On not allowing Bin Laden to back-burner

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Ben Smith and Glenn Thrush, Osama bin Laden's death brings celebration, unity – and questions", Politico 5/2/11 (emphasis added):

Two years ago, Obama tasked CIA Director Leon Panetta to prioritize the hunt for the 9/11 mastermind, a response to the perception that the Bush administration had allowed the hunt for bin Laden to back-burner.

The bold-face usage struck me as unexpected.

Now, making a verb out of a noun is commonplace. And "back-burner" is a classic instance of a common class of denominal verbs, called "location" verbs by Eve Clark and Herbert Clark, "When nouns surface as verbs", Language 55:767-811 1977. Their basic example is "Kenneth kenneled the dog", meaning "Kenneth did something to cause it to come about that [the dog was in a kennel]", and they cite dozens of other cases in English where the noun for a destination-location is turned into a verb, such as beach the boats, bench the players, rack the plates, string the beads, book the flight, schedule the appointment, stage the play, table the document, sidetrack the detective, etc.

They also note that this process is a productive one, within certain limits — but in the particular case under discussion, the denominal verb to back-burner is widely enough attested to have its own OED entry, glossed as

orig. and chiefly U.S.
To postpone; to relegate to lesser importance. Usu. in pass.

The literal meaning would be (in Clark & Clark's style) "to do something to cause it to be the case that X is on the the back burner (of a stove)", with a figurative interpretation based on the image of a busy cook putting a pan on a rear burner of a stove to simmer, while attending more actively to things on the front burners.

The OED gives citations starting in 1976:

1976 Progress (Clearfield, Pa.) 2 Aug. 3/1 Move to the proposed higher CB frequencies, preferably around 225 MHz. Presently under consideration, but at the moment back-burnered by FCC.
1988 S. Moody Penny Wise ix. 92 Was the fact in any way significant? Penny couldn't tell. For the moment, she backburnered it.

I can antedate this very slightly — "Stolid Gold", Texas Monthly March 1975:

The Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that purchasing Bars of Gold was the same as purchasing bullion, and since that wasn't going to be legal until Dec. 31, 1974, it was just possible that Wall Street was a trifle premature with the offering. […] So they back-burnered Bars of Gold.

And in more recent decades, back-burnering has become fairly common.

But in the classic examples of location verbs, including the examples of back-burner, the structure is a transitive one, expressing a causative meaning, roughly, "X causes Y to be in/on Z", expressed as in the active as "AGENT LOCATIONs LOCATUM", or in the passive as "LOCATUM be LOCATION-ed (by AGENT)". And all the other examples of back-burnering that I've found, in newspaper archives, Google Books, and so on, follow this pattern.

In contrast, "…allowed the hunt for bin Laden to back-burner" is an active intransitive, "LOCATUM LOCATIONs". (Well, it's tenseless, but never mind that.)

Of course, it's normal for transitive causative verbs to have an intransitive so-called inchoative counterpart, thus

Kim boiled the water. The water boiled.
Leslie melted the wax. The wax melted.

For some reason, however, this causative/inchoative alternation is usually not available for the causative "location" verbs. Thus it may be true that  the manager often benched Sam; but we wouldn't therefore say that Sam often benched;  if the local  theater staged Three Sisters in 2009, we wouldn't say that Three Sisters staged in 2009; and if our favorite vineyard bottled this wine three years ago, we wouldn't say that this wine bottled three years ago.

There's been an interesting discussion among linguists about why this should be so. One classic paper on the subject is Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser, "On argument structure and the lexical expression of syntactic relations", pp. 53-109 in The view from Building 20, 1993. Hale and Keyser argued that the lack of intransitive/inchoative counterparts of causative location verbs is a consequence of the syntactic structures involved, along with some general principles about the expression of predicates and arguments.

A fundamentally semantic alternative was proposed by Paul Kiparsky, "Remarks on denominal verbs", pp. 473-499 in Alex Alsina et al., Eds, Complex Predicates, 1997. And there have been other some other ideas on this topic since then, as you can see by checking out the 126 works that Google Scholar identifies as citing Kiparsky 1997, or the post-1997 entries in the 1,579 works citing Hale & Keyser 1993.

