Easy to Laugh

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My friend James Cathey sent me an eyebrow-raiser this morning: "Here is a sentence that stopped me in my tracks: "Robinson, who has a warm voice and is easy to laugh, has a way of setting the record straight …"   (TIME: March 12, 2018, p. 50)"

Jim says he could never say "is easy to laugh" in any context that he can think of, and asks "What is going on here?"

I could never say that either, but then I was also surprised at some of the meanings Russian reflexives (and Polish, etc) can have — not only reflexive, reciprocal, and 'unaccusative' (the door opened, etc), but also transitives with missing object and a 'habitual' meaning — I heard it used standardly for 'that dog bites'.

So "easy to laugh" feels to me not totally impossible, and maybe related to the connection between 'These plates break easily' from a transitive and 'He laughs easily' from an intransitive. In the literature I've seen plenty of discussion of the 'break easily' cases and don't remember seeing any of the 'laugh easily' cases.

Maybe also relevant that "laughable" is one of the relatively few -able words formed from an intransitive? But the sense of "laughable" is very different, seems related to a transitive 'laugh at' sense, whereas this one is clearly based on intransitive 'laugh'.



34 Comments

  1. Vance Maverick said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

    Contagion from "is quick to laugh"?

  2. TIC said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 10:10 pm

    That was my immediate thought, Vance…

  3. TIC said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    In retrospect, Vance, that was a lie… My immediate thought was along the same line, but was nowhere near as concise or elegant… Well done…

  4. Kyle said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 10:28 pm

    Tony Kroch has an English example (which doesn't work for me): "This plane is easy to go fast."

  5. Scott Underwood said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 10:44 pm

    Perhaps "Robinson… is easy to love"?

  6. Rebecca said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

    What struck me first was also "quick to laugh", but then I wondered if it was (also?) an extension of "He's easy". It's not something that I'd say, but I could see it.

  7. John Roth said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 11:39 pm

    I suspect that "laugh" is a simple typo for "like."

    I see Scott Underwood got here first.

  8. KevinM said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 11:48 pm

    In my youth, I often heard the jocular expression "It is to laugh." It was, I think, intended to imply ESL (i.e., that the speaker was mentally translating from a language such as French (C'est à rire)).

  9. EvelynU said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 12:11 am

    "Robinson, who has a warm voice and is easy to laugh…" Strange!

    "Robinson, who is quick to laugh and slow to forgive"…Fine.

    "Robinson, who is easy to laugh and fond of good wines"….maybe.

    "Robinson, who is easy to laugh at but hard to understand"…a whole different story!

    "Easy to laugh" is odd in itself, and even odder as used in that combination.

    How to fix it? "Robinson, who has a warm voice and an easy laugh"…not precisely the same meaning, but pretty close and unexceptional grammar, I'd say.

  10. EvelynU said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 12:14 am

    "Robinson, who has a warm voice and is easy to laugh…" Strange!

    "Robinson, who is quick to laugh and slow to forgive"…Fine.

    "Robinson, who is easy to laugh and fond of good wines"….maybe.

    "Robinson, who is easy to laugh at but hard to understand"…a whole different story!

    "Easy to laugh" is odd in itself, and even odder as used in that combination.

    How to fix it? "Robinson, who has a warm voice and an easy laugh"…not precisely the same meaning, but pretty close and unexceptional grammar, I'd say.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Follow-up thought: This is the kind of sentence that my ESL students might write, and that I would leave alone, on the grounds that, No, most native speakers wouldn't say that, but it has a logic and elegance to it and, like poets, ESL speakers can add new idioms to our speech.

  11. Ross Presser said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 1:08 am

    "Easy to laugh" sounds to me like a similar construction to "early to rise".

  12. Chas Belov said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 1:12 am

    I don't see anything wrong or un-English about "The door opened."

  13. peterv said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 2:13 am

    Americans say of someone that he or she "is a quick study", meaning that they learn new things quickly. I have not ever heard this from speakers of other branches of English.

  14. Ricardo said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 3:25 am

    Is laught truly intransitive? What about "to laugh something off" or even "to laugh it up"?

  15. empty said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 6:40 am

    Tangentially, this reminds me: in "Early to bed, early to rise," is "bed" a noun or a verb"? I always thought noun (which makes for a lack of parallel structure).

  16. Doug said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 6:52 am

    Chas Belov said:
    "I don't see anything wrong or un-English about "The door opened.""

