Shia crushed his hand?

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Here are two snippets from news items about the actor Shia LaBeouf, who was recently involved in a car accident:

Shia LaBeouf has been released from hospital in Los Angeles, five days after he crushed his hand in a car crash. (Contact Music, Aug. 2)

The “Transformers” star didn’t just injure, but crushed his hand in the crash last Sunday that flipped his truck, reports The Associated Press. (Metro NY, Aug. 4)

I’m not happy with either of these sentences. My internal verb-ometer tells me that crush just doesn’t work that way.

In both cases, crush is operating as a member of a class that Beth Levin refers to as “HURT verbs” in her indispensable book, English Verb Classes and Alternations. Members of this verb class, which can take a body part as a direct object, include:

bark (shin), bite (lip), break, bruise, bump, burn, chip (tooth), cut, fracture, hurt, injure, nick (chin, leg), prick (finger), pull (muscle), rupture, scald, scratch (chin), skin (knee), split (lip), sprain (ankle, back, knee, wrist), strain, stub (toe), turn (ankle), twist (ankle)

Levin explains:

These verbs relate to the occurrence of damage to the body through a process that is not under control of the person that suffers the damage. … The subject involuntarily injures himself or herself and does not intentionally inflict an injury on himself or herself.

Some of the verbs allow intentional interpretations along with unintentional ones. Thus sentences like “I injured my leg” or “I bumped my head” could refer to purposive action that a person inflicts on his or her own body, depending on the context. To my mind’s ear, however, the verb crush with a body part as direct object only fits an intentional reading when the subject of the verb is the owner of the body part. So saying “Shia crushed his hand” sounds downright odd when the context is a car accident.

If the subject is the source of the injury rather than the possessor of the body part, then “crush + body part” works just fine:

Apparently the truck crushed his hand and leg and he has a concussion. (TMZ comment, July 27)

Shia LaBeouf could have a long road before him as he recovers from the accident that crushed his hand, his lawyer says. (AP, Aug. 1)

And of course, passive constructions are no problem either, as in the statement from LaBeouf’s lawyer and paraphrases thereof:

“The force of (the) impact immediately flipped Shia’s vehicle over, and, as a result, Shia’s left hand was crushed,” said his attorney Michael Norris in a statement. (People, Aug. 1)

Mr. LaBeouf’s left hand was crushed and he underwent four hours of surgery, his lawyer, Michael Norris, said. (NY Times, Aug. 4)

Just speculating here, but perhaps the writers of the first two sentences above originally used passives, along the lines of:

Shia LaBeouf has been released from hospital in Los Angeles, five days after his hand was crushed in a car crash.

The “Transformers” star’s hand wasn’t just injured, but crushed in the crash last Sunday that flipped his truck.

And then perhaps the writers’ respective editors (or their internal self-editors) recast the sentences as active, under the misguided notion that passive constructions should be avoided in all cases. No adjustment was made, however, for the fact that in the active voice crush doesn’t quite work like other injurious verbs of the HURT class. Then again, maybe my native-speaker intuitions on this are out of whack. Thoughts?



39 Comments

  1. brad said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    It’s odd to hear it now, but it’ll go away.

  2. Dan Milton said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    As a naive, but native, speaker of American English, the first sentence, simply using “crush” as a “hurt verb”, doesn’t bother me at all. The second gives me a slight pause — a crushed hand doesn’t immediately seem necessarily more serious than an injured hand.

  3. Chris said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

    The active and passive versions of those phrases differ in their attribution of blame for the crash (and hence the injury).
    Given that the crash was Shia’s fault the sentences as published are fine.
    Your native speakers intuition really is playing up.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    Chris: Shia is apparently not at fault. He was hit by a car that ran a red light. Not that this really changes things, since intentionality and culpability are two separate issues…

  5. Cavity Lee said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    I feel like that class of verbs is pretty open to new arrivals: “Have you heard about blorgle injuries? It’s this nerve damage thing they just discovered… it’s pretty bad. Anyway, my brother blorgled his neck in a bike accident last week.”

    But maybe that’s off the point– are there classes of words that new words can automatically join based on meaning, but which existing words that mean the right thing can just happen to not fall into?

    At any rate, with the context that it was in a car crash, I find those sentences fine, but I agree that a simple “Shia LaBeouf crushed his hand” would make me think he did it intentionally for some reason, while “Bob Saget skinned his knee” gets the unintentional-injury reading.

