Sunday, July 1, 2012

Painful contractions

When I started this post, weeks ago, I thought I knew where it was going. I wanted to point out a couple of English constructions that sound weird -- close to unacceptable -- to me, and (with luck) to find out what they're called and why they don't work. But it turns out there may be no there there -- just my idiolect insisting (as an idiolect will) that its way is the right and reasonable one.

The first example comes in the caption of the comic "Cornered," where the mom is saying to the kid(?): "Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. You mustn't be doing it right." I would have said* "You must not be doing it right"; I hear "you mustn't" as meaning "you are forbidden to," not "you probably are." (I wondered if the "mustn't" form might be OK in British English, but I thought Americans would be on my side here.)

The tagline in a Slim-Fast ad bugged me in a slightly different way. "Your swimsuit is ready. You'll be too" trips me up; I'd prefer either "You'll be ready too" or "You will be too."

I hoped these contractions would prove to be forbidden forms of auxiliary reduction, but just coming up with that term stretched my expertise to its limits. So I asked Arnold Zwicky, who knows all the linguistic labels and is a wizard at coining new ones when they're called for. And he poured cold water all over my quest.

Are these contractions off limits, or even suboptimal? He didn't think so. "For me, the Cornered example is perfectly fine," he wrote.
 "Mustn't" (like "must not") is in principle capable of either a root interpretation -- subject is obliged not to V -- or an epistemic interpretation -- it must not / mustn't be the case that subject Vs. Compare: You mustn't touch the hot stove (or you'll get burned). You mustn't like ice cream (if you make a face like that). 
As for my theory that the "epistemic mustn't" is a British thing, well, that's just an example of the "foreigners are weird" default assumption. Americans, Brits, and Australians all use it, said Zwicky. It's true that "some speakers judge such examples to be unacceptable, but what they say about them is all over the map. In particular, some find the examples to be unacceptably American, some find them to be way formal and British-sounding."

The swimsuit issue was also not a question of auxiliary reduction, he thought. 
I think that the problem here is that the example is somewhat zeugmatic: in "Your swimsuit is ready", the subject of "be ready" is interpreted as the object of the understood verb "wear", but in "You'll be ready", the subject of "be ready" is interpreted as the subject of "wear". These are non-parallel interpretations. (Things are fine in "I'll be ready, and you'll be too.") 
Well, maybe. But I don't interpret the elliptical sentence as "Your swimsuit is ready  [to wear], and you'll be [ready to wear it] too."  My (mental) expansion was "Your swimsuit is ready [for summer, for the beach], and you'll be [ready for summer] too" -- which is grammatically parallel. It's the truncation itself that doesn't work: For me, things are not fine in "I'll be ready, and you'll be too," any more than they're fine in "I'm happy, and you're too." (You're too what?)

That's as far as I can go without professional help. And if you want to avoid this whole mess, I understand. But if you've been patient enough to read this far, please let me know how these constructions strike your ear -- intolerable, unremarkable, or somewhere in between?

*At least I think I would -- we're all unreliable witnesses to our own linguistic behavior.


Unknown said...

"Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. You mustn't be doing it right." I would have said* "You must not be doing it right"; I hear "you mustn't" as meaning "you are forbidden to," not "you probably are."

I found this particularly interesting, because my idiolect stands on the opposite side of this imaginary divide - I parse "must not" as a prohibition and "mustn't" as "probably aren't". I do similarly with cannot and can't, too.

John Cowan said...

For what it's worth, I stand with you on both "you mustn't be doing it right" and "you'll be too": they both sound wrong to me. I'm an American born in New Jersey just outside the NYC accent region some fifty years ago, and living in NYC for some thirty years.

Bryan White said...

Totally agree. "Mustn't" doesn't seem to have the same versitility of meaning as "must not", even though, technically, they're the exact same thing.

As for the second one, I don't see a problem with the meaning. It just...sounds awful.

Kay L. Davies said...

I agree both contractions sound awkward, as in "I wouldn't put it that way" and I'm a Canadian.
However, I am forced to admit that others aren't necessarily wrong just because they don't agree with my me.
Sigh. So tough to admit.

Gregory Lee said...

I agree with you about contraction of "not" after "must": the "not" in "must-of-necessity not verb" can only be contracted when the resulting form does not also have an obligation sense. I'm distinguishing between must-of-necessity ("epistemic"??) and must-of-obligation ("deontic"?). So "must not" is ordinarily ambiguous, and when it is, "mustn't" loses the ambiguity. Thus, "You must not speak Sanskrit" might mean either "it is surely the case that you do not speak Sanskrit" or "you dare not speak Sanskrit". However, in "you must not have been speaking Sanskrit or the swami would have understood you", where there is no ambiguity, "must not" can contract to "mustn't".

At least, that's my first guess at the rule for my own speech.

I speak only for my own idiolect, as always in such matters, because I don't believe in a hovering Master English System that governs the speech of all us English speakers. We're just a bunch of people with similar, but not identical, ideas about what English is.

Eugene said...

