nothing on earth wrong with sentences like "I gave the girls apple juice and the boys milk", or even "I sent the first package to Genoa on Tuesday for my wife, and the second to Venice on Wednesday for my sister."

  26. Andrew Dowd said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    I haven't looked at benefactives in detail, but for ordinary ditransitives, I've become convinced that the two objects do form a constituent, despite the failure of the traditional diagnostics. I have this strange feeling that you have a "ha ha" moment of oddness about the appropriateness of a sentence like "saving energy and you money," but this isn't the same intuition you have about genuine non-constituent coordination. It's kind of like Yoda speak. You know it's not real English. But you also know it's evidence of constituency, because you wouldn't accept it as a fake so easily if it was done wrong.

    I'm also reminded of a line from an Andy G and the Roller Kings song: "Diamonds in a ring; her presents I could bring; wouldn't mean a thing…"

    If the fabulous Andy G says it passes a test for constituency, I say it passes.

  27. Stephen said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    Wait a minute; couldn't we read it an ellipsis of a second save, i.e. "our skylights save energy and you save money"?

  28. John Roth said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

    I agree with D. O. It's a typo that I see all the time in unedited text. I'm pretty sure that using you for your is also dialect.

  29. A-gu said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 2:20 am

    Once you bring in the prospect of paying money to correct any actual errors? Well, forget about it.

  30. Tim Martin said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    @John Roth: If you're seeing it in text, how do you know it's a typo?

  31. Mfahie said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

    I disagree that it's a typo. It's a bit awkward, but I feel like it's something I've seen or read many tmes. That is, it may not be correct, but I believe that it is exactly what they meant to say.
    And I parsed the sentence with only a minor twinge. Must be easier for some groups.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment