Recent WTF reactions: some remarks

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Last week, I posted a couple of example sentences that had given me pause:

  1. I'll never forget how he must have felt. (overheard)
  2. Aren’t you glad you archived instead of deleted? (over-read)

I promised I'd get back to these, so here I am.

First, "I'll never forget how he must have felt." The trouble with this one, as I perceive it, is that the set of things that one can remember or forget can conceivably include what other people actually felt, but not what other people must have felt. When another person actually feels something, they might tell us about it, either directly (by talking about how they feel) or indirectly (by emoting somehow). When we say that another person must have felt something, the inference is typically much more indirect: they probably haven't emoted or talked to us about how they feel, but rather we've inferred it based on other information (let's say, we've heard that they've just split up with their significant other). In this kind of situation, I can see myself perhaps saying "I'll never forget how I imagined he must have felt", but without that bit in boldface, it's one step removed from the set of things I feel I can legitimately forget.

Next, "Aren't you glad you archived instead of deleted?" I've already gotten some correspondence about this one, from folks wondering WTF I'm WTF-ing about. To me, "instead of" cannot be followed by a past tense (or past participle) form of a verb, it has to be followed by an -ing form: "Aren't you glad you archived instead of deleting?" But I do admit that the paralellism of the "V-ed instead of V-ed" construction is not completely terrible; it's not like the stark contrast in grammaticality I see here:

3. Why did you archive instead of deleting?
4. *Why did you archive instead of deleted?

Note that "did you archive" is still a past tense form, only discontinuously expressed because it's in a main clause wh-question. A little better to my ear, but still fairly bad, is "instead of V-ed" when the previous past tense verb has an irregular past tense form, and it seems worse with "more irregular" verbs:

5. Aren't you glad you kept instead of deleting?
6. ??Aren't you glad you kept instead of deleted?
7. Aren't you glad you took instead deleting?
8. ?*Aren't you glad you took instead of deleted?

(I take took to be "more irregular" than kept because (i) kept has the expected past tense suffix sound — compare seep ~ seeped, where the -ed is pronounced [t] — and (ii) keep ~ kept also involves a very common vowel quality alternation in English between 'long' and 'short' e, also found in e.g. serene ~ serenity. By contrast, take ~ took involves no suffixation and a very uncommon vowel quality alternation.)

As Karen Kay points out to me, if both verbs have irregular past tense forms, we're back to pretty clear ungrammaticality:

9. Aren't you glad you kept instead of taking?
10. *Aren't you glad you kept instead of took?
11. Aren't you glad you took instead of keeping?
12. *Aren't you glad you took instead of kept?

But, maybe this has something to do with the mixing-and-matching of different 'degrees' of irregularity (or simply sound similarity), because these sound relatively OK:

13. Aren't you glad you kept instead of wept?
14. Aren't you glad you took instead of shook?

(I need a better verb than wept here, because the verbs should all be matched for valency. I'm fairly sure that the lack of an overt object after all of these transitive verbs is relevant to my grammaticality judgments, but I haven't fully figured out how.)

As a final completely introspective observation: compare the following examples with those in 5-8 above. 16 and 18 are each a little worse for me than 6 and 8, respectively, and all I've done is switch the regular and irregular past tense forms around.

15. Aren't you glad you deleted instead of keeping?
16. *?Aren't you glad you deleted instead of kept?
17. Aren't you glad you deleted instead of taking?
18. *Aren't you glad you deleted instead of took?

Feel free to comment on your observations, disagreements, etc. And if anyone has more Google-savvy (and time) than me, I fully acknowledge that it would be nice to see what's out there in the grand ol' Interwebs corpus.


  1. Max said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    I'm having trouble understanding your explanation of your reasoning about the first example. What other verbs, in your mind, would behave like "forget" does in this case?

    It seems like "imagine" and "know" are, for you, different (I'm inferring that "I can imagine how he must have felt" and "I know how he must have felt" sound OK to you).

    What about, "I remember how he must have felt"? It seems confusing to be able to say you "know" something but unable to say you "remember" it!

    (For what it's worth, all these example, including the original, sound more or less ok to me.)

  2. Alexpri said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    Your observations on “I’ll never forget how he must have felt” strike me as fair enough – I can imagine myself making the same argument to a writer if I were editing their work. And yet my main, perverse reaction to your analysis is to want to stand up for the sentence and denounce your literal reading of it. I agree that one can’t forget something that one knows only by inference and that your suggested replacement “I’ll never forget how I imagined he must have felt” solves this problem. But I would ask, What else could “I’ll never forget how he must have felt” mean except something like “I’ll never forget how I imagined he must have felt”? And if you agree that the initial sentence must mean something like your corrected version of it, isn’t the meaning of the initial sentence clear enough? And if so, why is it in need of correction? If a writer whose manuscript I was editing asked me those questions, I would probably reply that the corrected sentence is clearer, whereas the initial one might cause the reader to do a kind of mental double take; the initial sentence would distract the reader. But there are many contexts in which clarity is not the prime value. “I’ll never forget how he must have felt” is an interesting, striking sentence because it elides the “I imagine” which in fact is only one possible expansion of the elision; the initial sentence is richer in meaning than the more precise corrected version. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on the context.

