A gerund too far?

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James Taranto starts out his latest Best of the Web column with some clever wordplay, based on the status of English as a semi-negative-concord language ("He Hasn't Accomplished Nothing", 12/1/2009):

Slate's Jacob Weisberg doesn't think Barack Obama has accomplished nothing, and Weisberg ain't usin' no bad grammar neither. Weisberg disputes the "conventional wisdom about Obama"–to wit, that he "hasn't done anything yet." This, he claims, "isn't just premature–it's sure to be flipped on its head by the anniversary of his inauguration on Jan. 20."

The ambiguity of negative concord vs. negative cancellation is a linguistic commonplace, but this is the first example that I can recall of it being used in a headline and lede. (I'm not complaining — Taranto's use is rhetorically clever, and appropriate in an opinion piece.)

Taranto later treats us to a pun that I suspect that he's been saving up for some time:

Keep in mind that Weisberg is a flatterer, not a critic, of Obama's. When he says the president may end up burdening the country with an "imperfect behemoth," he means it as praise, and lavish praise at that. Objectively, this is faint praise at best–and that is just the tip of the Weisberg. By his standard of presidential greatness–the making happen of "big, transformational things"–George W. Bush was a great president if you believe that the liberation of Iraq was the greatest disaster in the history of American foreign policy.

Like most suspicions, my reaction in this case is more about me than about him. During years of blogging about Jacob Weisberg's Bushisms feature at Slate, I consciously resisted many tempting opportunities to write about "the tip of the Weisberg". This is because I generally try to avoid making fun of peoples' names, due to a scolding by a fourth-grade teacher that has somehow stuck with me.

"The tip of the Weisberg" is not a pun original to Taranto — the jazz flutist Tim Weisberg put out an album by that name in 1979 — but I can't locate any earlier examples where it's been applied to Slate's editor.

Anyhow, the reason that Sam Mikes sent me to read Taranto's column was none of the above, but rather a striking gerund, "the making happen of 'big, transformational things'".

English generally lets us turn VERB OBJECT constructions into nominalizations of the form the VERBing of OBJECT: "the killing of a witness", "the curing of cancer", "the stealing of Thor's hammer".  These are not terribly common in most styles of writing — I just read through three front-page articles in the NYT without finding any examples.  But Mr. Taranto has gone a step farther, by nominalizing a causative construction of the form make OBJECT VERB (e.g. "make big things happen") as the making VERB of OBJECT ("the making happen of big things").

Google News has no other examples of "the making happen of", as of this morning, but a general web search yields six other cases. One of them was in scare quotes and Brazil:

Also instrumental in the “making-happen” of the seminar were the Office of International Affairs of Ryerson University, Centro de Referência em Segurança Alimentar e Nutricional (CPDA/UFRRJ, UFF, IBASE); and Serviço Social da Industria (SESI).

Two others are different references to the catalogue entry for Sorcery 201 at GDU:

One definition of the modern practice of sorcery is the making happen of something that is totally improbable at the time it is first suggested. Case study on how Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

Strikingly, the other three are all in philosophical discourse:

(link) Suppose that a man raises his arm. Suppose, too, that the first phase of the outer aspect of his doing so is the making happen of the neural process.

(link) We would be the agents of these events and in virtue of having made them happen we might perform numerous other higher level acts. And if one wished one could say that the making happen of these simple occurrences is an action.

(link) For θ-ing here, O'Shaughnessy considers nerving or "getting myself" to shoot some fellow; but if this does not refer to some kind of imaginative self-manipulation (like promising myself rewards for doing it), then it cannot be distinct from the act of shooting him (Φ), which is the "the making happen of a finger movement" on the trigger (φ).

This move — "the making happen of X" as a nominalization of "making X happen" — is definitely on the grammatical fringe, at least in frequentistic terms, but these web hits, though sparse, suggest that it's within the territory of Norma Loquendi. But even with other constructions as common as make X happen, many Tarantonian nominalizations seem beyond the pale.