  6. Ryan Rosso said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    I would have to agree. ‘Crush + body part’ here doesn’t really bother me, however it does seem slightly less natural than other hurt words like ‘break,’ ‘hurt’ or ‘injure.’ I suspect that our awkward feeling is just due to its relatively rare usage in the context of an accident.

  7. Karen said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

    “He crushed his hand” seems fine to me, but it does require a ‘how’ – “he crushed his hand in a footlocker” ala Gene Kelly’s character in For Me and My Gal, for instance, so “He crushed his hand in a car wreck” doesn’t sound odd. It’s a simple ‘hurt’ verb for me, too.

  8. Faldone said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

    I agree that ‘crush’ sounds a little strange in this context. As for ‘crushed’ versus ‘injured’, ‘injured’ sounds like maybe, at worst, a severe cut or a couple of broken bones. ‘Crushed’ sounds like there aren’t any recognizable bones left.

  9. John Baker said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

    My own native-speaker intuition tells me that this usage is entirely acceptable, something I would say myself without a second thought. One of the meanings of “crush” is “To rumple or put out of shape by pressure or by rough handling: as, to crush a bonnet or a dress” (Century Dict.). It seems to me that you can crush a hand unintentionally, just as you can crush a bonnet or dress unintentionally. The only caveat would be that the usage might be inappropriate if the crushing was not even Shia’s unintentional act, but was entirely due to the driver who ran the red light.

  10. Brett said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    My feeling is similar to Karen’s above. Except that only certain sorts of “how” phrases sound right. Her example, “crushed his hand in a footlocker” seems fine, as would “crushed his hand under a car tire” or “with a misplaced hammer blow.” However, “in a car crash” sounds odd. I think the “how” phrase needs to be a proximate description of how the crushing occurred.

    (I now realize that the a seemingly more natural reading–for me–of “crushed his had in a car crash” would be if LaBeouf had had his hand struck between two impacting automobiles. Yet this describes such an outlandish scenario that I never considered it. In this case, the linguistic oddity of the intended meaning is so much less than the surreality of what I find to be the more natural reading that my brain automatically filtered the latter out.)

  11. James Russell said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    In general, I have no problem with ‘crush’ in this context, or ‘mangle’ or whatever.

    For me, the active side of the active/passive alternation suggests some sort
    of indirect causation, through neglect or recklessness, for example.
    However, immediate context that suggests otherwise would render it semantically anomalous.

    His hand was crushed in a car accident/He crushed his hand in a car accident.

    vs.
    His hand was crushed in a freak accident/*He crushed his hand in a freak accident.

  12. Mark Reed said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    As a 40-year-old native American English speaker, the use of ‘crush’ as a HURT-verb sounds perfectly natural to me . . ‘Shia crushed his hand in a car accident”. I guess our verb-ometers are calibrated differently.

  13. Richard Hershberger said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    Count me among the native speakers who find this usage unremarkable. Google Books agrees with me. Using “he crushed his hand” as a search string I find from an autobiography from 1856 of one Elizabeth Hill, which includes a discussion of her brother and the dangers of being a sailor: “At one time he crushed his hand in so dreadful a manner that he was unable to use it for three months.” This is merely the first clear example I came across. A glance through suggests that this isn’t particularly uncommon.

  14. Eleanor said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    My native-speaker intuition (British, 30s) says its a borderline case, a bit odd but probably OK. But I have a feeling it’s the car crash that somehow makes it odd, rather than the verb itself. I think I’m OK with “he crushed his finger in a door” but sort-of dubious about “he broke his leg in a car crash”, at least unless he was driving, which isn’t clear here.

  15. Ben said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    The usage in a headline, without any context, seems fine to me.

    I do have to say that I somewhat agree with Chris, above: the usage given implies that Shia, intentionally or not, was responsible for the injury. The problem seems egregious to me when both actors are in the same sentence:

    *Shia crushed his hand when the drunk driver rear-ended his truck.

    That feels really awkward to me. It makes me feel like there’s missing context in which Shia is doing something with his hand which will make the injury worse.

  16. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

    Further context for Eleanor and Ben: Shia was driving, and in fact was given a citation for misdemeanor drunk driving. But the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said he wasn’t responsible for the crash, since the other driver ran a red light.