  3. Fred Bone said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    You said "To me, “instead of” cannot be followed by a past tense (or past participle) form of a verb …". How do you feel about "… glad the file was archived instead of deleted"? That seems perfectly acceptable to me. Could it also be the false precedent for the example you disliked?

  4. Charles Hartman said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

    "I'll never forget how he must have felt" seems to me philosophically, psychologically, and semantically valid. These "must" constructions are fascinating. The kind of knowledge referred to in this one, depending on cognitive capacities they now tell us have to do with mirror neurons and such, doesn't seem any less reliable than the kind provided by his "emoting" or saying how he feels.

    I wonder if the puzzle has more to do with the semantics (or metaphysics!) of "forget." If what we remember/forget is facts, the construction looks dodgy; but don't our memory operations concern experiences at least as crucially as facts? Or is it impossible to forget something false?

  5. Gary said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

    I'm wondering about your examples 3 and 4.

    It seems to me that the sentence "why did you archive instead of delete" (not deleteD) would be the parallel to your sentence 2. For me, it has the same borderline grammaticality as your sentence 2, whereas your sentence 4 is clearly WTF.

  6. rootlesscosmo said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    Re (13): Would "Aren't you glad you kept instead of schlepped?" resolve the valency issue?

  7. nat said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

    With regards to "Aren’t you glad you archived instead of deleted", it only sounds right to me when "archive" and "delete" are considered not in a general context, but as more specific actions in a computer program or application. I thought this even before I saw that it was a quote from the gmail blog, and I'm glad my first impression was somewhat in the right direction.

    I guess I still prefer "V-ed instead of V-ing", but I suspect that when the actions described are pushing buttons labeled "Archive" or "Delete", I might unthinkingly use the "V-ed instead of V-ed" construction, too.

    On an unrelated note, what kind of markup is allowed in the comments?

  8. Dan T. said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    On the other hand, in the construct "[past-tense-verb] without [second verb]", as in the Barry Manilow song "Mandy" ("you came and you gave without taking"), the second verb apparently always has to be of the -ing form.

  9. misterb said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

    I read "must have felt" in perhaps a different way – it's the way a normal person should feel given the circumstances. True, we don't know the circumstances of this snippet, but does this formulation "sound" better?

    I'll never forget how he should have felt?

    … Not really … Either way the problem seems to be forgetting something you never really knew. My reading seems to suggest an alternative that alexpri claims doesn't exist, but it's a nuanced difference. Still I get the feeling that what the speaker will never forget is the emotion he perceived from "he", not the imagining.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 9:47 pm

    The first one, I don't see it as a language issue, but I do think it reads strangly. I do agree we are talking about forgetting something that's not in the realm of forgetting. How someone must have felt is a deduction. It's not something I remember, but something I consider in the present. I don't know remember how someone must have felt, rather, I currently, in the present, have a viewpoint of how someone else must have felt. I can remember a past viewpoint of mind on how someone must have felt. I can remember the situation and signs that I use to deduce how he felt. But, in the present, I either still think that's how he must have felt, or I no longer think that's how he must have felt.

  11. Alexis said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

    The actual Gmail WTF isn't WTF for me really. It sounds a little stilted but is perfectly sensible in context. 10 and 12 also seem completely grammatical to me, but I agree about the non-grammaticality of 16 and 18. Adding overt objects to any of the questionable sentences makes them a lot worse.

    I really can't explain my own judgements here.

  12. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 12:08 am

    Fred Bone: You get around Eric's wariness of using past tense after "instead of" by shifting into passive voice: Eric was drunk instead of stoned. (Strunk would be SO upset with you!) In the passive voice, "stoned" acts more like an adjective than a verb: Eric was drunk instead of purple. Or, you could look at it as an elided V-ing: Eric was drunk instead of being stoned.

    As for remembering what he must have felt, I don't think there's anything grammatically wrong with the sentence, but it is so highly improbable that someone could state this sentence as the truth. Unless you're a Betazoid (for all you Trekkers out there), you can never really know how someone feels. When you throw in "must have," you're admitting that you're just making an education guess about something you don't know ("Why is Eric acting that way?" "I don't know; he must have drank too much.")

    So you're basically left with never forgetting what you thought about something that you don't actually know and never can. It just seems like a totally useless sentence.

  13. Richard Sabey said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 4:10 am

    Your second example is an example of a phenomenon Fowler discussed in Modern English Usage, -ing sect. 5. The word or phrase linking the two predicates ("instead of" in your example) may be regarded as a preposition, in which case it must govern a noun, and so the second predicate's verb must be put into the -ing form. The link may be regarded as a conjunction, in which case the predicates' respective verbs must be parallel. Fowler posits a third interpretation: in "I am doing more than raise/raising the question", he prescribes "raise" on the basis that "do more than raise" is one verb; the part of it that takes inflections is "do", so the rest of it does not inflect.

