Absent

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Maureen Dowd's characteristically waspish review ("Blame, not shame", NYT 2/5/2011) of Donald Rumsfeld's memoir (Known and Unknown) begins like this:

So many to blame. So little space.

Donald Rumsfeld has only 815 pages — including a scintillating List of Acronyms — to explain why he was not responsible when Stuff Happened. His memoir, "Known and Unknown," is like a living, breathing version of the man himself: very thorough, highly analytical and totally absent any credible self-criticism.

We should note in passing MoDo's reflexive deployment of the phrasal template "So many X, so little Y".  I believe that this started with Miquel Brown's 1983 Disco hit "So many men, so little time", though readers may be able to supply earlier influences. Versions of this pattern with substitutions for "men" are common in advertising, customers being offered mildly sexualized multiplicities of choices, books, records, flavors, recipes, appetizers, dresses, carpets, toys, wines, beers, and so on. Non-commercial examples include pedestrians, geckos, zebras, enemies, fingerings, oracle manuals, and onward into an open-ended universe of immoderate aggregations. Versions with Y=space are also common: a quick web search turns up space-limited multiplicities of lilacs, bikes, emotions, questions, shoes, snowflakes, letters, fallacies, among many others.

But what caught my eye was MoDo's use of absent. This seems to be related to the version of the word that the OED calls a preposition, and glosses as "(orig. and chiefly U.S. Law.) In the absence of, without". But all of the OED's examples of "absent NounPhrase" are adjuncts:

1888 Southwestern Reporter 8 898 If the deed had been made by a stranger to the wife, then a separate estate in her would not have been created, absent the necessary words.
1933 Columbia Law Rev. 33 1155 Absent any mathematical terminology, the general formula achieved in the New York statute has much to commend it.
1953 Federal Suppl. (U.S.) 107 527/2 Absent federal legislation upon the subject, states may, within limits of reasonableness, regulate the use of their highways.
1972 N.Y. Law Jrnl. 24 Oct. 5/3 Absent such an appeal, the constitutional issues were conclusively determined against Ender.
2006 Daily Tel. 17 Mar. 23/3 An Australian republic is not only not inevitable, but, absent some calamity, it will never come to pass.

And this must be how I'm used to seeing it as well, since I was struck by the fact that Dowd uses it in a coordination of three predicatives: "very thorough, highly analytical and totally absent any credible self-criticism".  The other two are the adjectives thorough and analytical; but a prepositional phrase is normal in such cases, and I wouldn't have batted an eye at "… and totally without any credible self-criticism".

A quick web search suggests that predicative uses of (this sense of) absent are Out There:

She is absent any practical political experience.
The non-corresponding ridge event was found during the course of routine casework by the author and is absent any clear distortion markers or red flags.
It's easy to see how a vegan diet is absent any of these products.
Therefore, the federal government is absent any authority to dictate the terms of withdrawal from the Union, and as such, the States, and the States alone, decide the issue for themselves, as further guaranteed by the Tenth Amendment.
Again, Article III is absent any grant of immunity to the judiciary, either express or implied

However, such predicative examples seem to be rare compared to the adjunct examples. The COCA corpus has 46 instances of "absent any" — for an overall rate of about 1 in ten million words — and four of these are predicative, suggesting a rate of about 1 in 100 million words. There are 29 instances of "absent some", and just one of these is predicative.

But  in comparing the frequency of a word in different normal syntactic frames, 10-to-1 or 20-to-1 frequency ratios are common. So it's puzzling that I apparently (unconsciously) interpreted the infrequency of predicative absent (prep.) as evidence of a systematic as opposed to an accidental gap, and was therefore suprised by Dowd's predicative use. Perhaps, the OED to the contrary, I didn't really take this use of absent as a preposition, but rather as some more specialized and limited way to create a certain kind of adverbial adjunct?

[Update — Some evidence that Miquel Brown's 1983 hit was based on earlier popular culture, from Michael Coakley, "Los Angeles", Chicago Tribune, 8/26/1979:

It was Friday night at a recently fashionable, overpriced French restaurant on Melrose Avenue, a favorite lane of the truly worthy. This is a fancy establishment, and at one table the diners were suitably attired, probably out from New York. Seated at the next banquette was a foursome, the two males more or less conventionally dressed, discounting the umpteen gold chains. The two women were in jeans, which is OK, too, since they were of the $85 continental variety. But the T-shirts were a bit much. They undoubtedly were not cheap either — in price. One was canary yellow and carried this inscription: "So Many Men; So Little Time." The other one was pink and boasted two strategically placed pictures of the King Tut mask. The message beneath read: "Don't Touch My Tuts."