But everyone seems to agree that as a rule, causative location verbs don't have intransitive/inchoative counterparts, which aligns with my reaction of surprise on reading Smith and Thrush's phrase "… the Bush administration had allowed the hunt for Bin Laden to back-burner".

However, there are clearly some exceptions — you can land a plane, or the plane can land, for example — and apparently back-burner can be one of them, at least for some people in some contexts. In my limited acquaintance with this literature, I haven't seen a good explanation for the pattern of exceptions, but no doubt some reader can help us out.


  1. Duncan said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 6:29 am

    > If the local theater staged Three Sisters in 2009, we wouldn't say that Three Sisters staged in 2009

    That's one of the exceptions, here. I've had some amateur acting experience (mostly in high school and college, US mid- and mountain-west, '80s) and wouldn't find it unusual at all to say that a particular production staged in some year (or season).

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    You can dock a boat, and a boat can dock.

    But with back-burner I get the sense that inchoative verbs like boil and simmer play a role, since something on the back-burner can be on a low boil.

    [(myl) The OED seems to think that grill v. meaning "To broil on a gridiron or similar apparatus over or before a fire" is denominal; and it has an inchoative usage. But here the meaning is not purely locative — if you just put something on a grill wihout any heat involved, I don't think it properly counts as grilling.

    In the other direction, shish kabob v. has the causative form (web example: "Sacred cows of the left are mercilessly shish kabobbed as well, though on much rarer occasion from what I've seen"), but apparently not an inchoative version.]

  3. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    So, Ben, your take on grilling sounds like you DO hear it as analogous to back-burner (or vice-versa), since the point of back-burner is likewise not just locative. The idea in question has merely been placed out of sight, it has been placed out of sight and allowed to remain alive (to simmer).

    At least that is the intent whenever I've sat on a committee.

    Speaking of which, I would think it odd to say "we allowed the motion to table," which is likewise more than locative (and locative, like table, only in a figurative sense.) I can imagine it emerging, though, since committee-speak (even academic committee-speak) is right next door to admini-speak.

    Then again, a motion is usually required for a motion to be tabled, where it's more of a concept that back-burners.

    Suddenly I'm thinking of speech acts. A motion cannot be tabled without one. That's a legislative process (we can even imagine certain mental processes as legislative.) But certainly an executive process can back-burner on its own, as it requires almost an absence of awareness for such a thing to happen.

    Now I'm wondering why we should be surprised at intransitive back-burner in the first place.

  4. Faldone said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    FWIW I get 37 ghits for "is back-burnering"

    [(myl) It's not worth much — all or nearly all of those are transitive/causative uses, same as the examples cited above.]

  5. Scott said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    I would think one potential explanation for this exception would be that the verb "back-burner" has simply lexicalized and is no longer denominal for some speakers. This would seem to be supported by the fact that (to my ear at least) the verb form can only be used metaphorically, not to speak of literal pots on stoves as the original nominal can.

  6. KevinM said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    Not as surprising a locution as "decapitating the head" of al Qaeda. (Statement Monday by counterterrorism, um, head, John Brennan.)

  7. CT said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    One of the issues is that we might say "a play staged in 2009," but I am not sure that "staged in 2009" is a verb clause. I think in that case it is an adjective clause.

    I suspect the reason why this works with back-burner though is the sense that in any organization, projects left unattended to by neglect will naturally end up back-burnered, and so being back-burnered is sort of a natural state. Unlike staging a play or kenneling a dog, back-burnering an endeavor can simple involve getting distracted, being neglectful, etc. So I think that's why it isn't that jarring.

  8. Brian said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    The inchoative counterparts have a flavor of giving agency to the (original) object, which is why I think CT's comment seems apropos. When you say that "the water boiled" or "the plane landed", it suggests that the object was sort of the actor. But a play is never going to stage itself. And a player can't bench himself; only the coach can do that.