    In Fowler's examples, the first predicate's verb is in either the bare form or the -ing form, whereas in your example it is the past participle, but the choice is essentially the same.

    With "dying rather than surrender(ing)", Fowler even goes so far as to proscribe the -ing form: he describes people who would write "dying rather than surrendering" as "misguided".

    Thus an alternative to the -ing form was prescribed (boo! hiss! prescription!) over 80 years ago, so this is nothing new.

    My preference, by the way, is to regard "instead of" as a preposition and use the -ing form: "Aren't you glad you archived instead of deleting?".

    I find it interesting that, for some people, whether a construction is acceptable depends on whether or not a verb form it uses is regular. What other constructions are like that?

  14. Kilian Hekhuis said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 5:22 am

    For me, even a sentence like "Aren’t you glad you deleted instead of keeping?" sounds odd, as I'm missing a direct object. "Aren't you glad you deleted the file instead of keeping it?" sounds fine. The WTF is not only in using two preterites, but to use 'archive' and 'delete' as intransitive verbs.

  15. Norman said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 6:05 am

    Regarding sentence 1: functionally, I would guess that 'I know how you/[s]he [must] feel[s]' is almost always used to express sympathy or condolence, and I wonder if it's this connotation that gives rise to the undeniable strangeness of 'I'll never forget how he must have felt'?

    On the other hand, if the phrase 'how he must have felt' is taken as a literal, scrupulously honest description of a powerful, actually-experienced vicarious emotion that may not in fact have been experienced by the third party themselves, then — once the initial WTF reaction has dissipated — the sentence stands up to analysis after all because it's non-problematic to talk about forgetting or remembering one's emotions, regardless of what caused them to arise.

    In any case, I agree with Alexpri that there is a richness in the original formulation that I too would be very loath to change. At least, any attempts at 'correction' seem likely to move things in the wrong direction.

    Finally — and I think this is very relevant to the WTF reaction it inspires — I'd just like to point out that not all utterances are 'straight' and this is a great comedic line!

  16. Elena said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    In the case of "archived" and "deleted" I thought you would comment not on the tense but on the lack of object. Am I right in thinking these are transitive verbs? Shouldn't the sentence be, "Aren't you glad you archived it instead of deleting it?"

    It seems to me that when you add the object, it becomes even more awkward to use the past tense for "delete". Which makes me wonder if the rules change when we make the verb intransitive. Not only that, I think Nat is onto something when he says they're context specific words. That is probably what changes the rules in the first place.

    And what about the football coaches that say things like, "You should have zigged instead of zagged"?

  17. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    I'm an idiot. My examples of passive voice were just wrong — I used "were" as a linking verb instead of in a passive voice. I suppose I could have gone with "Eric was drunk instead of eaten" or "Eric was crucified instead of stoned."

    Still there's an extra "being" in there somewhere. If you rearrange the sentance, it has to come out: "Instead of BEING stoned, Eric was crucified."

  18. Dave said,

    April 28, 2008 @ 10:05 pm

    Aren't we missing something here? In "aren't you glad you archived instead of deleting?" the "deleting" is a gerund or whatever–it's functioning as a noun, not a verb.

    It's the equivalent of:

    Aren't you glad you drank whiskey instead of wine?


    Aren't you glad I started the fire with old newspapers intead of your manuscript?

    Andy's onto something. The orginal sentence could be parsed as "Are you glad you archived (yourself) instead of (being) deleted?

  19. Aaron Davies said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 12:11 am

    Regarding the second item, does it sound better to anyone if you use intransitive verbs? ("Aren't you glad you stayed instead of left?")

    Regarding the first, I'm reminded of a fine point of usage from my one semester of college Japanese: the "hoshi desu" form (and presumably the related "-te" form, though we didn't get that far), which is used to express desire ("biru ga hoshi desu", "I want a beer") can only be used directly (indicatively, I suppose, not that that category properly applies to Japanese grammar) to refer to your own desires, not to anyone else's, as you can't have personal knowledge of what someone else wants. (I have no idea whether this is actually enforced rigorously in common usage, though if it were, it seems like it'd be a small step towards Hopi-style constraints on the reliability of information.)

    I'm also reminded of the account of the origins of the "will/shall" distinction–it's claimed that "will" was used as the "future tense" marker in the second and third persons because its original meaning, as an expression of desire made no sense there. ("Shall", a word indicating a command, filled in in the first person, since it makes no sense to give yourself an order.)

  20. Daniel said,

    April 30, 2008 @ 2:07 am

    But aren't we giving ourselves orders of a sort when we say "I must tidy up" expressing both a need and an intention but the lack of willingness? And even more obviously in "talking to yourself" mode, as in, "Daniel, get back to work, now!"

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