Was this the work of some mute inglorious Milton of the T-shirt trade? Or did it reflect an earlier version of the 1983 hit song?
A Google Book search turns up this snippet from Playgirl in 1978:

My first throught was that Mae West had something to do with this, and some others on the net think so too, but her Wikiquote page doesn't list it, and I couldn't find any credible attribution to her.]

[Please note that this is not a writing clinic. I'm not objecting to Dowd's usage of absent, nor am I asking for suggestions about how to re-word her column. Rather, I'm interested in what sort of constructions the preposition-like absent enters into, and how we learn what they are, given its rarity.]



22 Comments

  1. Nick said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    As far as "So many X, so little Y" goes, not only was (a version of) it used in 1971 by Gene Wilder's character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but the construction itself was played upon: "So little to do, so much time…wait a minute, reverse that…"

    I don't remember if versions of that joke appeared in the book as well.

  2. Yuval said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    Well, it's not exactly in the snowclone form, but I think it may be of some "influence": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_was_so_much_owed_by_so_many_to_so_few

  3. Lance said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    "So many/much X and so little Y" definitely predates 1983: perhaps the most famous example is Willy Wonka's "So much time and so little to do! Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it." from the 1971 movie.

    Without the "and": there are definitely hits for "so much X, so little Y" before 1983. There are definitely hits for "so much X, so little time" before 1983 in Google Books (where X = "to see", "to do"), as well as "So many problems, so little time" as a chapter title in a 1973 book.

    It looks like Vantage cigarettes, in the 1970s, might have used "so much taste, so little tar" in their ads (they definitely used the phrasing "…so much taste and so little tar…"; Google Books has hits for the phrase without "and", but not actual images of those pages).

    I wonder how much these things trace to variations on "Never was so much owed by so many to so few".

  4. Kylopod said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    > I believe that this started with Miquel Brown's 1983 Disco hit "So many men, so little time", though readers may be able to supply earlier influences.

    Here is one example from an article from 1962 titled "So many appeals, so little action."

    A bit closer to home, here is a 1967 piece titled "So many children, so little time."

    I don't understand why LL doesn't check Google News archive more often.

    [(myl) I count 107 hits for "Google News archive" in past posts, FWIW. But the issue here is not whether there have ever been any earlier uses of something approximating this rather simple structure — I found several in old newspapers on Proquest, for example — but whether "so many X so little Y" was a proverbial commonplace (as far as I can tell, before 1983, it wasn't), or whether there was some well-known earlier source that people copied (again, as far as I can tell, there wasn't).

    In fact, the graph from a GNA search makes this point rather forcefully:

    In any case, the LL complaints department stands ready, as always, to refund double your subscription fees in case of less than full satisfaction.]

  5. MattF said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    So Little Time (So Much To Do) is the title of a '30's Louis Armstrong number, though you don't really get a strong sense of a parallel so-little-x, so-much-y construction.

  6. Martin said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    Since 'absent X' appears to have originated in lawyer-speak, I'm guessing it was carried over from the Latin ablative absolute construction (e.g. 'absente reo'), which may explain why it resists being used predicatively.

    [(myl) This makes sense; though I don't usually think of my intuition about English constructions as being limited by their Latin inspiration.]

  7. Valentine said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    @Martin Interesting idea! I was thinking the adjunct uses seemed very much like an absolute.

  8. Dw said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    "So little done; so much to do" is widely reported to be the last words of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who died in 1902. A Google Books search finds the phrase in some late nineteenth century poetry.

  9. Sid Smith said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

    I'd support the notion of 'absent' meaning 'without' being an American usage: I'd never come across it until 4-5 years ago when I started to use the internet to read US journalism. I've since noticed it a couple of times in the UK, tho it's v rare.

  10. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    One legal use of the ablative absolute actually containing 'absent' is absente reo, 'in the absence of the accused'.

