A record-length phrasal modifier?

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In our 1992 chapter "The stress and structure of modified noun phrases in English" (in Sag & Szabolcsi, Lexical Matters), Richard Sproat and I noted that

in some informal styles, various phrasal categories can be freely used as prenominal modifiers, with an appropriately generic meaning. […] This usage permits free inclusion of pronouns, articles and other things that are usually forbidden in modifiers. […] Examples are extremely common in certain journalistic styles, from which the following examples are all taken […]:

an old-style white-shoe do-it-on-the-golf-course banker, the usual wait-until-next-year attitude, a wait-until-after-the-elections scenario, a kind of get-to-know-what's-going-on meeting place, the like-it-or-lump-it theory of public art, state-of-the-union address, a 24-hour-a-day job, a 1-percent-of-GNP guideline, a run-of-the-mill meeting, a sweep-it-under-the-rug amendment, a middle-of-the-road format, the state teacher-of-the-year title, a take-it-or-leave-it choice, the yet-to-be-written 1987 bill, a certain chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, make-it-from-scratch traditionalists, Speak-Mandarin-Nat-Dialects Month, a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul system, the nothing-left-to-chance approach, get-out-the-vote drives, the don't-trust-anybody-over-30 crowd, national clear-your-desk day

A few days ago, I happened on an example that sets a new length record of 14 words for such phrasal modifiers — at least among the examples that I've committed to memory.

It's from Paul Campos, "The State of the Race with One Week to Go", Lawyers, Guns & Money 10/27/2020:

You can be sure that Republicans will try to use this fact to flip the election itself via the SCOTUS, citing Article XXXII’s little known you can’t change how elections are conducted if that leads to right wingers losing clause.

Update — the phrasal modifier is actually 14 words long, as Bob Ladd points out in the comments, not 11 words long as I first wrote…



  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 7:22 am

    And with no hyphens, phuck yeah!

  2. jhh said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 7:25 am

    From the 1977 movie, Annie Hall:

    “You’re like New York, Jewish, leftwing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings. . .”

  3. DCBob said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 7:49 am

    Any phrasal modifier that ends with a "right wingers losing clause" can't be all bad ….

  4. Francois Lang said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 8:57 am

    In Turkish, that would be all one word. Maybe German too.

  5. Francois Lang said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 9:00 am

    So would this be a a record-length-phrasal-modifier-posting comment?

    And a response would be a record-length-phrasal-modifier-posting-comment response?

  6. Mark Meckes said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 9:15 am

    @Francois: Antirechtsextremistenwahlendurchführungsänderungenverbot, perhaps?

  7. Ross Presser said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 9:35 am

    Is the fact that the Constitution only has 7 articles, not 32, part of the joke?

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 10:24 am

    By my count the phrasal modifier has 14 words, not 11:
    (you can’t change how elections are conducted if that leads to right wingers losing).

  9. Bloix said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 1:37 pm

    Of course, there's no limit to the length of such modifiers. This is from the song "Book Report," from the musical You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown:

    And they were very, very, very, very, very, very
    Happy to be home.

    The joke is that the book report has to be at least 100 words long.

    My favorite example that isn't done for snark or humor is a sign on the way to Yosemite National Park: The Old Big Oak Flat Road.

  10. Gareth Wilson said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 2:09 pm

    It's not quite the same thing, but a character on the TV show Community once said "nobody's Can't Buy Me Love-ing or My Love Don't Cost A Thing-ing anyone".

  11. William Berry said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 2:24 pm

    @Ross Presser:

    As a regular LGMer, I can assure you the answer is “yes”.

    One tries to laugh (or to manage a dry chuckle, or a ghost of a smile, perhaps) just to keep from crying

  12. 번하드 said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 3:57 pm

    Now you really tripped me up. Coming from IT, I parsed "record length" as "length of some record in a file/on tape"…
    I *am* a bit confused today, a few days before our 4 week lockdown will begin.
    As another example, CNN had the following headline on its main page:
    "Nice attack suspect identified"
    Is there some established name for that in the taxonomy of headlinese?

  13. Charlotte said,

    October 29, 2020 @ 4:05 pm

    I would have thought the compound adjective “little known” counts, which would make it 16. I guess I’m not correctly understanding what counts as a “phrasal modifier”?

    [(myl) You're right that "little known" is also a modifier of "clause". But we're counting just the word-length of the sentence used as a prenominal modifier, something like:


  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 31, 2020 @ 4:31 pm

    A contender for the record at seventeen words is in the title of a song by Jimmy

    (I've Got Those "Wake Up, Seven-Thirty – Wash Your Ears They're Dirty – Eat Your Eggs And Oatmeal – Rush To School") Blues

    Or is the part between quotation marks four phrasal modifiers?

  15. Jonathan said,

    October 31, 2020 @ 7:57 pm

    It's shorter, but I'm reminded of Dinah Shore's Mad About Him, Sad About Him, How can I Be Glad Without Him Blues. https://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtd.asp?ppn=MN0107745

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    November 2, 2020 @ 9:33 pm

    It would be correctly written "little-known you-can't-change-how-elections-are-conducted-if-that-leads-to-right-wingers-losing clause", I reckon, but that might be considered excessive. (And of course there's no Article XXXII, that page is satirical anyway.) "Little-known clause that says …" would be grammatically unobjectionable, and normal when being serious.

    (And is there not a case for considering "can't" two words, making it 15?)

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  17. Chas Belov said,

    November 4, 2020 @ 3:36 pm

    @Andrew Usher: That's how I would have written it. While I would probably notice the excessiveness of the number of hyphens and agonize over it, I would (from past evidence) come down on the side of using the hyphens.

  18. Yerushalmi said,

    November 8, 2020 @ 4:40 am

    If anything, I'd say that the excessive number of hyphens adds to the humor.

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