    I’m still not sure how much this context affects my reading of crush. I think I’m fine with Eleanor’s example, “he crushed his finger in a door,” so now I’m having a hard time pinpointing what’s objectionable about the Shia sentences. It’s a slippery thing — as Brad said, sometimes the oddness just goes away. I’ve found my judgments changing, for instance, on the use of the verb extort in the sentence, “She tried to extort Barry for money.” (See “Extorting Barry.”)

  17. Trevor Barrie said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    My reading is similar to Mr. Zimmer’s, except I would argue that the active use of crush implies not intentionality but agency. Eg, “John crushed his hand in the door” sounds fine to me, and certainly doesn’t suggest that John meant to crush his hand, but it does lead me to think that John himself was the one who swung the door shut.

    This is different from examples like “I skinned my knees”, “I broke my leg”, or “I injured my hand”, which I find much easier to read in a sense exactly equivalent to the corresponding passive construction.

  18. John Laviolette said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    I don’t have a problem with the usage of “crush” this way. True, for a moment, I entertain a meaning of “crush” for each sentence that includes the idea of “intention”, but, as other discussions on Language Log have pointed out, there are varying degrees of ambiguity, from the kind that causes a temporary confusion of interpretation, through critical and potential dangerous forms of ambiguity, all the way to unresolvably ambiguous statements.

    But then, I don’t see groups like HURT verbs as hard categories, and instead see them as temporary descriptions of language behavior, subject to change.

  19. James said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

    Ben, maybe this will help.
    It’s not intentionality but rather agency that, for you, is implied when someone crushes something. What seems odd about Shia’s case is that when “he crushed his hand,” as the account says, he didn’t actually do anything. (By contrast, there is nothing odd, for you, in someone “injuring himself” without doing anything — maybe he fell out of bed while he slept and thereby injured himself.)
    My usage is pretty much in agreement with yours. I can understand without any real effort or a double-take, but I would never produce an agentless ‘crush’ of that kind.

    By the way, this explains why some commenters are getting whiffs of responsibility attribution. Agency isn’t the same thing as responsibility, but maybe they actually meant agency rather than responsibility?

  20. S Onosson said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

    Hmmm… for me, “x crushed x’s hand” and “x’s hand was/got crushed” are virtually synonymous. Anything to do with agency, responsibility, intentionality, etc. falls out from other (optional) parts of the sentence, or further context. But as it stands, it doesn’t strike me as the least bit odd or confusing.

  21. GAC said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

    Didn’t sound odd until it was explained.

  22. mgh said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

    I’ve been reading Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought.” One of the tests he describes may be pertinent here. I’m extrapolating from what he writes, but I think it works.

    Verbs of intent can take their objects in either order:1a. I pounded my fist on the table1b. I pounded the table with my fist

    2a. I bumped my head against the wall2b. I bumped the wall with my head

    3a. Shia slammed his fingers in the door3b. Shia slammed the door on his fingers

    Verbs of passive agency have to take the body-part object first:4a. Shia crushed his hand under the car4b. Shia crushed the car on his hand*

    5a. Shia burned his finger on the stove5b. Shia burned the stove on his fingers*

    6a. Shia stubbed his toe on the endtable6b. Shia stubbed the endtable on his toe*

    By this analysis, “crush” belongs in the class of verbs that can be used passively, which fits with what sounds natural to me.

  23. mgh said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:10 pm

    sorry for funky spacing, it looked right in the preview box.

  24. MJ said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

    I’m with Ben. I find the usage strange. I wonder, of the people who don’t find it strange, whether they can say things like:

    *LeBeouf crushed himself.

    If my hand is injured, then I injured my hand and thereby injured myself. Not all hurt-verbs work that way. If I skin my knee, I didn’t skin myself. But the starred sentence above sounds bad even when it’s his whole self that gets injured, e.g.

    LeBeouf was walking down the street, quietly minding his own business. All of a sudden, a precariously balanced piano fell out of a 12th story window above him. ?*?Shia crushed himself flat.

  25. mgh said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

    MJ, in fact of the 24 hurt verbs Ben lists, your test only succeeds for 8 of them (bruise, burn, cut, hurt, injure, prick, scald, scratch) so it seems to me like it is measuring some property of these verbs other than the one that’s at issue

  26. MJ said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 11:05 pm

    @mgh

    I didn’t intend it as a test for hurt-verbs. I explicitly noted that ‘skin’ doesn’t work that way, and you’re right that in general the verbs don’t work that way.