    No one said there was anything wrong or un-English about it.

  17. Jamie said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 7:18 am

    @Vance: a confusion between "quick to laugh" and "easy to make laugh", maybe?

    Is it related to the mediopassive (e.g. "this poem reads well")?

  18. John Shutt said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 7:24 am

    Puts me in mind of "rest easy".

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 8:15 am

    "He is easy to laugh, eager to dance and ready with a Rebel whoop at any sign of good news." From a 2000 NY Times story covering that year's Presidential election, the "he" of the sentence being Al Gore's brother-in-law Frank W. Hunger. It sounds odd to me freestanding but not so odd in the context of that sentence? In any event, some evidence that it's been done before and even survived copy-editing.

  20. Craig said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 8:46 am

    Looking through Google Ngram Viewer and associated searches in Google Books suggest that the group of words "easy to laugh" appears mostly in constructions like "it is easy to laugh when…" and "he/she/it is easy to laugh at…".

    One exception I found which matches the usage here was in the book "The Road to Damascus… and Beyond: A Reawakening of the Spirit by Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail", 2009, by George "Ole Smoky Lonesome" Sandul: "Photos of Sam Badiuk depict a man who was easy to laugh for his sense of humor rarely escaped him in spite of the life of hardship and endless labor."

    Other similar examples can be found in "Ain't No One Monkey Gonna Stop My Show", 2009, by Mabel L. Johnson and Kim Y. Nelson; "Bronze Dinosaurs", 2008, Walter L. Cozy; and "Courageous Heart (New Beginnings, Book 1)", 2011, Christine Bush.

    The usage still seems odd to me nonetheless.

  21. outeast said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    I wonder if it should have been "is easy to laugh with" – as in "has an infectious good humour", "is easy to share a laugh with"? That would make sense, I think, and would also provide a plausible route to the final sentence (we regularly see incorrections arising from the removal of sentence-ending prepositions etc.). Alternatively it could even have been "easy to laugh at", intended as "teller of good jokes". Plausibly whoever edited the text might have correctly identified the ambiguity but failed to resolve it optimally.

  22. Brett Reynolds said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 10:29 am

    This kind of control/raising confusion is very common among college-level ESL students. One I get regularly is
    *I'm very difficult to speak English.

  23. Roberta Davies said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    People can have "an easy laugh" — they laugh readily and in a casual, likeable way.

    "Robinson has a warm voice and an easy laugh" makes perfect sense, and I wonder if the writer, editor, or typesetter had a bit of a brain-fart along the way between first draft and printed page.

  24. John Shutt said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

    The usage, "easy to laugh", didn't strike me as "wrong" (i.e., a one-off accident), just unusual. (Maybe archaic?)

  25. Eric S Nelson said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 2:49 pm

    As long as "quick to laugh" is an option, someone is bound to say or write "easy to laugh" from time to time. I found this in COCA, from fiction:

    He had a pretty crappy life of it, what I knew of it. " # " Never hear him say, " he said. " Always easy to laugh, tell the joke, like to party, like being married to Miss China Mae, like doing.

    And this from spoken language:

    Well, before, she was, you know, a whole lot of fun. You know, she was kind of like a wild and crazy girl, easy to laugh and have a good time PHILLIPS voice-over And the change wasn't easy to deal with. " What was the matter with her, " Mike wondered. They had a beautiful home and, by this time, two wonderful children, Sam and Tyler. How could she possibly be depressed?

    I also looked for "easy to smile" and "easy to anger" (which could of course mean "easy to make angry as well as "quick to anger") and found both. And of course I am not talking about examples that a preposition after the verb.

  26. ardj said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 2:52 pm

    1. Easy to laugh:
    a) laugh not necessarily intransitive, OED says quasi-transitive and offers e.g. "The large Achilles … laughs out a loud applause", though most common is 'laugh a [qualified] laugh'. But I can readily conceive of 'laugh one's disdain', for instance [a common habit of my friends]

    b) agree with most suggestions of misspelling (like, love) and of muddle (quick to, &c.); but also impressed by J.W Brewer's delightful sentence, which suggests that this formulation really can work, though somewhat snuck in here among the other workable usages – makes me wonder if my unease is misplaced

    2. @ Peterv: English usage has long had this usage of study (a quick study), from Shakespeare through Dickens and widely in for instance the theatre

