Hero after hero after dead hero

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Tom Roeper sent the following "Summer question" around to the UMass Linguistics Department the other day, and I offered to put it onto Language Log as a guest post. What follows is all Tom's. (I've never worked on this topic myself).

For anybody who is intrigued: This is a summer question because you might have time in the summer to devote 10 minutes to it — if it captures your fancy. For several years [too many actually] in my various explorations of recursion, I have looked at cases like: hero after hero after dead hero => all the heroes are dead.

Today in the NYT, I read this quote from Ray Bradbury who just died: "it was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another" My question is: what does this sentence mean?  Is it a set of frenzies followed by a set of elations followed by a set of enthusiasms or are they systematically interspersed, or randomly interspersed? Any comments welcome– Tom


  1. D Sky Onosson said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    I interpret this with the "randomly interspersed" meaning, but perhaps that's just because it seems the most likely way for events to actually occur.

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    I think it's just an illogical but poetic way of saying that there were many instances of frenzy and elation and enthusiasm and hysteria in quick succession, without regard to sequence.

    The word "after" is commonly used to mean "in connection with", rather than literally "at a later time than". This is something of a hobby-horse with me, and I have a long list of collected examples from reported news. Climber found after mountain rescue. England win after farcial finish. Andy Murray has endured a hectic and exhausting few weeks after winning the Montreal Masters last week. Etc.

  3. Michael Johnson said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 8:13 am

    The whole utterance sounds pretty awful to me.

    – I saw hero after hero (fine)
    – I saw one hero after another (fine)
    – I saw one hero after one hero (awful)
    – I saw one hero after one villain (OK on single-occasion interpretation, awful otherwise)
    – I saw one hero after one villain after another (seems like it's forcing the awful reading)
    – It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another (speech performance error?)

  4. John Hadfield said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    I think the various words concerned are intended to show Ray Bradbury's states at various times, in no particular order.

    He was a man who was subject to emotional and intellectual states which surpass to a very great degree those of ordinary people (such as myself for example).

  5. Natalie Wainwright said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 8:38 am

    I believe it means a quick and intense succession of high emotions. It may imply that more such words (euphoria?) could be used also to describe the person's feelings.

    Constructions of this nature, I think, are intended to point out intensity. Even a line such as "he walked forward one foot after another foot after another" points to a sense of difficulty in walking, for whatever reason (despair, pain, indecision…).

  6. Bloix said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 8:46 am

    Frenzy, elation, enthusiasm, and hysteria, are synonymous, so the literal meaning is simply "one frenzy after another." The use of the synonyms gives the initial sense of difference, but when we reach the end ("after another") we realize that that the series is one of sameness. The series mimics the phenomenon being described – we have, both in the writing and in the thing being written about, a series of things that appear at first glance to be different but on closer examination are all the same. The over-extension of repetition gives us the sense of something that is being stretched out too long, to the point that we become impatiient.

    The implication is that these frenziies and enthusiasms are ginned up somehow, that they are meaningless distractiions from anything real and purposeful. By the use of the series, the speaker communicates his one feelings of exhaustion, disgust and alienatiion.

    This use of not-quite-grammatically correct language to mimic and not merely describe is something I would identify (in prose, anyway) as originating with writers like Tom Wolfe and other practitioners of the" new journalism" of the 1960's, but it's not surprising to see it in Bradbury. In poetry you could probably find it in the Beats – but now I'm really guessing.

  7. Jan Arnold said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 8:48 am

    Its sheer ambiguity of meaning is irrelevant linguistically qua syntax and completely relevant as affectual stimulus, causing delight in its manipulations of commonplace phrases unusually juxtaposed (the actual "meaning" of the sentence – it is constructed to delight, not to mean). The essence of the sentence is in our reaction to its oddity rather than in its semantic content.

  8. Antariksh Bothale said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    The phrasing is decidedly clunky, made worse due to the multiple 'one's. One frenzy? One hysteria? But I agree with Eric P Smith's interpretation—we are just dealing with a very emotionally charged incident involving a cocktail of feelings.

  9. AG said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    I think what starts this sort of thing is the template: "Life is just one damn thing after another", or "It was one problem after another".

    I guess extending the phrase in a strangely longer version that uses multiple "the"s, and using weird synonyms, gives us the Bradbury quote.

    The idea to metaphorically pile too many individual things upon each other to produce a camel-back-fracturing situation, I guess.

    Not related, but these strange repeating lists of things and other things made me think of one of my favorite lines from Yeats: "And pluck till time and times are done. The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun."