    How much of this is cause and how much effect I don't pretend to know.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    1. Re, "everyone seems to agree that as a rule, causative location verbs don't have intransitive/inchoative counterparts," is this interesting pattern true for languages other than English? Or is using the same morpheme for a transitive/causative other-than-location verb and its intransitive/inchoative counterpart itself a peculiarity of English not found elsewhere, so since no one else has the rule, no one else can either have or not have the exception?

    2. An unrelated death-of-bin-Laden linguistic point that seemed better placed here than in the other thread. I (perhaps not uniquely) had initially assumed that Abbottabad was an odd-looking transliteration of a fully indigenous toponym based for historical reasons on a chance similarity of pronunciation to an English name. But it turns out (as I learned from this morning's N.Y. Post, confirmed by wikipedia) that Abbottabad was named for a 19th century soldier of the Raj, Maj. James Abbott, later Gen. Sir James Abbott, KCB., with the name surviving post-independence rather than experiencing a Stanleyville->Kisangani sort of transformation.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    To supplement my point 1, Kiparsky does make some passing references to data from German and Finnish. I was going to commend him for bothering to consider a non-IE language, before seeing that he was born in Helsinki . . .

  11. Dakota said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    I would say "had allowed the hunt for bin Laden to be back-burnered" or "get back burnered", which is what I bet the original sentence said. But when you proofread it you notice immediately it has one of those dreaded passive constructions. Who knows what kind of freak out that might cause someone somewhere.

    I'm betting the odd construction comes from an edit to try to avoid passives.

    [(myl) An interesting idea! (though it does assume that the writers — or the editor — can identify passives…)]

  12. Ø said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    Obama tasked CIA Director Leon Panetta to prioritize

    I would have expected "with prioritizing". Is "task" being infuenced by "ask"?

  13. Bloix said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    "But a play is never going to stage itself. And a player can't bench himself; only the coach can do that."

    We don't always require literal agency. "The clothes dried in the dryer." "The car drove down the lane." "The ship sailed the seas." "The branches bent in the wind."

    And we don't have problem with "the movie opened in 100 theaters," or even "the movie screened in 100 theaters." If a movie can screen, why can't a play stage?

  14. bloix said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

    Yet another well-intentioned pundit who doesn't know what the passive voice is. This time it's Prof Brad DeLong, who chides Sen Pete Dominici for saying that "the floodgates [of debt] opened," when Dominici himself helped to open the floodgates. DeLong criticizes Dominici for using the passive voice, when as we all know (now), he was using the inchoative intransitive!


  15. Galatea said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

    I don't think a plane landing can be categorized as a location verb using the destination noun "land" at all. A plane can land, or be landed, on something that is not land (for instance, an aircraft carrier.)

    The verb "land" stands alone, I think, possibly by virtue of frequent usage.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 7:06 am

    @Galatea, similarly, a fisherman can (transitively) "land" a fish even when fishing from a boat rather than from a riverbank or other literal "land." But I'm not sure that a fish can standardly be the subject of intransitive/inchoative "land" in that sense.

  17. Rick Sprague said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    My hypothesis is a semantic one. I think inchoative verbs describe progressive state changes where the initiating agent is unknown or unimportant. Note that "Kim boiled the water" has both past-progressive and preterite senses, but "the water boiled" inevitably refers to an ongoing process; most inchoative verbs seem to exhibit this property. When we want to use an inchoative verb to describe a completed event, we typically use a perfect verb form ("the ice has melted") or a verbal preposition ("the lake dried up"), or both.

    Virtually all cooking verbs denote an ongoing process which is begun by an agent but then proceeds to some extent on its own, and all of them (that I can think of) have inchoative alternatives.

    Vehicular management verbs comprise a special case. Many of these have continuously involved agency ('drive', 'steer') or denote instantaneous state changes ('crash'), but have inchoative alternatives anyway. I think that's because we typically observe vehicles in motion from outside and often can't see the driver/agent clearly, so we conceptualize the vehicles as driving/crashing themselves. (Alternatively, we may conceptualize the vehicle as an extension of the agent who controls it, in which case the "inchoative" verb is actually an implicitly reflexive transitive verb.)