  27. Ricardo said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

    @ardj To the examples of instransitive laughter one can add: 'To laugh someone out the room…'

  28. Andrew Usher said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 4:58 pm

    Can't disagree with the first response – 'easy to laugh' strikes me as totally wrong, but mental confusion with phrases like 'ready to laugh' and the mentioned 'quick to laugh' is quite plausible, especially if the author started with 'easy'. If you don't read your sentences aloud to yourself, it's always ready to miss such things …

  29. Andrew Usher said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

    Dammit, typed my e-mail straight again. Why won't this blog let you edit comments like everywhere else? (We just discussed 'finger memory' as a cause of typos, incidentally. I make more than my share of those, but immediately correct most of them.)

    [I've deleted it. Next time something like that happens, email one of us. – Barbara]

  30. Tom Ace said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

    "Break" wouldn't be my choice for an example using a transitive verb because of its established use as an intransitive verb as well.

  31. JPL said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 6:02 am

    The oddness is not so much due to the way "laugh" is used here, but in the way "easy" is used, since it appears to violate the normal structure of "easy"'s syntactic sense.

    1. It's easy for him to laugh.
    2. Robinson, who has a warm voice and for whom it's easy to laugh, …
    3. Robinson is easy (for us) to laugh at.
    4. ?Robinson, who is easy to fall asleep, …

    The agent/actor of the action that is described as easy has to be either expressed or understood in ellipsis, while the subject NP in [NP cop easy] (normally) expresses the object (intentional object) that has the property of being "easy", which if intransitive is the action and if transitive the affected object. There is an action that has the property of being easy to perform, with relation to some (intentional) object: the latter (object) gets the subj NP in the cop construction, and the action needs an actor, which in the infinitival case is expressed in the [for X] bit. The actor does not have the property of being easy.

    If the preceding sounds funny, I've purposely tried to avoid using the usual linguistic manners of expression to try to describe the form of the meaning of the construction. There may be paraphrases of "Robinson, for whom it's easy to laugh", that would be equivalent to it in most respects, but there would also be differences.

  32. daf said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 11:55 am

    My reaction also had to do with thinking of it as parallel "quick to laugh" (it didn't stop me in my tracks when I read the blurb the first time). I've enjoyed reading the comments and thought of another possibly similar English construction (though, I am not an expert):

    "I'm good to go." (I'm ready)
    "Are you good to drive?" (Aren't you drunk?)
    "Thanks. I'm good to finish on my own." (I've got it from here)
    "No thanks, I'm good to wait here." (You go on ahead)

  33. Philip Anderson said,

    March 20, 2018 @ 8:50 am

    The meaning was obvious to me, and although the syntax is unusual, it didn't seem wrong in any way, just a smoother way of saying "who laughs easily". There are enough examples of "easy to laugh/smile" to suggest it was a natural and intentional idiom here.

  34. JPL said,

    March 21, 2018 @ 8:49 pm

    Let me try again. I hope this will be a clarification of my previous comment, but maybe it won't, so if you don't like it, please tell me what's wrong with it.

    Sentences that are instances of the schema [X cop easy] (X cop ADJ]) express the attribution of the property expressed by the adjectival "easy" to the intentional object expressed by the nominal NP X. X has, it is supposed, whatever property is required by the definition of 'easy', and one of the preconditions is that X involves an action: either an action alone (intransitive, ACTOR – [ACTION]) or an action together with an affected object/goal (transitive, AGENT – [ACTION – OBJECT]; e.g., "Robinson is easy to laugh at"); the actor/agent is not a part of what gets the attribution of being "easy", but may be expressed by another constituent. (E.g., "Laughing/to laugh is easy for him.") In the schema [X cop easy], X can not be (according to the norm) the actor/agent, but has to be the object that has the property "easy". "Ready" is different: "Robinson, who is always ready to laugh, …" expresses that the actor has the property "ready". If you are describing the meanings of the lexemes 'easy' and 'ready', these differences would have to be accounted for. This is my attempt to answer Jim's question, "What's going on here?": the oddness comes from the apparent violation of 'easy"s generative principles, but speakers may feel a similarity to other cases and be OK with it. I wouldn't be, however. I know "easy to please vs. eager to please" was one of Chomsky's key examples, but I've forgotten what his analysis was; maybe I'm reinventing the wheel. (Although his analysis no doubt referred to morphosyntactic form rather than meaning.)

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