Probably they shouldn't

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Verb phrase ellipsis in English normally requires an overt linguistic antecedent of approximately the right morphological form. That is, I can't normally begin my conversation with "He did!", but this is perfectly normal after "Sam said he would win, and …". There are exceptions, of course (Geoff Pullum's Hankamer Was! is lively and informative on this topic). Obama's campaign slogans "Yes, we can" and "Together, we can" were prominent exceptions. Lacking antecedents themselves, they invited inferred antecedents or allowed Obama to fill in occasion-appropriate ones. The first time I noticed headline writers playing with the slogan was November 5, 2008:

Obama did! (The Independent Nov 4, 2008, headline

Using Google News, I gathered a bunch more, based on can, can't, and do.




Obama Yes We Did Embroidered Navy Hat

Und im Deutschen (where there isn't really VPE):

As far as I know, my post headline is blazingly inventive in its use of should.


  1. Sky Onosson said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    "I can't normally begin my conversation with 'He did!'"

    Actually, I run across things like this all the time – pronouns and verb ellipsis entirely out of context – and it always drives me crazy. I suspect it's a lot more common (in actual conversation) than you might at first think.

  2. Lazar said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    I've seen some commentators characterize the Clinton and McCain with slogans like "No we can't!" and "The Audacity of Nope".

    Then, of course, there's "Yes Wii Can!" and "Yes We Can Can".

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

    Coincidentally, Yes We Can/Did came up in an interview I did on Wisconsin Public Radio yesterday about political and economic words of the year. (I didn't get into VPE, though.) Link to audio is here.

  4. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

    Last week, the Comics Curmudgeon pointed out an instance in the comic strip "Shoe" where a character begins a conversation with an out-of-context pronoun with no clear referent.

  5. majolo said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    Of course, one normally doesn't begin a conversation with "yes" either, so the slogan always had some implicit preamble.

  6. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    Re German versions: Fans of Cem Özdemir, the new leader of the Green Party, sported badges saying "Yes we Cem" — an eye-pun rather than a phonetic one, since his name is pronounced like the English "gem".

  7. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    German PS: The headline you quote ends, instructively, with the question Kann Obama das wirklich? ("Can Obama really [do] it?"). That das ("it") has to be there in German, I think: Kann Obama wirklich? would sound curiously incomplete; whereas we could easily say "Can he really?", though "Can Obama really?" does admittedly sound a bit awkward.

  8. carla said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    I am reminded of the elliptical and oddly accusative expression of hope by a Phillies fan last October: Why can't us?

  9. Austin said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    The "Yes, we can" slogan used by the Obama campaign is the most common pragmatic English translation of the Spanish "Sí, se puede" slogan coined by Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers. Since it was first coined in the early 1970's, the Spanish form has spread throughout Latin America, esp. among left-leaning populist movements and labor formations (for example, it featured prominently in the campaign of Evo Morales in Bolivia). Also, among Anglophone American progressives, the "Yes, we can" translation has been in use for years, if not decades, as a tacit acknowledgement of the solidarity among workers on both the American continents. The translation "Yes, it can be done!" is less favored due to its inelegance in the charged, rhetorical, and often chaotic situations in which the phrase is deployed.

  10. Austin said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

    My point is that the connection with the original Spanish is a critical piece of the encoded meaning of the phrase, which may trump normal grammatical constraints in context (esp. in rhetoric).

  11. Aaron Davies said,

    December 23, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    There's also the bit of (pseudo?) AAVE "oh no you didn't" (usually pronounced without the second "d", and accompanied by emphatic hand-waving and/or finger-snapping.

  12. Russell said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 1:04 am

    Regarding not being able to "start conversations" with verb phrase ellipsis, the real question (which I assume both Chris and Sky had in mind but just didn't mention) is whether there is a reasonably-findable antecedent to the ellipsis. It could be in some completely previous interaction, as long as whatever the predicate in question is is reasonable evoked by the convo-initial ellipsis.

