Thematic spoonerisms?

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Matt Richtel, "Urinary Tract Infections Affect Millions. The Cures Are Faltering", NYT 7/13/2019 [emphasis added]:

For generations, urinary tract infections, one of the world’s most common ailments, have been easily and quickly cured with a simple course of antibiotics.

But there is growing evidence that the infections, which afflict millions of Americans a year, mostly women, are increasingly resistant to these medicines, turning a once-routine diagnosis into one that is leading to more hospitalizations, graver illnesses and prolonged discomfort from the excruciating burning sensation that the infection brings.[…]

The drug ampicillin, once a mainstay for treating the infections, has been abandoned as a gold standard because it is so often resistant to multiple strains of U.T.I.s.

Normally — and elsewhere in that article — infections (or the organisms that cause them) are resistant to drugs, not the other way around. So I'm going to assume this was a compositional or editorial slip rather than the leading edge of a new usage.

We noted an analogous syntactic role reversal ten days ago ("Which justifies what?", 7/3/2019). Is there a name for this kind of error, perhaps from the terminology of psycholinguistics? Or maybe from rhetoric? There are lots of ways of talking about the relationships involved — see e.g. Framenet and Verbnet — but I don't know of any term for exchange errors in the mapping from thematic roles to syntactic positions. Thematic spoonerisms?

The mandatory screenshot:

[h/t Charles Belov]

Update — more here: "Changelings".



  1. Laura Morland said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    Maybe all Times's copy editors are out on sick leave, due to these "resistant" drugs?

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    Wikipedia says, "Hypallage (/haɪˈpælədʒiː/; from the Greek: ὑπαλλαγή, hypallagḗ, "interchange, exchange") is a figure of speech in which the syntactic relationship between two terms is interchanged,[1] or—more frequently—a modifier is syntactically linked to an item other than the one that it modifies semantically.[2]" The footnote [1] is to Webster's Third.

    Is this syntactically similar to the relationship between "the glass broke" and "I broke the glass", except that for "break" both usages are perfectly standard?

  3. Annie Gotlieb said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 8:46 am

    1.) In Spanish, "se me rompio" sort of means "It went and broke itself on me" (colloquial sense of "on"). Confirmed here:ó

    My favorite recent example of this kind of switching is from an online weather article about New Orleans last Wednesday. Unfortunately I've lost the source, but treasured up the exact quote:

    "Where could Hurricane Barry hit?
    Hurricane Barry's path is forecast to hit New Orleans in Louisiana, where flash flooding caused half a foot of rain to fall on Wednesday."

  4. Annie Gottlieb said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 8:47 am

    This from last Wednesday. Unfortunately I've lost track of the source, but treasured u the example.

  5. Annie Gottlieb said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 8:48 am


    "Where could Hurricane Barry hit?
    Hurricane Barry's path is forecast to hit New Orleans in Louisiana, where flash flooding caused half a foot of rain to fall on Wednesday."

  6. Annie Gottlieb said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 8:52 am

    Also, in Spanish grammar you don't say "I broke the glass"; there is this gentle shifting of responsibility to the glass: "se me rompio" (dang, it went and broke on me).

  7. Robert Coren said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 9:50 am

    @ Annie Gottlieb: This can happen in English, too; my husband has told me that his mother was in the habit of saying things like "the glass dropped" after she had dropped a glass, and he sometimes uses the same locution.

  8. Keith said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 2:54 pm

    In French, too, it is very common to use a reflexive verb to replace what would be a passive voice in English (and maybe a middle voice in the Scandinavian languages, I'd appreciate an expert to chime in on this question).

    A couple of examples: "le verre s'est cassé" for "the glass got broken" or "the glass broke"; "les clefs se sont perdues" for "the keys got lost".

    I wonder if this is common to other Romance languages, besides Spanish and French; I suspect that it is, and would like to see examples from others in the branch.

  9. Katja Brill said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 4:50 pm

    @Keith @Robert @Annie
    In Italian to say "il bicchiere si è rotto" (the glass broke itself) is largely equivalent to saying "go rotto il bicchiere" (I broke the glass), but someone who wants to divert responsibility a bit, would still prefer the former, of course.

    More or less the same is true for German: "Das Glas ist kaputt gegangen" (the glass went broken) is commonly used and hardly anyone would accuse the person pronouncing it of shifting responsibility; nevertheless, if you say "ich habe dass Glas kaputt gemacht" (I broke the glass), you certainly make clear that you admit and accept responsibility for braking the glass.

    The funny thing is that in both languages there's kind of two measures: The glass breaking itself or passively is a common expression which noone would call shifting responsibilities. Yet 'I broke it is explicitly honest.

