A stick with which to beat other women with

« previous post | next post »

There have been dozens of articles in the news recently about Emma Watson's Vanity Fair photo shoot, the reaction to it, and her reaction to the reaction. For example, Cherry Wilson, "Is Emma Watson anti-feminist for exposing her breasts?", BBC News 3/6/2017; or Jessica Samakow, "26 Tweets Prove #WhatFeministsWear Is ‘Anything They F*cking Want’", Huffington Post 3/6/2017; or Travis Andrews, "‘Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women’: Emma Watson tells off critics of revealing photo", Washington Post 3/6/2017.

What's the linguistic angle? Well, the quote in that WaPo headline is not exactly what she said.

Here's a segment of her interview:

I think there is-
it just always reveals to me
what a- mis-
how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is
of what feminism is.
Feminism is about giving women choice.
Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with.
It's- it's- it's about-
It's about freedom. It's about liberation.
It's not- It's about equality.
It's not- I really don't know what my tits have to do with it.
It's very confusing.

The relevant phrase:

Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with.

I've written several times over the years about such phrases, where a preposition is both "stranded" at the end of a relative clause and also used to introduce the relative pronoun at the start of the clause:

"A note of dignity or austerity", 5/3/2007
"Back to the future, redundant preposition department", 5/4/2007
"A phenomenon in which I'm starting to believe in", 5/14/2007
"With whom he was speaking with", 12/21/2009
"A nation in which supports dependency", 7/9/2012
"Samples in which hypercorrections are in", 4/15/2014

It's usually somewhat unclear whether this is a new usage pattern — the latest wrinkle on "Dryden's rule" — or just a performance error. John Brewer, who sent in the link, commented

What might be interesting is not merely the slip of the tongue, since that happens to everyone, but the fact that, maybe because of her training as an actress, she doesn’t *appear* to be doing any of the things consistent with making that sort of mistake, e.g. pausing/hesitating while obviously trying to rephrase a sentence she’d already half-uttered.  Her smooth and confident affect thus makes the mistake feel a little weirder, not unlike Paul McCartney belting out “ever-changing world in which we live in” – if indeed that was what he sang, which is apparently an unresolved dispute all these years later.

As I wrote ten years ago, I'm more than half convinced that this is not a slip of the tongue or pen, but rather a genuine syntactic innovation. And Ms. Watson's example adds to the evidence.

Here's the video:


  1. Zeppelin said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 8:59 am

    I feel like I only ever talk about German here, but: reprising prepositions like this is common in German and considered a feature of the spoken language. Though I imagine it's unevenly distributed depending on whether the local dialect does it.
    "Samples in which hypercorrections are in" would be "Proben, in denen Hyperkorrekturen drin sind." ("dr-in" being a contraction of deictic "da[r]" and "in", i.e. "therein")

    I certainly feel like I'm hearing this sort of thing a lot from English-language Youtubers, especially in combination with pronoun retention (or perhaps that kind just sticks out to me more). Some do it pretty consistently. One memorable sentence I heard recently was a confidently uttered "That's something I think we should pay attention to it."
    Could just be the recency illusion, of course.

  2. Zeppelin said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 9:09 am

    In spoken German this reprise can even happen within the same clause: Regionally you may well hear "Der Koffer müsste unterm Bett drunter sein" for "the suitcase should be underneath the bed".

  3. Bartleby said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 9:09 am

    @Zeppelin, that last example you gave is actually different. It's an example of what is called a resumptive pronoun, the pronoun "it" restating the antecedent of the relative clause.

  4. Zeppelin said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 9:21 am

    Bartleby: You're right, of course. Resumptive pronouns have been on my mind because I've been preparing a presentation on them, that's probably why I slipped gears right over to that sentence…

  5. Bartleby said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 9:29 am

    I think "a nation in which supports dependency" is different from the redundant use of a preposition in such constructions as "the world in which we live in." I see both of these in student writing, but especially the first type. I wonder if students are simply replacing "which" with "in which" even where the "in" doesn't fit or make any sense. It reminds me of something I hear a lot on sports-talk radio (a guilty pleasure?): "the reason being is . . . " where "reason being" seems to have simply replaced and become identical with "reason."