Thus it's normal to say make X leave or make X smile, but "the making leave of X"? "The making smile of X"? I don't think so, and neither does web search.

What about cases where the small-clause predicate is supplied by an adjective rather than a verb? Web search finds many thousands of examples for "the making happy of", but there's nothing for "the making angry of", "the making crazy of"; and there are no genuine examples for "the making tired of" or "the making sick of". And note that along with "the making happy of X", there's also "the making of X happy".

For that matter, we also find a few examples like "I guess I have to start off with talking about what they put into the making of this event happen from the planning to the execution". Or more strikingly, this sentence from Stanley Cavell's "Thinking of Emerson", New Literary History 11(1) 1979:

I do not mean their interest in what we may call their poems, but their interest in the fact that what they are building is writing, that their writing is, as it realizes itself daily under their hands, sentence by shunning sentence, the accomplishment of inhabitation, the making of it happen, the poetry of it.

As noted with respect to make X leave and make X smile, mere frequency doesn't seem to be enough to license Tarantonian nominalization; but on the other hand, infrequency doesn't seem to be a barrier: "The consequence was the death of 204 men and boys (including б men killed in the shaft on the day of the accident), and the leaving destitute of 103 widows".

What's going on here? We start with gerund-nominalizations of transitive verbs, with the object of the verb expressed in a prepositional phrase headed by of. This construction is unremarkable though not very common. The question then arises whether this construction can be used with causatives like "make something happen" or "make someone happy", and if so, how. The answer seems to be "maybe" and "in various ways".

For a different domain of iffy gerunding, see our posts from February 2005 "The blowing of each other up" and "The blowing of Strunk and White's rules off".


  1. MattF said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    This is making resisting to contradictory impulses that's difficult to comment. On.

  2. Jorge said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    Searching for "making happen of" gives a couple more hits:

    "his making happen of so many things"

    "in the working out or making happen of these decisions"

    And one with an odd "of":

    "… connected with committing, preparing for or instigating, that is to say, bringing about or making happen, of an act of terrorism"

  3. Chud said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    All this "tip of the Weisberg" reminds me that I have a bris to attend this week.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    Maybe it works because happen is used so often to facilitate verb nominalization. Compare:

    The president negotiated the treaty in May.
    The negotiation happened in May.

    Certainly you could write sentences in which the negotiation leaves or smiles, but they wouldn't be analogous at all.

    [(myl) Action or event nominalizations also often "take place" — how do you feel about "the making of important things take place"?]

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    I think that there are two things motivating the make happen construction in Taranto's statement. One is stylistic: the wanting to exploit the fact that focus naturally tends to fall at the end of a constituent, by saving that position for the word or phrase that you want the focus to be on. (This is a strategy, BTW, that's recommended by Joseph Williams on the one hand, Strunk & White on the other, and Bryan Garner in between.)

    [(myl) Also, perhaps originally, by Dwight Bolinger — what edition of S & W did it appear in?]

    Of course, Taranto could have achieved this goal without using making happen. For example, he could have said the causing of "big transformational things," but to my ear that doesn't convey the same sense of agentivity and intentionality as making happen. And that difference, I suspect, is the second motivating factor.

    The strategy of putting the important stuff at the end has some similarities with the phenomenon of heavy-NP shift — the moving rightward of NPs that (like this one) are too long to fit comfortably in the position that the grammar would ordinarily call for. Indeed, both things are probably at work in the Sorcery 201 example.

    OTOH, neither phenomenon seems to apply in Mark's examples of make VERB of X that don't work. Maybe that's (at least part of) why they don't work.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Could the fact that several instances of "making happen" occur in philosophical discourse reflect the influence of the German Geschehen machen?

    In languages in which the verbal noun is formed from the infinitive such constructions (i.e. two infinitives, one being the complement of the other) are not uncommon, e.g savoir faire.