  10. Katja Brill said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 4:52 pm

    Sorry for spelling mistakes, I'm using my smartphone.

  11. Paul Kay said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 8:08 pm

    Jerry Friedman asks, 'Is this syntactically similar to the relationship between "the glass broke" and "I broke the glass", except that for "break" both usages are perfectly standard?' I would say not completely. Syntactically, the example involves the exchange of subject and object. "Disease agents resist drugs"; not "Drugs resist disease agents." The only English verb I can think of that would satisfy the criterion of a single verb (or two homophonous verbs) that work both ways is "comprise" — which, according to the OED for example, has the two meanings (1) 'To constitute, make up, compose' (ex, 1969  W. Hooper in C. S. Lewis Sel. Lit. Ess. p. xix   These essays together with those contained in this volume comprise the total of C. S. Lewis's essays on literature.) and (2) 'To contain, as parts making up the whole, to consist of (the parts specified' (ex. 1891 N.E.D. at Comprise Mod. Advt. The house comprises box-room, nine bed-rooms, bath-room, etc.) So, the parts comprise the whole and the whole comprises the parts. I would be interested if readers can report cases of more self-converse verbs, in English or other languages. In languages in which kin terms can behave syntactically as verbs (Seneca to my knowledge, and maybe other Iroquoian languages), where one says in effect things like "She cross-cousins him", I would guess something like the phenomenon may occur, depending on details of the morphology.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 10:28 pm

    Annie Gottlieb: I think saying "Se me rompió" is a matter of usage, not grammar. The Corpus del Español has examples of "rompí" in that sense:

    "Creo que fue a mis 8 años cuando rompí de manera inconsciente la primer pc que mi padre había comprado."

    "…en mi prisa por salir del apartamento de Nena rompí una de las tres llaves que lo aseguran por dentro."

    I have no doubt, though, that "se me rompió" is used far more.

    Paul Kay: Thanks for the comment. I agree that "The drug is resistant to the infection" isn't completely analogous to "The glass broke" because the latter doesn't have an object.

    Other than verbs expressing symmetrical relationships (John resembles Richard and Richard resembles John), I can't come up with any verbs that are exactly self-converse in this way.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    July 14, 2019 @ 11:39 pm

    @Annie Gottlieb It shows up at although I can't say whether that's the source.

  14. Riikka said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 2:11 am

    In Swedish-Swedish it's also now customary to say "the glass got broken" ("glaset gick sönder" – the glass went broken) instead of "I broke the glass". Using the construction of "I broke the glass" ("jag söndrade glaset") always gets weird looks and complaints of me being 200 years behind of everyone else.

    To my knowledge it is just that one verb, though. Saying that I dropped the glass is perfectly fine, just not breaking it.

  15. Kristian said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 3:36 am

    The writer probably has the phrase "antibiotic resistance" in his head and has jumped from that to "antibiotics are resistant". He has accidentally assumed that "antibiotic resistance" is analogous to "French Resistance" (and not "cold resistance").

    In Sweden, söndra means "divide", so you can't say that about a glass. "slå sönder" is "break" as in "break a glass".

  16. mollymooly said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 4:54 am

    Terms like "diathesis alternation" and "causative alternation" are similar if it's intentional, but hardly for mistakes.

    The examples listed in the abovementioned "hypallage" Wikipedia article are all of what it calls the "more frequently" definition, whereas the original spoonerism seems to be the other definition.

  17. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 8:39 am

    The phenomenon where a word that typically stands for one relation can also be used to stand for the converse relation turns up in a number of contexts, such as 'O learn me true understanding and knowledge', 'Can you borrow me a pound?' and 'Barack Obama is an ancestor of William the Lion'. None of these are syntactically similar to the present case, but they seem to reveal a similar instinct.

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    I was in my teens when English became my primary language, and I remember being struck by its habit of "taking responsibility" for unintentional actions. I already knew a number of languages by then (including Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew in addition to the ones cited by previous commenters), and all of them prefer the passive or reflexive construction in this case. I think English is very much an outlier.

  19. Cervantes said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 9:13 am

    Re. Annie Gottlieb:

    In Spanish it's perfectly okay to say "I broke the glass." Rompi el vaso.

    You would use the reflexive, se me rompió, to draw attention to the consequences for you. If the glass broke but you didn't want to specify the agent you can just say "se rompió." In English we normally omit the reflexive pronoun but otherwise it's the same idea, "it broke."

    Ordinarily if, say, someone's child becomes ill the parent will say "Se me enfermó," for that reason — it's consequential for the parent. We don't really have an equivalent in English in this case because "He got sick on me" means something else. Getting sick, unlike a glass breaking, is inherently reflexive so there isn't an alternative to Se enfermó, but the "me" is optional.