    [(myl) Yes, that was my original analysis of this phenomenon, that sticking a preposition in front of the relative pronoun is felt to lend "a note of dignity and austerity", as James Thurber put it. On the this view, the existence of a prepositional phrase in some relevant part of the relative clause plays at most a priming role.

    But I'm increasingly inclined to believe that the duplication of prepositions is (and long has been) a real thing.]

  6. Mark Meckes said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 9:31 am

    One of the tweets mentioned in news coverage of this story is an item for the Annals of Singular They file: "If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn't be telling a woman what they can and can't do with their own body"

  7. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 10:49 am

    The reason being is that there's also the Isis phenomenon: "The reason is, is that nobody understands the infield fly rule."

  8. Guy said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 11:44 am

    Isis was my first thought explaining "the reason being is", but in this case isn't there also the possibility that "being" is interpreted as "philosophical be", so that "the reason being" is similar to "the powers that be"?

  9. Bartleby said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    Isis is an interesting thought concerning "the reason being is," but the way it comes across to me is as if "reason being" is becoming a set expression that essentially means "reason." People hear it so often it seems like a single unit to them. But I am only speculating.

  10. Rodger C said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

    I agree with Bartleby on both counts. I used to find students' "in which"-as-clause-subject bewildering, then merely exasperating. Now I just sigh and mark it.

  11. Guy said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

    @Rodger C

    It doesn't seem bewildering to me that using "in which"-as-relative-subject is common in learning students. Preposition fronting isn't very common in spoken English, and is usually very markedly formal. A native English speaker with little experience with formal written English learning to use it is slightly akin to learning the grammar of a foreign language. I remember in my first or second grade classes my initial reaction to being taught "pied piping" to avoid the dreaded stranded prepositions was that in most cases the resulting sentence couldn't possibly be grammatical. It seemed as odd as being taught I should write like Yoda speaks.

    A student exposed to a few examples of pied piping might mistakenly generalize the rule as "replace 'that' with 'in which' and drop any stranded prepositions that there might be". Since many students are taught both to avoid stranded prepositions and to obey the contradictory which/that rule, it's not surprising that some would throw their hands up and give up trying to make sense of it.

  12. Linda said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 3:01 pm

    Or perhaps withwhich is becoming a single word like without or withdraw.

  13. Lameen said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

    Preposition doubling in relative and focus clauses is a well-established pattern with some prepositions in Kabyle, depending on the dialect, notably s-way-es "with which" (with which with), g-way-deg "in which" (in which in). Eg (examples taken from a quick internet search):

    Di lweqt g-way-deg imenɣi ye-ḥma
    in time in-which-in battle 3MSg-hot
    at the time when the battle was heated

    tisura s-way-es ara ldi-nt tiwwura n unekcum
    keys with-which-with Aor.Extr open-3FPl doors of entrance.Cst
    the keys by which the doors of entry open

    However, other forms such as seg-way-deg "from which" (from-which-in) show different first and second prepositions, and the whole construction seems already to have been morphologised.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 3:54 pm

    Darryl Lindberg, the announcer for "Tuesday Night at the Opera" on the public radio station in Santa Fe, New Mexico, always starts the list of performers with "To whom are we listening to tonight?" several times in a show. Transcripts and podcasts don't seem to be available, but you can listen to him tonight at ksfr.org from 7 to 10 MST (Zone -7). Unless there's a substitute. Or unless he decides to make me a liar.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

    Bartleby: I agree that "reason being" seems to be a set phrase for "reason". "Reason being" is followed by "is" far more often than "problem being" and "advantage being" are, according to this ngram search.