  7. Bill Walderman said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    Doesn't the construction "the making happen of "big, transformational things"' contribute to the ironic tone of the sentence precisely because it is slightly ungrammatical?

  8. Picky said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Not kind to quote Prof Pullum's assertion re White and adjectives and adverbs, given that he has since withdrawn it.

  9. Neal Goldfarb said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    @myl: Also, perhaps originally, by Dwight Bolinger — what edition of S & W did it appear in?

    I don't know. The first I ever saw (or heard of) S&W was in 1977, when it was one of the required books for my legal writing class, and I'm pretty sure that the advice to ""place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end" was included in that edition, whichever one it was. I don't have it handy now, and I may not still have it at all. And I can't find any viewable editions online that might help answer the question. Arnold Zwicky, phone home.

    It wouldn't be surprising if it turned out that White was borrowing from Bolinger, because the discussion of this point in S&W has always stood out as showing a degree of linguistic sophistication that even Geoff Pullum couldn't complain too much about:

    The word or group of words entitled to this position of prominence is usually the logical predicate, that is, the new element in the sentence[.]

    It would be pretty funny if the single best piece of advice in S&W was something that was copped from a linguist.

    [(myl) The words that you quote certainly aren't in the original White-less 1918 edition, and I couldn't find any similar formulation there. The place where I first read this idea from Bolinger is "Maneuvering for Stress and Intonation," College Composition and Communication, 8 (1957), 234-238, reprinted in Forms of English. If White got it (directly or indirectly) from Bolinger, that would be the source: the first "and White" revision appeared in 1959. But I wouldn't be surprised to find that Bolinger discussed similar ideas in some work in the 1940s, for example his 1947 reviews of Pike's Intonation of American English.]

  10. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    [(myl) Action or event nominalizations also often "take place" — how do you feel about "the making of important things take place"?]

    Aesthetically, it's clunkier because (a) the verbal in question is now 2 words and (b) must therefore be postponed. (How awkward is "The making take place of . . ."?)

    I think "the making happen" is pretty edgy to begin with. If it works at all, I think part of the appeal is its novelty, the sense that we've stretched the language in a way that we normally don't do. In that sense, it's poetic, and given the correct alignment of certain stars, it could become a cliche overnight. The counter example goes too far. Maybe there's a deep structure lurking behind my subjectivity, but that's the best I can do.

    It's also wrong, because this doesn't sound nearly as awkward, at least to me: "The bringing into being of important things." Nor is it poetic. Something I'd expect to see in a freshman essay.

    A lot of your (Mark's) puzzles bring us into shadowy areas like aesthetics and politeness. They feel real, but difficult to quantize.

  11. Neal Goldfarb said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    Following up on my last post: Recognition of the end of a sentence as a natural position of emphasis can apparently be dated back at least to 1940.

    In The Winning Brief, Bryan Garner offers this quote:

    The emphatic position in a sentence is the end; the beginning is also an emphatic position, though to a less [sic] degree. —Margaret M. Bryant & Janet Rankin Aiken, The Psychology of English 172 (1940

    [(amz) I suspect that you could find some earlier observations along these lines. Bolinger is unlikely to have been the first person to think of the idea, but he certainly was influential in its spread.]

  12. G.D. Ritter said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    In an even stranger example of the same construction, one of the cartoons from Homestar Runner mentions that one character's recipes "…tend to center around the grossing out of or the making puke of friends and well-wishers." Of course, Homestar Runner's dialogue is, by and large, a self-aware exercise in near-grammaticality, but it's interesting to see a construction like this generalized to such an extreme degree.

  13. mgh said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    trying to come up with comparable expressions, I found the following decision by the US Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

    "In addition to protecting the rights of the defendant, the hearing serves to prevent the perpetration of a fraud upon, and the making a mockery of, the judicial process."

    I also found a number of examples of "the making light of". But perhaps these are different than "the making happen of"?

