Elliptical sin

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About a month ago, Brad DeLong took Ross Douthat to task for his unpleasant description of a failed undergraduate hook-up ("Fear of Reese Witherspoon Look-Alikes on the Pill", 3/16/2009). DeLong made his case mainly by quoting Douthat's own words, from p. 184 of his 2005 book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. The quoted passage was picked up and reproduced in more than a dozen other blog posts, for example in Wonkette ("Misogynist Neck-Beard Ross Douthat Shares his Sexy Stories", 3/18/2009).

It's hard to disagree with the rather negative tone of the comments on Mr. Douthat's attitude towards the young woman "who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon", and who "bored and somewhat disgusted" him by "drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks" and "pushing her tongue into my mouth". Perhaps the most temperate of these remarks was "it's clear he is no gentleman".

But I'm here to defend Douthat from the many commenters who also accused him of being an incompetent writer — e.g. Froborr at slacktivist.com who suggested that "once again we note the curious association between being a horrible person and being a bad writer".

There have been many horrible people, orders of magnitude less nice than Ross Douthat, who were excellent writers. And in this case, the bizarre solecism attributed to Douthat was actually a scribal error on the part of Brad DeLong.

Here's the passage as DeLong quotes it, with the offending sentence indicated in bold:

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend's parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point–"Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want?" she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn't sure what to say, but then I wasn't sure this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business… and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered–"You know, I'm on the pill…"

Comments on this included:

Your ability to what? Spill out of pink pajamas?
His ability to WHAT??? Get an erection?
To do what! Egads, my students write better than this.
Uh, do "most Harvard guys" write sentences like this? WTF does it mean?
His ability to spill? Vomit? Semen?

Now, we linguists, like everyone else, sometimes learn that our ideas of grammaticality  differ radically from those of some other people, a phenomenon that I've called "WTF grammar".  And verb-phrase ellipsis is one of the areas where judgments often differ.  But when I read DeLong on Douthat, I was pretty sure that in this case, the omission of the verb phrase was way outside the bounds of grammatical variation in English, and had to be a mistake rather than an idiolectal or stylistic quirk. My only question was whether the mistake was made by Brad DeLong or by Ross Douthat (and his publisher).

Yesterday afternoon, I happened to be in the library, and so I checked the relevant section of Privilege. As a result, I can reveal that Brad DeLong was the (grammatically) guilty party:  what those overflowing breasts threatened was Ross Douthat's ability to breathe.

Here's the full passage, with a bit of context at both ends:

Hooking up with people outside the Harvard bubble was always easier, or so everyone knew ("dropping the H-bomb" is the campus term for luring a girl to bed by casually telling her where you go to school). […]

My own attempts to drop the H-bomb peaked the summer after my grand freshman failure. I wasted fruitless hours at UConn frats and seedy basement parties, making desperate conversation with various young women — "Beer Slut," my friends called one; "Stumpy," they nicknamed another — the hopes of burying Rachel Polley's memory with a string of conquests.

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend's parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point — Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want? she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn't sure what to say, but then I wasn't sure that this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to breathe. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business . . . and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered —

"You know, I'm on the pill . . ."

I'm on the pill. . . . She wasn't from Harvard, but on that night, in that dank basement bedroom, she spoke for all of us, the whole young American elite. Not I love you, not This is incredible, not Let's go all the way, but I'm on the pill. Because that, after all, was the critical information.

In general, I have a high opinion of the collective wisdom of the internet. But after many re-posts of DeLong's quote from Douthat, and dozens of comments on the "threatened my ability to" sentence, you'd think that someone in the reality-based community would have checked the text before this.



11 Comments

  1. DW said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 7:02 am

    Ross Douthat, not Russ Douthat.
    (elaboration invites incorrection)

    [(myl) Oops… fixed now. Muphry's Law (Also known as the McKean-Harman-Skitt Law) triumphs again.]

  2. Dierk said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    An incident to use in class; students may actually note how it pays off to not rely on hearsay – or as we call it in the academia, 'secondary source'.

    [(myl) Note that mainstream journalism is not more reliable in this respect. For an example relevant to linguistic description, see "Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed", 7/9/2005, and "Linguists beware", 7/9/2005. For a couple of examples where the content was seriously affected, see "This time it matters", 8/13/2005, and "'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times", 8/27/2005.

    And unfortunately, even audio and video clips are not always reliable: for examples of faked clips presented by major media outlets, see "Filled pauses and faked audio", 12/28/2008, and "In president, out president, fake president", 12/6/2008. ]

  3. Allison said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    Well, it looks like Douthat was wronged, not just in the ungrammatical quoting of his work, but also by ending the quote where DeLong did, made him look like more of a jerk than he might have.

    Still not going to read the book, though. Hope Douthat doesn't mind.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Even the misquoted text isn't all that terrible. An ellipsis of this sort ("threatened my ability to") makes the reader look for the last verb phrase with the narrator as subject, which here is "I wanted," so the completion would be "[to] want [anything]." Not elegant, but understandable in a way.

    By the way, if Douthat is pronounced like "do that" then a good nickname for him would be Don't.

  5. GB said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    Douthat's Atlantic website says "it's pronounced 'Dow-thut.' " This presumably means /daʊθət/, although the spelling "th" is ambiguous between voiceless /θ/ and voiced /ð/. Another reason everyone should learn the IPA, as Geoff recommends in the next post.

  6. John Cowan said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    If the name were neither English nor Scots, I'd have bet money on /θ/; but it is in fact English, according to Ancestry.com (a variant of Douthwaite, where -thwaite is a locational suffix used in the old Danelaw), so /ð/ is quite likely right, since the sound is intervocalic.

    Short summary: /ð/ appears initially in function words but not content words, intervocalically in native words but not borrowings, finally where a lost -e once followed (mostly still written, sometimes not), and before syllabic /m/ — and essentially nowhere else; in particular, not in recent coinages or borrowings, even where the source language has [ð], like Spanish padre.

  7. Sili said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    [(myl) Oops… fixed now. Muphry's Law (Also known as the McKean-Harman-Skitt Law) triumphs again.]

    And again.

  8. D.O. said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    Because the source of the quote was a book there is a chance that the problem of wrong quotation is solvable without getting ones behind off a chair. We have to wait until Google begins to scan all the books at the very second they are printed.

  9. Ian Preston said,

    April 18, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

    You can hear him speak his own name here. It sounds to me like a [θ] (as I am pretty sure it would be in Douthwaite).

  10. Nick Lamb said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    Slacktivist's main attraction is its criticism of the Left Behind series. Not so much because it's well executed as because nobody else has been willing to sit and write page-by-page critique of a series that's so terribly written yet so very popular.

    On that one topic Fred does a pretty good job because he knows his Christian theology, and he's a reasonably good (professional journalist as far as I understand it) writer. So he feels confident in telling us that Revelation is addressed to long dead people and about things which happened long ago, and he also feels confident pointing out awkward language choices, bad pacing, awful dialogue, etc.

    As soon as he strays from these areas, Fred runs off the rails, so I eventually learned to read only the Left Behind stuff.

  11. Roger Lustig said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    Good news! Douthat is now writing Op-Ed for the NY Times. His debut is a doozy. Linguistically unexceptionable (and unexceptional), but…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/28/opinion/28douthat.html

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