  16. Miriam Lieba said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

    The woman interviewed has a pretty mediocre command of English (she doesn't pronounce a single coherent sentence and keeps stuttering) although she is an actress speaking in her native language. That she would make mistakes in her own language is thus regrettable but not especially surprising. I am not unaware that the concept "mistake" does not enjoy stellar prestige among linguists, but why is that particular error worthy of a blog entry?

  17. Chris C. said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 5:47 pm

    Is it just me, or do I remember Mrs Slocombe talking like that in old Are You Being Served? episodes? At a guess, it's an effort to speak "correctly" by not ending sentences with prepositions, combined with an unconscious reversion to habitual speech by the time you get to the end of the sentence.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    March 7, 2017 @ 6:40 pm

    The Kabyle phenomenon reminds me of Spanish's vestigial with-pronouns conmigo (etymologically with-me-with) and contigo (with-you-with). But the go syllable of those is a fossil today, not a form that still has meaning in Spanish. I don't know whether there would have been a period where speakers were consciously aware of the with-doubling.

  19. tangent said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 2:12 am

    I didn't initially notice anything in the blog headline, until I knew it was Language Log and reread for linguistic points. For whatever that's worth, it suggests to me I must see this pretty frequently.

    Doesn't French do something like this as standard?

    ("ISIS": I've always figured without evidence that "the reason is is" was homologized from "what it is is".)

  20. tangent said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 2:17 am

    Miriam Lieba, you may or may not be not unaware that the concept of "mistake" is being termed "production error" by the linguist in the post you comment underneath. If that helps you advance the discussion.

  21. Rodger C said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 7:46 am

    @Guy: Thanks, that makes sense for the first time. At any rate my relation to registers is unusual for an English professor. To me the first two alternatives that come to mind are "a stick with which to beat other women" and "a stick what to beat other women with it."

  22. Bartleby said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 9:09 am

    @Jerry Friedman: Thanks for checking that.

  23. dfan said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 10:58 am

    A few years back, a local furniture store had a commercial extolling their selection of furniture "from which to choose from". A Google search doesn't turn up that particular case but does have many other written examples of the same phrase, including the spectacular "from which to choose from among."

  24. Jon Haslam said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 11:14 am

    Please don't forget "in this ever changing world in which we live in".

    [(myl) If that's what he sang, rather than "in which we're livin'". Discussed at length in the posts ten years ago.]

  25. Jakub Wilk said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 1:08 pm

    The "wrote ten years ago" link is broken.
    It should have been: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004493.html

  26. Keith said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 3:46 am

    @Chris C.

    I think you're right, it definitely sounds like the way Mrs Slocombe or Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced "Bouquet") would speak. Obvious hypercorrection.

    As for her having a "pretty mediocre command of English" (Miriam), I too am disappointed by the apparent lack of fluency demonstrated by Ms Watson. It seems like many actors, actresses, radio presenters and even career politicians are incapable of speaking ad lib, and absolutely require a prepared, carefully written and edited text, with ample time for rehearsal.

  27. Idran said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    @Keith: I'm just going to point you towards the follow-up post: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=31449

  28. Chris C. said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 4:40 pm

    @Keith — Indeed. But to be fair, that's what actors and actresses are generally paid to do. We're also used to seeing them in character, not in their own persons, and the contrast can be surprising if you've constructed a model of how they behave based on the roles they've played.

  29. Greg Malivuk said,

    March 11, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    I feel like everyone should have to read a verbatim transcript of their own speech before they're allowed to opine on the linguistic skills of others.

    Hell, even just listening to a long enough recording would probably humble most people.

  30. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 17, 2017 @ 11:13 pm

    Another piece of evidence: Once, ten or fifteen years ago, when I was crossing the border from Canada, an immigration official asked me "Of what country are you a citizen of?". It struck me as odd because it didn't seem that it could be a production error: he must surely have asked the exact same question, in the exact same words, hundreds of times a day. (And I think I remember hearing him ask the same question of another passenger on my bus, but that might just be my imagination filling in unremembered details.)

    That sentence gets three distinct relevant Google-hits, so this official is apparently not alone.

RSS feed for comments on this post