  10. AG said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    …I meant "multiple 'ones's". And "the idea is to". And I'm guessing the punctuation in the Yeats quote isn't faithful to the original poem either. It's late, sorry.

  11. MattF said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    I don't think 'frenzy', 'elation', 'hysteria', 'enthusiasm' are meant to be synonyms. More a disorienting series of varied but similar emotions in rapid, random succession. Also, I think that the expression is supposed to echo (or recall) the sensation– it's not a precise or elegant expression because the sensation isn't precise or elegant.

  12. Joe said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 9:40 am

    I think Roeper's example of "hero after hero" shows that the contruction "N after N" or "one N after another" is more an intensifier than a temporal sequence. I don't think Bradbury's example is directly equivalent to intensifactory tautology in an attributive modifer construction, (e.g., "tiny little bird"), but it's pretty close.

  13. Emmon Bach said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 9:48 am

    Interestingly, one of my thesis advisers (Hans Stefan Schultz), not a linguist in the technical sense but intensely interested in language, asked me something like this question lo these many decades ago. He asked about the simple cases: time after [adj] time.

  14. David L said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    I think it's mainly just bad writing — a combination of 'elegant variation' and excessive thesaurus consulting — with the aim of giving a dull sentence the appearance of vigor.

  15. peterv said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    Bad writing? Let the historical record show that that opinion is not unanimous. It is superb and powerful writing (or perhaps speaking)!

  16. Mo said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    "It was one X after another"
    X={1frenzy, 2elation, 3enthusiasm, 4hysteria}.

    Too bad we cannot check the solution…

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    Asking "what does it mean" seems a little disingenuous. Everyone knows what it means, right? The terms set out a general semantic domain (even if they're not precisely synonyms), and that's not difficult. If the example had been "it was one transportation after one delivery after one immersion after one anxiety after another" it would have been a rhetorical dead end unless those events formed some kind of natural set in context.

    And it's well-formed syntactically. The question is whether there's a broadly compositional way to derive that meaning from the syntax, and the answer is "no." It's an idiom, in some extended sense, the kind of thing that's familiar from construction grammar. It reminds me of the interpretation of compounds more than anything else (or an example from Burmese: the way you say, roughly, "celebrate at a party" is a six-verb compound meaning "sing-speak-beat-blow-dance-jump"). In Bradbury, "it was one frenzy-elation-enthusiasm-hysteria after another."

  18. Tom Roeper said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    Interesting comments. My primary interest is in these reduplicative
    cases (see also Potts et al in a recent LI) The critical fact is that quantification
    is involved: he wrote paper after paper => must mean more
    than two papers.
    Notice that one can actually embed these things recursively:

    he went from tree to tree to bush to bush and back again

    and that the adjective applied to the last element cannot be
    applied to the first:
    cup after steaming cup of coffee
    *steaming cup after cup

    where quantification
    One example brought up in these comments makes me think
    that the interspersed reading is really a logical grammatical
    I saw one hero after one villain after another

    has a reading where it is systematically back and forth with
    hero/villain pairs. The "another" takes the whole reduplicatioin
    as its antecedent.

    —and if anyone is interested
    I have a draft of a paper by me and Barbara Schmiedtova and Uri
    Strauss that I would send.

  19. Howard Oakley said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    I think that there are two approaches to interpretation: the figurative, for which you have a fair consensus already, and the literal, for which Mo has made a start.

    The problem with a literal interpretation is that the lack of clues as to where the iteration is applied to the (albeit near-identical) mood phases. Unlike a formal symbolic expression, the terminal "another" could apply to the whole sequence, as Mo suggests, or to just the last element (hysteria). I cannot see a way of construing it as a succession of frenzies, followed by a succession of elations, and so on, as I cannot see how "after another" can be distributed in that way. That would require some of of semantic expansion to
    {one frenzy after another}, then {one elation after another}, then…

    It is also worth bearing in mind that A after B after C after D means that D occurs first, then C, then B, then A, which only confounds a literal interpretation, and begs the question as to what the initial "another" might refer to!

    As to its merits, if figurative I would want to look at the context, as it could be great or dismal. It is hard to say.

    If literal, then it fails because of its lack of clarity and that unresolved ambiguity. I think I would have expressed Mo's interpretation by using a phrase such as 'a succession of frenzy,' etc., rather than 'one X after… after another'.

    Either way it is strangely expressed, which could be great, or dismal.


  20. Howard Oakley said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    Sorry, please correct:
    "The problem with a literal interpretation is that the lack of clues"
    to read
    "The problem with a literal interpretation is the lack of clues", and
    "That would require some of of semantic expansion" to
    "That would require some form of semantic expansion"
    in my second para.


