Reflections on "Inherent Vice"

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Last night I went out to see Inherent Vice, the only film so far made of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Two and a half hours of bafflement later, the credits rolled. I was with two distinguished computational linguists, Mark Steedman and Bonnie Webber. "It was more coherent than the book," said Mark, who liked the film. Bonnie and I weren't so sure. Today there was a lot of talk in the British media about how people have been walking out without staying to the end (Owen Jones says he actually lost the will to live). I have only seen one movie in many years that was so bad that I walked out, and my will to live was undiminished by Inherent Vice; but I needed to go home and read the Wikipedia plot summary to make sure I had grasped something of what was going on. ("This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed," says a note at the top by an unidentified Wikipedian. Yes! It is, and I'm very grateful. Please don't try to "help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise." I need it just the way it is.)

The language angle on this, I hear you ask? I don't just post film reviews here in order to ensure that the cost of my cinema tickets can be charged to Language Log's corporate American Express card as a business expense. Oh, no. There's always a linguistic hook.

One linguistic aspect is the slurred speech of most of the characters in the film: with the exception of Bigfoot, the hippie-hating cop (he has just spent "a long and tiring day of violating civil rights," he announces loudly and clearly at one point), the characters are nearly all drugged or drunk most of the time (it's 1970 in Los Angeles), and mumble to each other with sush slurrrd spch tht u cn hrly unrstn a wrd v thdilog.

But I made one other linguistically relevant observation later, when I got home.

In the Wikipedia article (as retrieved on 3 February 2015) there is a sentence near the end of the plot summary that reads as follow (and I give it with the customary linguist's asterisk prefix to mark the fact that it is not grammatical in Standard English):

*Sauncho and Doc go to the ocean and watch as the Golden Fang becomes confiscated by the feds.

The verb become just doesn't take passive verb phrases as its complement. Perhaps the Wikipedia summary was written by a someone who is not a native speaker. As I noted in my paper "Fear and loathing of the English passive", when Strunk and White give the sentence The reason he left college was that his health became impaired as an example of a passive that should be replaced by an active, they reveal that they do not know actives from passives. Became impaired illustrates the verb become taking an adjective phrase complement; it also takes noun phrase complements (as in became an invalid), but there's no passive in the sentence. Kennedy was shot by Oswald is a grammatical passive, but *Kennedy became shot by Oswald is not. Nor is *The Golden Fang became confiscated by the feds.

There's nothing semantically wrong: it's purely syntax. The boat in question certainly became the property of the feds once they confiscated it. But *became confiscated is not grammatical. The Wikipedia article should say Sauncho and Doc go to the ocean and watch as the Golden Fang is confiscated by the feds. Make the change, if you have a Wikipedia editing account. But don't shorten that plot summary.

Postscript: I should probably have limited my general claim to passives with a dynamic sense, where there is an activity referred to: The feds confiscated the Golden Fang is a claim about people doing something at a specific time, and its passive sounds completely ungrammatical to me. (Someone suggested to me that the literal translation into Dutch is fine; perhaps the Wikipedia article was written by a Dutch speaker.)

But Bill Spruiell, an associate professor of English at Central Michigan University, points out to me that you can find passives as complement of become in literature:

  1. Virginia Woolf, it will be remembered, quickly became bored by a representative male writer's insistent use of the first person…
  2. Others stuck more and more zealously to their original position the more it became falsified by reality.
  3. Places where Navajos in recent generations successfully hid or defended themselves, especially mountains, became validated by those events as good places for ceremonial practices…
  4. But an hour out of the station, the interior became superheated by the midsummer sun.

As Bill says, some of these look like genuine long passives. What I'm suggesting is that they actually involve active clauses in which become takes an adjective phrase complement, the head of the adjective phrase being an adjective taking its form from the past participle of a verb.

But of course, I could be wrong. My claim may be too strong. Finding out the correct analyses of the sentences of English is (in my view) an empirical matter. It isn't a matter of stipulation by authorities; analyses have to be discovered and tested like anything in the natural sciences, and new discoveries or conceptual breakthroughs can overturn what were previously thought of as facts.

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