  20. Rose Eneri said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 10:10 am

    Sorry, but I think the NYT article is just another example of people who do not know anything about science trying to write about science. Happens all the time.

  21. Stephen Hart said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

    Rose Eneri said,
    "Sorry, but I think the NYT article is just another example of people who do not know anything about science trying to write about science. Happens all the time."

    Agreed. The Times has some excellent, well-educated science writers. But they don't write all the science and medicine articles.

  22. Amanda Adams said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 1:26 pm

    & I know we're *only* supposed to be discussing language here; but in my youth, UTI's were uniformly treated with sulfa drugs. They worked. Antibiotics are faster; but I'd almost bet sulfa would still work, if you can get it.

  23. Ellen K. said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 2:11 pm

    Sorry, but I think the NYT article is just another example of people who do not know anything about science trying to write about science. Happens all the time.

    Do you mean that you think that the highlighted sentence was a result of a journalist not knowing the subject they are writing about, and it's not of linguistic interest?

    If not, I don't understand what you mean by "just" here.

    I haven't read the article and can't rate how good it is in it's science coverage, though I do agree bad science coverage is common. But I don't think the quote under discussion here should be dismissed as nothing more than a lack of knowledge of science.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 2:16 pm

    Oops… I forgot the closing HTML italics tags after the first (quoted) paragraph.

  25. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

    Coby Lubliner: The idea that active verbs connote agency is a widespread one, but it cuts both ways. It could be taken to imply that you should not use 'I broke the glass' unless you did it intentionally; but it could also be taken to mean that 'the glass broke' ascribes agency to the glass. (Though some people would no doubt say that 'the glass broke' is passive.)

  26. Andrew Usher said,

    July 15, 2019 @ 11:54 pm

    No one can ascribe agency to something like glass, and the purpose of a phrase like 'the glass broke' is to avoid having to specify any agency, as a true passive ('the glass was broken') would suggest that whoever did it meant to.

    English at least gives the choice of different forms, while as we've seen, many other languages strongly prefer an analogous form in all cases, which of course obliterates any connotation whatever.

    The original passage about drugs and UTIs was simply a mistake, and certainly not such a feature of grammar. I think the question was being asked of how those mistakes arise mentally. My guess is they are similar to misnegations – the mind 'slips' in recognition.

    k_over_hbarc at

  27. R. Fenwick said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 5:18 am

    Ordinarily if, say, someone's child becomes ill the parent will say "Se me enfermó," for that reason — it's consequential for the parent. We don't really have an equivalent in English in this case because "He got sick on me" means something else.

    No, in appropriate contexts he got sick on me is fine in English too: I was going to get help from Pete yesterday, but he got sick on me and Anna had to step in at the last minute. It's ambiguous as to whether "on me" here means "physically located upon me" or "with consequences for me", but both meanings are possible. The construction's pretty widespread in colloquial English; here are a few more examples culled from quick Google searches.

    My family all got sick on me and I had to stay home and help them.
    I have to go buy a new blender because mine died on me today.
    My MacBook broke on me four days before rent is due.
    1 week until Vegas and friend cancelled on me! I'm so upset!
    Long story short he disappeared on me after we had texted Saturday evening.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 6:58 am

    Rose Eneri and Stephen Hart: I agree with Ellen K. that this looks like a merely verbal error. Matt Richtel has won a Pulitzer Prize and done a lot of science reporting. Thinking that drugs are resistant to infections doesn't even make sense. It's true that science journalists make mistakes, but this one hardly seems likely.

  29. Bob Ladd said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 8:32 am

    @Jerry Friedman et al. I agree that this is a linguistic problem, not a science-journalism problem. But why "merely verbal"? It think this is a potentially interesting linguistic phenomenon, as MYL emphasized in his title for the original post ("Thematic Spoonerisms") and in linking this example to the example from last week ("the inconvenience didn't justify the cause" as an error for "the cause didn't justify the inconvenience"). It seems that there's something about the abstract semantic relations between verbs and their arguments (i.e. the nouns that go with them) that makes it fairly natural for the concrete grammatical relations to get switched around, either by mistake (as in these "thematic spoonerisms") or in language change.

    (Example from language change, based on my own experience as a now elderly native speaker of English: my grammar of the verb substitute requires substitute X for Y, where Y is the thing that was there before the substitution and X is the replacement, but it appears that for most speakers who are significantly younger than me the grammar wants substitute Y with X. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples.)

  30. Robert Coren said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 9:45 am

    @Andrew (not the same one): Not sure about the other examples, but surely 'Barack Obama is an ancestor of William the Lion' is just an error.