  21. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 11:58 am

    I think it's useful to get a sense of context. Bradbury is talking about the period when he was eight years old, and first encountered science fiction stories; he devoured them with such intensity that "I think I went a little mad that autumn. . . . You rarely have such fevers . . . that fill your entire day with emotion. When I look back now, I realize what a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another." So the author is intending to communicate a sense of one fevered state passing directly into another at a high pitch. The form he uses gives it a concreteness and visceral meaning that, for example, "it was one frenzy after another" would not.

  22. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 11:59 am

    "I object, Your Honor. This trial is a travesty. It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of two mockeries of a sham. I move for a mistrial."–Woody Allen, Bananas

  23. Joe said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 12:13 pm


    Sorry, I meant to link to this above. Jackendoff talks about the N Prep N construction here


    [(myl) Joe contributed a link to the same paper, originally published in Language in 2008, in a comment on an earlier LL post, "Nominee for the Trent Reznor Prize", 4/14/2012. That post discussed the relevant question of where the relative clause in "bill after bill after bill that was obviously unconstitutional" attaches, and how it's interpreted.]

  24. D Sky Onosson said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    @ Tom Roeper

    While I agree that *steaming cup after cup doesn't work, steaming cup after cup of coffee seems ok to me.

    Anyone else agree?

  25. Abe said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

    I take it as all randomly interspersed. It's just like the phrase "each girl was prettier than the next". Not that the first one was the most pretty and the last one was the ugliest, but it's just a way of saying that everyone was ridiculously pretty.

  26. Barbara Partee said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    @Joe – that looks absolutely relevant. And it's later than the 2002 Roeper-Schmiedtova-Strauss draft, so Tom wouldn't have known about it then. Maybe he already does, but I certainly didn't. Thanks!

  27. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    Looking at this phrase as a writer, not a linguist, I find it a beautiful way of describing the way someone acts in the grip of a new passion. The words are not synonyms, but they are vivid terms that describe human reaction to something powerful. While he uses the term "after," as a reader I immediately assume that these things are not going on in any particular order. Sometimes they happen all at once, sometimes in succession, and the order changes willy-nilly. The use of "hysteria" and "frenzy" also hint that the reaction is neither balanced nor without a negative side.

    Context helps, as Jon pointed out above. I was wondering what story it was from (and contemplating whether it was positive or sinister), but Jon's observation made me realize that it's from Bradbury's essay in the current New Yorker and about his first experience of falling in love with science fiction.

    I find it very different from the "hero after hero after dead hero" construction despite the similar use of after, because it's conveying a very different kind of experience. But I will leave it to others to figure out why it's different; I'm content to know that I would use these constructions for very different purposes.

    BTW, I am mystified that a couple of people on here seem to think it was bad writing. It's such a vivid sentence. Read in context (the next sentence is "I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that very afternoon"), it paints a complete picture of a child discovering something important about the world.

  28. Tom Roeper said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    I perused the very interesting Jackendoff summary. He has a lot
    of terrific observations, but the conclusion is that it is a fixed
    and pretty much idiomatic syntax/semantics connection.
    Here's the idea I would like to pursue (anyone working
    with children interested?). We know that wh-pairing is
    an important linguistic phenomenon: who bought what.
    And we know that children, not all, can get it by the age
    of about 4. These constructions, if idiomatic, should be
    much harder to learn (under the quantificational reading–
    John wrote two papers, Bill wrote five, Mary wrote one—
    who wrote paper after paper? => Bill—some scene like
    that.) If children got pairing in wh- and pairing in these
    N P N cases, then we could argue that there is a deeper
    form of quantificational relation involved.

  29. Joe said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    For what it's worth, I did a quick look at COCA to see whether I could find any other examples of this particular construction. I couldn't find an exact match, but I did find one that closely resembles it:

    For most of the two years, he's just had one gaffe, one misstep, one embarrassment after another

  30. David L said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

    @peterv, @Nancy Jane Moore: Admittedly this is all a matter of taste, but the sentence strikes me as straining for effect, without being clear about what effect it is straining for.

    Or to put it another way, it's just not my cup of tea.

  31. Erik said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    For some more data, I did a quick search of COCA for "after * after *" and looked for examples where the *'s were different.

    Most of the time, the order in which things came seemed to me to be irrelevant, as in the Bradbury quote:

    Day after week after month after year.

    Soon I'm back in my bottom bunk, the ultraviolet radiation substituting for my overprotective mother piling blanket after quilt after blanket on her baby boy.