    [(myl) The most obvious difference is that the verbal versions have the same basic word order, and the same prepositional phrase, as the nominalized versions. Thus someone typically makes a mockery of X, or makes light of X.]

  14. slobone said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    The VERBing of OBJECT is fine, as in The Making of High School Musical 3, but as soon as the verb becomes compound, it starts to sound a little pretentious. If you see a short story with the title The Coming Home of Seamus McGee, you know you're in for a heavy slog.

    [(myl) When the verb is intransitive, the noun phrase in "the VERBing of NOUNPHRASE" is typically its subject. Thus your example, or the series of examples in the almost-seasonal lyric

    O the rising of the sun
    And the running of the deer
    The playing of the merry organ
    Sweet singing in the choir

    (Though I guess that "the playing of the organ" is ambiguous between organ as subject and organ as object.)]

  15. Joe said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    Maybe I'm the odd one out, but "making happen" seems like a perfectly natural way of constructing a sentence to me.

    Would saying something like, "The making happening of the plans…", make any more sense (despite looking extremely awkward).

    Maybe "the happen-making".

    Or better yet we could abandon our germanic vocabulary and switch to a more latin one, where we don't need to use -ing. Instead of "The making happen of the seminar" could become "The existential causation of the seminar", meaning of course, "The cause for existence of the seminar". Yes, much less awkward…

    [(myl) I'm not complaining about Taranto's syntax — for linguists, or at least for linguistic bloggers, weirder is better. But if you wanted to avoid boggles, you could try a minimal edit like this:

    By his standard of presidential greatness — making "big, transformational things" happen — George W. Bush was a great president.


  16. Nathan Myers said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    The construction is odd to my ear, and if I were minimally copy-editing it, I would insert a "to": "The making to happen".

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    @mgh: What they should have written, of course, was "In addition to protecting the rights of the defendant, the hearing serves to prevent the perpetration of a fraud upon, and the making a mockery of of, the judicial process."

    "{Making a mockery of} {the judicial process}" → "the {making a mockery of} of {the judicial process}".

    (Admittedly, "the making of a mockery of the judicial process" also works, but it has the downside of being perfectly intelligible. Where's the fun in that?)

  18. Sili said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    There do seem to be a few genuine examples of "making happening" (and some false positives such as "a music-making happening") on Google.

    I thought to look for it, since the 'oddness' of the construction is the kind to make for "nervous cluelessness". In particular it the option of 'double conjugation' makes me think of "didn't used to".

  19. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 2, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

    "the perpetration of a fraud upon, and the making a mockery of of, the judicial process"

    Please no! The thing is is that this sort of thing drives me nuts.

  20. fs said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    No, Ran Ari-Gur's analysis is very plausible to my ear! (And caused me to burst out laughing, incidentally…) I'm afraid I can't really parse your last sentence, Simon Cauchi. It doesn't seem to be anything like the other construction. Is it?

  21. Matthew said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    @ myl and Nathan Myers:

    To my ear also an extra 'to' sounds better, as in myl's example:

    "the making of important things to take place"

    It might be because 'making' has the meaning here of 'causing' rather than 'fashioning', and one would always write (or say) "causing [such and such] to take place".

  22. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    "The thing is is that . . ."

    Don't you hear people saying this all the time? I do here in NZ.

  23. Elena said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    has anyone seen the results of Slate's "write like Sarah Palin" contest? Some interesting sentence structures there….

  24. Terry Collmann said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    "The emphatic position in a sentence is the end"

    This might be true in jokes, but I don't believe it's true in journalism.

  25. Marilyn Martin said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    A hyphen between making and the bare infinitive facilitates comprehension, as some writers realize. For example, three of the seven Google hits for "the making appear of" contain hyphenated forms, e.g. "The author associates Evelyn's form of attention with the Baroque's interest in manifestation, in the making-appear of phenomena without reference to an underlying structure."

  26. Aaron Davies said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    One of them was in scare quotes and Brazil:

    props for the well-deployed syllepsis

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