    The CGEL (p610) says absent in this sense qualifies as a preposition 'by virtue of being able to occur as head of an adjunct with no predicand'. Though I don't think that means it's not a preposition if used predicatively as Dowd does, at least going by the discussion of predicative adjuncts on p531: 'This is not to say that PPs in front position cannot be predicative,' gving the example In a bad temper, Max seemed intent on ruining everybody's fun.

  11. Picky said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    So many worlds, so much to do, so little done, such things to be. (Tennyson, In Memoriam)

    [(myl) Thomas Bastard, Epigram 29, 1598:

    Neuer so many masters any knew,
    And so fewe gentlemen in such a crewe.
    Neuer so many houses, so small spending.
    Neuer such store of coyne: so little lending.
    Neuer so many cosins: so fewe kynde.
    Goodmorrowes plenty, good wils heard to finde.
    Neuer so many clerkes, neere learning lesse.
    Many religious, but least godlinesse.
    Justice is banished, lawe breeds such strife,
    And trueth: and why? for swearing is so rife.
    Thus in her strength of causes vertue dieth,
    But vice without a cause still multiplieth.

    Or Sir William D'Avenant, circa 1650, The Plots:

    They Miracles promis'd, but shew'd us not any;
    Unless this were one of a wonderful sort,
    That with so little Wit they soon made so many,
    Great Fools in the City, and Knaves in the Court.

    Or Daniel Defoe, The Spanish Descent, 1703:

    That Fleet so many former Millions lost.
    So little had Perform'd, so much had Cost;

    Or Arthur Hugh Clough, The Thread of Truth, 1839:

    Oh, if it be so, wherefore do we men
    Pass by so many marks, so little heeding?

    Or Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839:

    There was so much to be done, and so little time to do it in, so many kind words to be spoken, and such bitter pain in the hearts in which they rose to impede their utterance, that the little preparations for his journey were made mournfully indeed.

    So many similar passages, so little relevance to Maureen Dowd's opening.

    Seriously, I'm sure that similar rhetorical gestures occur in classical authors, and for all I know in Sumerian diplomatic correspondence. But at some point about 40 years ago, what previously was a particular version of a general strategy of contrastive parallelism turned into a much more specific cliché-generating pattern.]

  12. Keith Clarke said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    "So many men, so little time" is often attributed to Mae West (d.1980) – it's plausible that it got aired in obituaries, whether or not the attribution is accurate, but I've not been able to find any such on-line.

    [(myl) Yes, I associated it with her as well, but I couldn't find any documented attribution.

    In particular, the Wikiquote page for her doesn't list it even as "unsourced".]

  13. Barbara Partee said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

    I share Mark's reaction to Dowd's use of 'absent'. My hunch (I haven't tried to analyze this with any care) is that I interpret the prepositional 'absent' as introducing a particular kind of absolute, namely the 'if' kind: "absent any rules to the contrary" = "if there aren't any rules to the contrary". And if the "if" gets packed into the meaning (rather than just supplied contextually as one of many ways to interpret an absolute construction), then it couldn't be used as an ordinary predicate, as Dowd does.
    (I haven't tried to think here about Greg Stump's masterful analysis of bare adjuncts and absolutes, and in particular I haven't tried to figure out whether 'absent' makes a stage-level or an individual-level predicate, though I'm sure it would be rewarding to think about 'absent' in Stumpian terms.)

    [(myl) Barbara is referring (I think) to Gregory Stump, The semantic variability of absolute constructions, 1985, which I haven't read but now will.]

  14. neil said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 3:04 am

    Another musical datum on "So Many X …": check out "So Many Beautiful Men (So Little Time)" written and performed Kitty White around 1955.

    [(myl) Nice. The liner notes for the 1955 EmArcy album that this came from say that

    Kitty White for years has been a nightclub favorite among audiences in Los Angeles, frequently singing sophisticated songs with well-traveled lyrics. Colorful, precise and imaginative, she has a remarkable voice that owes allegiance to no particular style. Aside from occasional side trips to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York, Kitty has always stayed pretty much on home base, so it's not strange to find her here surrounded by groups featuring some outstanding West Coast jazz musicians. Impeccable in diction, phrasing and control, her work with them is a study in perfection.