    Location verbs differ from causative verbs in that they focus on the final state rather than the state change, which is simply movement and not especially important. But those which involve vehicle management ('land', 'dock') will have inchoative alternatives for the reason given above, and some which refer to a time-consuming process where an agent is not evident or relevant ('screen', 'ship' as in "your order shipped on Thursday") become lexicalized and may then acquire an inchoative alternative. In contrast, 'stage' has no inchoative use because we see the actors continuously involved in performing.

    'Back-burner' as a denominal verb may be a special case because its semantic field implies inattention (as opposed to just allowing it), as well as progressive state change. My hypothesis above is that inchoative verbs describe ongoing processes without continuous (perceived) agency, so this is a perfect match of properties.

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    @J.W. Brewer: a fish can't land, but a whale can beach.

  19. CT said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

    'And we don't have problem with "the movie opened in 100 theaters," or even "the movie screened in 100 theaters." If a movie can screen, why can't a play stage?'

    I still think there is an implied agency here… The plane landed works because we don't usually have a mental image of the pilot landing the plane every time one lands. Planes normally land. We don't have to keep the pilot in our minds all the time.

    So let's compare the following locative inchoatives and see what images we get in our minds:

    1 Air traffic control allowed the plane to land.
    2 The owner allowed the dog to kennel.
    3 Universal allowed the play to screen in 100 cities.
    4 The copyright owner allowed the play to stage in Omaha
    5 The coach allowed the player to bench.

    Of these, only the first really works for me. Probably because I think of planes landing rather than pilots landing planes. The second and fifth are quite clear but leave me scratching my head and saying "Huh? Would that ever happen?" The third and fourth seem really awkward because it isn't clear who is allowing who to do what. If we change them to:

    The movie screened in 100 cities
    The play staged in Omaha.

    Then the first still works better than the second. Maybe it has to so with the fact that I think of movies playing, while a play is somehow experienced as being closer to the people performing it. Maybe it has to do with fixed media vs active performance there.

    In short I am not sure it is a grammatical issue so much as a semantic one.

  20. CT said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    I wonder if a flying fish can land.

  21. Bloix said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    A favorite from my mispent childhood:

    Does your nose run? Do your feet smell? You're built upside-down!

  22. Xmun said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    "I wonder if a flying fish can land."

    Quite often, I believe, but it's usually on a deck.

  23. Ian Preston said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    As some evidence for Duncan's claim, these look to me to be some examples of intransitive/inchoative uses of `stage':

    The play stages at the Petr Fomenko theatrical studio …
    The play stages at 7:30 p.m. …
    The play stages at 7.30 p.m. …
    The play stages at the Community Performing Arts Center …
    The show stages at the Actors' Summit theater …

  24. Drinking Chiyaa » Verbing nouns: not just for English said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 1:04 am

    […] talk about verbing nouns in English, and we do it all the time. For example, Language Log has been talking about using 'back burner' as a verb: Two years ago, Obama tasked CIA Director Leon Panetta to prioritize the hunt for the 9/11 […]

  25. Bill Walderman said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

    Is the intransitive verb "back-burner" necessarily related to the transitive location verb "back-burner" in the same way that intransitive "boil" is related to transitive "boil"? Maybe intransitive/ "back-burner" is simply a separate denominal verb derived from "back-burner" meaning something like "to sit on the back-burner" that has nothing to do with transitive/location "back-burner" other than being derived from the same noun.

  26. Todd Casey said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

    Maybe the authors of this Osama bin Laden article had an diplomatic motive when they said that the hunt had been allowed to back-burner. Rather than referring to the the previous administration's operatives as having failed or otherwise not performed, the authors hereby encouraged their readers to think in terms of bin Laden having been frying-panned in the interim, and with the logical next step being into the fire.

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