  31. Robert Coren said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 9:49 am

    There used to be a sign in the lobby of Boston's Colonial Theater that read "Drinks are not permitted to be carried into the theater". This always struck me and my husband as curious phrasing, suggesting that if such drinks were brought in, it would be the drinks that were at fault. I surmised that they were trying to avoid the appearance of ordering their patrons to do or not do something.

  32. DWalker07 said,

    July 16, 2019 @ 9:49 am

    The article has been corrected, although without a "correction notice" that I usually see. It now says:

    "The drug ampicillin, once a mainstay for treating the infections, has been abandoned as a gold standard because multiple strains of U.T.I.s are resistant to it."

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 17, 2019 @ 6:20 pm

    Bob Ladd: When I said "merely verbal", I meant that a verbal error was much less to Richtel's discredit than being so ignorant of science as to believe that drugs can be resistant to infections. I didn't mean that it was uninteresting. In fact, in the second comment on this post, I asked a question about the same issues you raised.

    I don't know whether it's just verbs and their arguments, though. For instance, as mollymooly pointed out, there are many examples of modifiers linked to the "wrong" head. My favorite example, "It fills a much-needed gap," might be one.

    On substitute, I feel that substitute Y with X is more common in Britain than America. Do I remember correctly that you're British? I used to feel that this use of "substitute" gave the speaker away as non-native, but that's definitely not true now.

    Robert Coren: Would "Drinks may not be carried into the theater" seem curious to you?

    (On the subject of hypallage, I've been hearing "curious question" recently. It means a question asked out of curiosity.)

  34. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 9:13 am

    Andrew Usher: Clearly one cannot actually ascribe agency to something like glass: the point is that people will sometimes accuse you of doing so, saying things like 'Oh, the glass broke? It was just sitting there and decided to break, did it?'. The assumption being made is apparently that active verbs always imply agency.

    Robert Coren: Clearly 'Barack Obama is an ancestor of William the Lion' is an error (though if enough people go on making it there will presumably come a point where it isn't), but it still needs explanation. People are weirdly prone to make it, and this does seem to be an example of a wider phenomenon.

  35. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 9:19 am

    Jerry Friedman: My understanding of 'substitute Y with X' is that it arose out of prescriptivist objections to 'replace': some people were claiming that you shouldn't say 'replace Y with X' because 'replace' means 'put back in its place', and their audience, instead of actually rethinking the sentences in question, simply replaced 'replace' with 'substitute'. It goes back a long way: writers like Fowler were complaining about it.

  36. Robert Coren said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 10:02 am

    @Jerry Friedman: 'Would "Drinks may not be carried into the theater" seem curious to you?'

    I guess not, and that makes me wonder why they didn't just say that.

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 18, 2019 @ 2:45 pm

    Robert Coren: But then the question is whether "are not permitted to" suggests to you that the drinks are at fault, but "may not" doesn't. Of course there are other reasons you might dislike the "not permitted" wording, which is verbose and contains the often deprecated double passive construction.

    (For me, neither wording suggests agency on the drinks' part.)

  38. Robert Coren said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 9:24 am

    Well, my brain does seem to perceive that distinction between "are not permitted to" and "may not". (Apart from the fact that "may not" can also refer to probability rather than permission.) I also wouldn't have any objection to "Drinks must not be carried", but clearly the theater didn't want to be that stern.

  39. ktschwarz said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 11:46 am

    I was browsing around some old news editors' blogs and found them poking fun at a headline that's a thematic spoonerism: Fears grow that Irish economy will befall same fate as Greece, The Independent, Oct. 1, 2010. Even the Independent's own columnist called that out the next day.

  40. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 19, 2019 @ 12:46 pm

    To me the excessively fussy part is "to be carried". If the intent of the sign is that "Drinks are not permitted in the auditorium", it should say so plainly, and never mind how they got there.

    If on the other hand the intent is "Any alcohol consumed on the premises must be purchased in the lobby", that should be said plainly as well, and what you carry in is your own business so long as it stays in your pocket.

  41. Robert Coren said,

    July 20, 2019 @ 10:19 am

    @Gregory Kusnick: you know, I think you're right about the wording.

    I don't think it's about bringing in alcohol; it's forbidding libations of any kind, whether purchased in the lobby or elsewhere, to be carried to your seat.

  42. ktschwarz said,

    July 21, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    The New York Times can fix the story on its own site, but it can't do anything about the dozens of reprints and scrapers that copied the original. And it's still spreading: today's Houston Chronicle reprints the original version, complete with "ampicillin … resistant to multiple strains of UTIs." (And that's after somebody must have looked at it, because the original's "U.T.I.s" has been changed to "UTIs".)

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