Why does Sir Paul McCartney's 1979 song "Wonderful Christmastime" (it was playing just now in a store I had to visit) make my teeth itch? It is catchy, and perfectly crafted to sound Christmassy, and I admire Sir Paul's musicianship and taste, and in every way his song should be placed in the upper quartile of the Christmas music you hear in every retail outlet now that December's here in the USA. (Think about it: What it's competing with is "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and "Jingle Bell Rock", and numerous other songs that make you want to think again about the merits of Vogon poetry.) So what is it that bugs me? I think I've figured it out. Misplaced adverb.
It's the endlessly repeated line, "Simply having a wonderful Christmastime." It only really makes sense in the context if the adverb simply is understood as a degree modifier of the adjective wonderful. The word wonderful takes simply very comfortably as a modifier meaning something like "absolutely". The word having doesn't. I think the line is supposed to mean "Having a simply wonderful Christmastime."
I have relevant evidence. The reason I am uncomfortable with the adverb modifying having is that when simply modifies a verb (as it does extremely often) it means "nothing more than", which seems to be inappropriate here. Consider the first five hits for simply in the Wall Street Journal corpus, all of which modify verbs all of which have that "not enough" sense in the context:
The steady accumulation of spending programs, especially those providing universal health and education services, has resulted in much tax revenue being simply churned back into the pockets of the same taxpayers.
["simply churned back" means "merely churned back, not something more productive than that"]
But then it would have had to offer its own statement about why TV has returned to the business melodrama, and that would have been a lot harder than simply repeating old criticisms.
["simply repeating old criticisms" means "just repeating them, not doing anything more creative or constructive than that"]
Help from the West simply makes it easier for its rulers to maintain their inefficient system.
["simply makes it easier" means "facilitates inefficiency rather than doing anything to improve things"]
But S&P arbitrage "simply provides liquidity," insists Jeremy Evnine, a WFIA futures specialist.
["simply provides liquidity" means "doesn't do anything more than provide liquidity and isn't meant to do anything more"]
Opposition politicians also are clamoring for direct presidential elections, rather than a referendum that simply approves a candidate chosen by the legislature.
["simply approves" means "does nothing more than rubber-stamp"]
These uses are in all cases vaguely denigratory or pejorative. They aren't intensifiers; they minimize rather than emphasizing. They all mean something like "merely". And surely McCartney doesn't mean "We're merely having a wonderful Christmastime (rather than doing anything better or more productive than that)." Does he?
Well, your mileage may differ, but every time I hear it (which is of course hundreds and hundreds of times over), my mind is trying to shift that adverb off the verb and into the object noun phrase. Which would ruin the meter, I realize that, but my syntactic brain keeps trying to do it anyway to get the syntax in line with the semantics. Just one of the trials of having a syntactically-oriented mind. Nothing I can do about it. Have a simply wonderful weekend.
[Added the next day: Lots of people have been emailing me to explain that the line really means we are just having a wonderful Christmastime. I know what it means. That's not the solution; that's the problem. The grammar of English only allows it to have the meaning "just having a wonderful Christmastime, nothing more". And I keep feeling that the adverb is straining to be allowed to get at the adjective wonderful, so that the phrase could mean "having an absolutely marvelous Christmastime." It won't help for you to email me saying you don't feel the need to read it in the latter way. I'm not talking about you, I'm talking about me, and why it is that I keep feeling syntactic strain when I hear the song. You may have a very different reaction. Please note that in the post above I explicitly said, your mileage may differ. Now stop mailing me. I'm trying to get in a Christmas mood here.]