    Sky, I'd expect that at least some of your encounters with unresolvable ellipsis and pronouns are probably related to the sometimes egocentric nature of speakers (who assume entities in common ground when they aren't really there, or just ignore common ground, etc). I can recall at least a couple times in the past week where I had to holding back a conversation with someone who had just gotten off the phone who used pronouns in a way totally incomprehensible to me.

    (shameless plug: VPE antecedent selection gone wrong)

  13. Joe said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 2:23 am

    I was just listening to "Well, You Needn't" by Thelonoius Monk.

  14. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 3:19 am

    I had a professor once whose first language was Romanian (this was at an English-language institution) who told a joke in class that started "He comes home and complains…"

    The joke hinged upon the audience being set up to expect the protagonist to be a student when he was actually a teacher. So I attribute the awkward (to my ears) construction to the fact that the professor wanted that ambiguity, and also to the fact that English wasn't his first language (hence his lacking an "ear" for what sounds unnatural in English), but I have no idea whether there's anything particularly "Romanian" about what the professor said.

  15. Nightstallion said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 7:56 am

    @Nigel Greenwood:

    Actually, it is possible and not *that* strange to say "Kann er wirklich?", although it might sound a tad colloquial. The implied elision in this case would probably be "Kann er (es) wirklich?" and not "Kann er (das) wirklich?", but the intention would be the same.

  16. Chris said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    I interpreted the "we" in "Yes, we can" to be a reference to "We the People of the United States", from the preamble to the Constitution (a document Obama's predecessor paid notoriously little respect to).

    The Cesar Chavez connection is interesting, but went over my head and probably over the heads of most of the electorate.

  17. Jens Fiederer said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 9:27 am

    My stepmother was driving through Germany, and was outraged by a bumper sticker she saw – "Ihr koennt mich alle…." (all of you can….)

    This puzzled me, because it seemed quite innocuous. She explained, still in a huff, that of course it was UNDERSTOOD that it meant "Ihr koennt mich alle am Arsch lecken" (all of you can lick me about the arse).

    Apparently this was a rather cultured rudeness – she explained this was the last line of a Goethe play ("Götz von Berlichingen") where the good knight chooses to take a final stand rather than a negotiated settlement.

  18. Kevin Iga said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    The Spanish "Sí, se puede" ("yes, we can"; or alternately, "yes, it's possible") is itself a takeoff on the term "Sal si puedes", meaning "Get out if you can", applied to immigrant barrios that were poor and crime-ridden. San Francisco has a Salsipuedes Street. The idea is to take a term from the Hispanic American experience, and turn it into something positive.

    The context for verbal ellipsis can be situational rather than spoken. Consider a husband entering a home, and handing his wife a very expensive present she has wanted for quite some time. She says, "No! You didn't!"

  19. John Cowan said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

    Jens Fiederer:

    The 17th SS "Götz von Berlichingen" Division of the Waffen-SS was informally known as the LMA-Division, an acronym which, thanks to the miracle of cognacy, works just as well in English as in German. It has been suggested that General Anthony McAuliffe's one-word reply "Nuts!" to a German demand for surrender should have been translated "Götz von Berlichingen!"

  20. Karl Weber said,

    December 24, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    The song "In Praise of Women" in Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC has lyrics based entirely around the suggestiveness and humor of using elliptical verb phrases whose meaning the audience must infer from context. (The singer is speculating about whether or not his mistress has been unfaithful to him.) Sample:

    She wouldn't…therefore they didn't…
    So then it wasn't…not unless it…would she?
    She doesn't…
    God knows she needn't…therefore it's not.
    He'd never…therefore they haven't…
    Which makes the question absolutely…could she?
    She daren't…therefore I mustn't…what utter rot!

  21. Amy Stoller said,

    December 27, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    Austin said (among other interesting things): "Also, among Anglophone American progressives, the "Yes, we can" translation has been in use for years, if not decades, as a tacit acknowledgement of the solidarity among workers on both the American continents. "

    There are other, or additional, nuances to Obama's slogan. Sammy Davis Jr.'s autobiography, Yes I Can, was published in 1965. Davis, an outstanding multi-talented entertainer, was involved in the American Civil Rights movement, and his efforts to integrate Las Vegas casinos and nightclubs in Miami Beach were successful.

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