    She badly needed a vacation, and the only way to get her on one was to go himself. Globe-trotting hadn't worn her out, it was her itinerary: disaster after catastrophe after cataclysm.

    This is why you don't want to wait until you've funded $ 1.2 billion studies for year after year after decade till you've got absolute proof that there's a problem that's getting worse.

    Enduring twist after turn after bump, viewers are whipped through a fun house of seemingly disjointed plot points that add up to intriguingly greater sums while provoking early-X-Files-level guessing games, passionate Internet message-board discussions, and morning-after watercooler summits.

    Then there were a couple where the order does strike me as possibly relevant (at least in the sense of describing an alternating sequence of things):

    I whispered, and he walked next to me, looking down at his feet moving one after another, right after left after right.

    So I am on the Interstate east for the Sierras and Reno eastward first for hour after hour and then evening after daytime after evening.

    But muddying the waters is one instance where the order is definitely not preserved in this same way:

    Its my understanding that it was so critical to get this mattress, that that is why they spent day after day after night after night out there looking for the mattress.

    And then there's one I couldn't quite understand. It sounds like a photo caption, but I can't make heads nor tails out of it:

    …, by Marie Alexandre AIophe (1812-1883), published by Goupil and Company, 1852. Colored lithograph, 9 1/16 by 13/16 inches (image size). It was no. 87 in Goupil's Les Hommes du jour (men of the day) series. Muse Goupil. Fig. 6. George Washington, by Jean Baptiste Lafosse (1810-1879) after Stuart, published by Goupil and Company, 1850. Lithograph, 9 1/6 by 7 1/8 inches. New York Public Library. Fig. 7. Washington (Virginia), Gnralissime des forces Amricaines, by Alophe after Dubourjal after Stuart, published by Goupil, Vibert and Company, 1849. Lithograph, 11 by 9 inches. The subtitle in French indicates that the lithograph was intended for the French as well as the American market. Goupil priced it at 30 cents on India paper; 50 cents colored. Private collection. Pl. II. Washington passant ta Delaware (Washington Crossing the Delaware), by Paul Girardet (1821-1893) after Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868), published by Goupil and Company, 1853.

    And finally, there are those like the "dead hero" quote above, fitting the form "X after X after P X", which usually seems to me to mean a long sequence of X's, all of which (or together which) are P:

    They went down into the bowels of the building, corridor after corridor after turning corridor.

    Instead of achieving draw after draw after boring draw, Chinook has started to play games that are truly exciting, Schaeffer says.

    Those are all the hits for the form I could find on COCA, so there's a little more "data" for people to play with.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 8:44 pm


    by Adolphe after Dubourjal after Stuart

    What you quote appears to be an excerpt from a catalogue of lithographs published by "Goupil" (a person of French origin), both in the US and (together with another publisher) in France.

    Before the process of printing photographs as well as text had been developed, lithography was the main process for mass producing visual information on paper, including reproductions of paintings and later of photographs. In this particular case, several artists had participated, starting with a painting, reproduced first as a drawing, (then perhaps etched on a copper plate), finally as a lithograph (using a soft, easily incised type of stone). Here Stuart produced the original work, which was copied/transferred to another medium by Dubourjat, then finally lithographed by Adolphe. "After" in this sense is d'après in French, not just après which refers to time.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    June 9, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

    Sorry, I wrote Adolphe instead of Alophe (a rare name). According to Wikipedia this artist started as a painter and lithographer before turning to photography.

  34. Paul Kay said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

    Noticing the Jackendoff paper, one wonders to what extent we should restrict our attention here to examples in repetitions of after.
    I'm thinking of expressions like "down the stairs, out the front door, across the lawn, into the neighbor's house,…" In these cases an embedding analysis [[down] [the … house]] is neither semantically attractive nor in accord with the prosody. The after examples can arguably made to fit an embedding analysis semantically but still don't fit the prosodic phrasing.
    I'd be glad to hear further arguments that the after examples do in fact exemplify embedding.

  35. A.M. said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 9:17 pm

    As I see it, this quote, as any other phrase, is a many-layered semantic construction, with signs of all layers keeping their meanings, but one layer or more being dominant (much like a platoon of soldiers, who remain individuals even when they act as a unit executing the will of another individual who is not included in the platoon). The sentense is intentionally mixed-order and ambiguious, and this quality of mixed-order-ambguity-ness is the dominant sign of the phrase, signifying the state of the author's emotions (something that most commenters seem to agree upon). The grammatical characterisitcs of the phrase are used only to construct this referense, and so are subordinant to the author's intent, and, in a way, irrelevant, same as the individual desires of the soldiers are irrelevant as they execute a command.

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