    So this song (which is credited to E. & K. White) was known for years to jazz audiences, especially in Los Angeles and a few other cities. A shortened version of its title then apparently leaked out into the novelty T-shirt trade as it boomed in the 1970s, and was then picked up and re-used by whoever wrote Miquel Brown's hit around 1982 (according to the U.S. Copyright Office registry, it was Ian Levine & Fiachra Trench — but confusingly, another song with the same title was also registered in 1983 by Nat Wyner & Sharon Gnatt).]

  15. Rubrick said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 4:46 am

    Kylopod wrote, I don't understand why LL doesn't check Google News archive more often.

    Whereas I don't understand why commentors continue to set themselves up like this. Complaining about lack of research thoroughness on a Liberman post, like challenging Batman to a MMA cage match, can bring only pain and regret.

  16. Brett said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 9:58 am

    I concur with the judgement that this usage of "absent" seems jarring, and I would normally only expect to see it used prepositionally as an adjunct. However, I think the badness is significantly mitigated by having the "absent" at the end of the list of predicatives. It's difficult to explain, but it seems more similar to the usual adjunctive usage when it's in the final position. If the "absent" PP had followed immediately after the colon, I would have found the sentence very confusing. Yet when it's placed at the end, it's merely odd and not at all unclear.

  17. Kylopod said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 10:17 am

    Complaining about lack of research thoroughness on a Liberman post, like challenging Batman to a MMA cage match, can bring only pain and regret.

    Well holy platypuses, Rubrick, foiled again by my arch-nemesis!

    Please. The idea you seem to have acquired that I was somehow challenging LL, and getting thoroughly smacked down, is pretty weird. I was merely doing what other commenters were doing, which is responding to myl's statement, "I believe that this started with Miquel Brown's 1983 Disco hit 'So many men, so little time', though readers may be able to supply earlier influences." After I gave the examples I found, myl replied, "But the issue here is not whether there have ever been any earlier uses of something approximating this rather simple structure…but whether 'so many X so little Y' was a proverbial commonplace." That's a reasonable distinction, but it was far from clear in the original post.

    What I said that you (and perhaps myl) took as a "challenge" was my offhanded remark that I don't understand why LL doesn't check GNA more often. Myl says he found 107 instances of it on LL, but I'm not so sure that qualifies as "often." Looking at Google, for example, I see 33 hits for "Google News" on this site in the last year, but more than 20 of them turn out to be from commenters (including myself). LL may have good reasons for not using GNA more often (access to better databases such as Proquest, for instance), but given the ambiguity in myl's statement about "earlier influences," there was nothing unreasonable about what I said.

  18. Catanea said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    Ad hoc, ad loc and quid pro quo.
    So little time, so much to know.
    – Yellow Submarine.

  19. Ben C said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    Is it, perhaps, that any sufficiently uncommon preposition is indistinguishable from an adjective? Or rather, that syntax notwithstanding, uncommon preps strike us as something other than preps?

    [(myl) I don't think so. Among the more uncommon prepositions in English are abaft, athwart, and circa — but all of these can form prepositional phrases with a normal range of uses, e.g. as adjuncts or in copular sentences.]

  20. baylink said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    In my experience, that usage of absent is nearly exclusive to technical legal writing.

    Of those who, like me, are trying to sound like lawyers. :-)

    It often takes the non-standard prosody in this usage, to, as with grocery industry use of DISplay.

  21. Jonathan said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 9:44 pm

    Dowd's English is weird. In "An Australian republic is not only not inevitable, but, absent some calamity, it will never come to pass," "absent" is an adjective in the ablative case, modifying "some calamity," and with the meaning "absent." This is English as I speak it. In "[His memoir is] totally absent any credible self-criticism," "absent" is an adjective in the nominative case, governing "any credible self-criticism" as an object (without any preposition!), and meaning "devoid of." This is not English as I speak it.

    This is not just a syntactic mistake, it is also semantic. "Except for" is definitely a preposition in "He wrote everything except the truth" but still we cannot say "his memoir is except the truth."

  22. Greg Morrow said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    Dowd's predicative use of absent was entirely unremarkable to me.

    But I spend a fair amount of time reading legal stuff like US Supreme Court decisions. So familiarization via that route, as folks have suggested, seems entirely plausible.

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