    So the test I really wanted was as follows: if X is a hurt-verb, and it’s the whole of one that gets X-ed, then sentences of the form “so-and-so X-ed himself/ herself” should be acceptable. In fact, you can have quite a bit of fun imagining scenarios in which, for example, “John twisted himself” or “Bill sprained himself” are acceptable. My claim was that it sounds totally absurd to say, in the circumstance I imagine above, that Shia crushed himself.

  27. Mark F. said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

    This is a beautiful example of how prescriptive rules get made. Some commentator notices something that sounds wrong to them. They talk about their impression and, under the right circumstances, others start to accept the perceived wrongness as an unbreakable rule of the language. Usually, this happens when the commentators phrase their impressions in much more prescriptive terms, but I seem to recall that the No Stranded Prepositions rule began with a rather diffident comment.

  28. Ling Student said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 1:10 am

    I’m with S Onosson on this one: To say “He crushed his hand” sounds perfectly fine to me. I wondered if I was on some kind of linguistic fringe with regard to my intuition, but it seems like others share the same intuition about it.

    Actually, to flip it around, I found it strange that anyone could find this construction infelicitous.

  29. Joe said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 3:41 am

    That usage doesn’t really bother me, but there’s certainly some ambiguity there about whether the incident was voluntary or not.

    For me, the context disambiguated things, it out so I wouldn’t have noticed that unless it was pointed out. It’s clear that he didn’t crush his own hand, or it wouldn’t have been an “accident.”

    How I tell which way to disambiguate things, I do not know. I mean, what if it *was* intentional, but they improperly referred to it as an “accident?”

  30. skot said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 3:59 am

    I agree with Benjamin, but I’m wondering if this isn’t related to the age of the posters, i.e. those who think it’s OK usage may just be younger than those who find it strange. I find it strange usage myself, but then there are examples in which it sounds like someone is intentionally doing something terrible to himself when actually it’s accidental…

    Consider “He cracked his head open on the pavement”
    and “He wrecked his hand in a skate park”.
    There’s a lot of slang usage like the latter sentence that fits this form. Earlier, no one would have used wreck in this way, but now it’s pretty common. To be clear, in my mind these only allow for one interpretation – an accident has happened.

    I like your 909 post mgh, but somehow it’s not quite hitting the nail on the head in this instance.

    1a I injured my hand on the table
    1b I injured the table with my hand

    but

    2a I injured my hand on the table
    2b I crushed my hand on the table

    I could replace “crushed” with “stabbed” in 2b to get the idea across about how I (still) feel about the verb “to crush”.
    But obviously this view may be dying out. Crush has probably already become “dual usage” like wreck or destroy – allowing both intentional and unintentional interpretations…

  31. skot said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 4:17 am

    OK. maybe injured was the wrong word choice for the mgh examples…

    injured can be used both intentionally an unintentionally… whereas, at least in my opinion, crushed cannot.

    I think you’ll get the gist of what I’m trying to say…

    1a I skinned my knee on the sidewalk
    1b I skinned the sidewalk with my knee

    but

    2a I skinned my knee on the sidewalk
    2b I crushed my knee on the sidewalk

    Actually, now that I’ve written that, I can see that even “stabbed” could be used for unintentional injury. I wouldn’t be a huge fan of such usage…

    The only real way to get the idea across of how I feel about this usage would be to replace 2b with
    “I purposefully crushed my knee on the sidewalk using a twenty pound sledge hammer. It was awkward swinging a hammer of such size while sitting cross-legged, but it had to be done.”

  32. Will Dowling said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    >>[…]class that Beth Levin refers to as “HURT verbs” […] which can take a body part as a direct object, include: […] scratch (chin), […]

    The range of opinions on the felicity of “crush” in the context of interest isn’t surprising to me, but the inclusion of “scratch (chin)” on the list of HURT verbs has me scratching my head.

  33. mgh said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 11:12 am

    skot, the analysis I suggested is that:
    intentional-hurt verbs can take their objects in either order
    unintentional-hurt verbs have to take the body-part object first

    did you find a counterexample?

    in your comments I see “cracked”, “wrecked”, “crushed”, “skinned”, and “injured” all being used as unintentional-hurt verbs and accepting only a body-part as their first object, as the analysis predicts.

    as a side note, each of these verbs will take a different from of prepositional phrase as an object (“cracked… on”, “crushed… under”, “banged… against”) but that is a separate distinction from whether the PP object can take the position immediately after the verb. Also, the PP object in these examples should be the agent doing the crushing (or whatever), not the location (“crushed by the hammer”, not “crushed on the sidewalk”). [Recall the Cyndi Lauper-Jeff Goldblum movie “Vibes”, in which the Bad Guy gets the drop on them in an Aztec ruin, points his gun at Goldblum, and tells him “I’ll grant you a wish: where DON’T you want to me to shoot you?” “South America.”]

  34. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 11:25 am

    Will: Yeah, that’s a real chin-scratcher. But there are some relevant examples out there…

    Inside, after 20 minutes, someone came in and told my teacher that the other class’ teacher, called Suzanne, had an accident because she tripped on the ground, broke her teeth and scratched her chin… (link)

    Do you still put your pants on one leg at a time?
    I put them on the way everyone else does—over my head and head through the zipper. I put my arms through the legs.
    Do you ever scratch your chin on the zipper?
    Yes, that’s why they call me a zipper neck. (link)

    For the most part, though, I’d associate “scratch one’s chin” with deliberate (thoughtful!) action.

  35. kip said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    I’m another person who doesn’t think this usage of “crush” sounds odd at all.

  36. Kris Rhodes said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    I have no problem with the headline’s usage, and it does not seem to me to imply any agency or responsibility on LeBeouf’s part.

    I want to note, though, that I had the hardest time with this from the OP:

    “To my mind’s ear, however, the verb crush with a body part as direct object only fits an intentional reading when the subject of the verb is the owner of the body part. So saying “Shia crushed his hand” sounds downright odd when the context is a car accident.”

    To my mind’s ear, this means the writer thinks that the only circumstance under which “crush+body part” gets an intentional reading is when the subject is the owner of the body part. It took me several puzzled minutes to realize that what the writer meant was that the only reading “crush+body part” can have when the subject is the owner of the body part is the intentional reading.

    So if anyone else was confused (hey I can’t be the only one can I?) there’s the explanation.

    -Kris

  37. Masked Translator said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

    To me, “he crushed his hand” is structurally identical to “he broke his hand,” except semantically “crush” implies multiple fracture points of the bones in the hand (or in extreme cases, the literal reduction of the bones to smithereens).

    I can’t believe this perfectly normal expression merited any discussion…

  38. misterfricative said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 1:26 am

    I’m entirely in agreement with Masked Translator.

    The only strangeness for me in the sentence below is a parsing issue: ‘injure’ feels intransitive (and thus incorrect), and even on repeat readings, it still takes a second or two for the sentence to fall into place.

    The “Transformers” star didn’t just injure, but crushed his hand in the crash last Sunday that flipped his truck, reports The Associated Press. (Metro NY, Aug. 4)

    For the record, since age and provenance may be factors, I’m a 52 year old native speaker of British English with 25+ years’ immersion in US English and EFL environments.

  39. skot said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 3:43 am

    mgh,

    I wasn’t implying that your analysis was completely wrong, just questioning it’s value to this particular discussion, since your “verbs of intent” can be used passively as well, as you have shown; i.e. “Shia LaBeouf has been released from hospital in Los Angeles, five days after he slammed his hand in a car crash”. I don’t see the difference between the two verb groups as you’ve defined them related to the sentence at hand.

    Slammed is an especially weak example for your case, since it is very often used passively. 3a. Shia slammed his fingers in the door. 3b. Shia slammed the door on his fingers. Either way, it sounds accidental, which is what I thought the point of the discussion was.

    My examples were only weak, if viewed as a direct confrontation to your argument, which they were not. Like I said, I really liked your “rule”; it was very interesting.

    I finally came to the conclusion that almost any verb can be used with an unintentional interpretation as soon as I tried to use “stabbed”, which ought to sound intentional, but I noticed could also be viewed as unitentional as well depending on the context. That was a surprise for me and a kind of “ah ha” moment.

    Now that I’ve read the entire thread again, I actually sort of agree with the Masked Translator – this doesn’t sound too strange when you bear in mind what the word crushed is actually implying.

    However, even after all that, I think “his hand was crushed” is mo better.

    btw: that is a great line from Jeff Goldblum!

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