For me (North Central North American) must not is epistemic - the intended meaning in the cartoon. I wouldn't ordinarily use mustn't - it sounds like something a British nanny would say - but I would interpret it as deontic.
Somehow I think the scope of negation is different. MUST+[NOT VP] versus [MUST'NT]+VP

Anonymous said...

I completely identify with you, both in hearing those examples as strange and in being surprised that other people don't. I grew up in Connecticut.

Ø said...

About the "mustn't" example, I'm with you, John Cowan, and others. (I have lived most of my life in Massachusetts, with part of childhood in NJ).

empty said...

The other one didn't sit right with me, either.

I cannot agree that things are not fine in "I'll be ready, and you'll be too," any more than they're fine in "I'm happy, and you're too."

What rule is it that forbids "Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you're" (other than that it neither rhymes nor scans)? Whatever it is, I think it also forbids "I'm happy, and you're too." But I don't think I have any problem with "I'll be ready, and you'll be too," except that I sort of want a comma before "too".

But the main thing I wanted to say is that "swimsuit issue" had me laughing out loud. OK, maybe one little snort of delight, but still.

Ø = empty said...

Foiled by blogging software again.

Ed Cormany said...

the two examples don't exactly strike me as being of a kind, so i have different ideas about them.

for the mustn't case, there are a few interesting factors regarding the epistemic/deontic ambiguity or lack thereof.

first of all, it's dependent on the tense and aspect of the complement of mustn't: "You mustn't do it right" is unambiguously deontic (these uses of must are even described as performative in the literature on commands).

second, for those who accept the epistemic reading, i wonder if it passes an independent test for epistemic-ness (epistemicity? whatever.) namely, does "It's the case that you mustn't be doing it right" sound better, the same, or worse?

for the case of you'll, i see this as a nail for the newest, shiniest hammer in my linguistic toolbox, congruency to the QUD. any utterance must place appropriate focus on the element that varies in the relevant alternatives to the current question under discussion (which can be implicit). if, as a listener, you infer that the QUD is "what things are ready (for summer or whatever)?", then the alternatives are {your swimsuit is ready, you are ready, your dog is ready,…}. you then has to bear contrastive focus, and the fact that it is contracted with the tense-modal will makes this focus weaker or somehow non-evident. avoiding contraction lets there be full focus — YOU will be — and full congruence. so i do see it as a parallelism issue of sorts, but not in the way that you or Arnold were thinking of it.

i would be remiss if i didn't mention that the notion of congruency is due to Craige Roberts, who defined it in a 1996 paper. i heard about it at her NASSLLI course last week. the handouts from that course are available at

Rick Sprague said...

I grew up in central New York 50+ years ago, dialectally similar to John Cowan and some other posters. Unlike them, however, I accept epistemic mustn't without a problem, except that it sounds British (but not wrong) to me. In other words, I don't think I produce it but it doesn't make my inner parser stumble.

The second example struck me as slightly zeugmatic. The swimsuit is the object of an implicit act with you as the implied agent. In the second sentence, the corresponding act is reflexive, so it feels like the meaning is slightly different. This becomes obvious if you substitute, say, prepared or readied for ready.

Anonymous said...

Both of these seem acceptable but awkward to me. I wouldn't say them that way, but I'd understand them. I'm in the middle of the US.

Gregory Lee said...

empty wrote: What rule is it that forbids "Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you're" (other than that it neither rhymes nor scans)?

The rule that's violated here is that you can't reduce or delete a stressed syllable. So in your example, not only can you not contract to "'re", but you also cannot reduce the "are" to a syllabic [r], which would (for many English speakers) be possible in "You are a star."

And there must be stress on "are" in the example, because it comes at the end of a phrase. When the elision of part of a verb phrase results in an auxiliary coming at the end of its phrase, this ordinarily prevents contraction. Deontic "mustn't", however, doesn't obey this rule (and maybe that's a piece of the puzzle here).

Jan said...

Thanks, everyone, for helping further my education -- especially Ed Cormany, whose formulation sounds "congruent to" the distinction I was sensing. Coming next: Something much, much simpler!

Allan Lloyd said...

Interestingly, most Australians would use "mustn't" rather than "must not" in the 'Cornered' example, because "must not" would be interpreted as a prohibition here.

As for "You'll be too.", I think there are two problems:

It doesn't express the intended promise particularly well. The key to the communication is that the promise WILL happen. By contracting the two words, the promise of "will" is lost.

But as an advertising copywriter always concerned about communicating without giving the reader any possible cause to notice that he/she is reading advertising, I'd also be worried that "You'll be too." (as against "You will be too.") could seem to be heading for an adjective that isn't there – as in "You'll be too fat.". Nitpicking, perhaps, but part of the craft.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I wouldn't say "mustn't" - ever. I'd say "you can't be doing it right" or "you're probably not doing it right" - or "you must not...". But I understood it just fine.

The other one strikes me as perfectly acceptable in its context - written ad-ese - though I don't think I'd say it, I didn't blink at it.

Grew up in Tenn, lived around the country & Europe, last 30 years in Maryland.

John Burgess said...

Both sound perfectly fine to my American 60+ years-old ears.

I use "mustn't" in exactly that way. The ad copy is clear and a bit witty.

Anonymous said...

I didn't fine anything wrong with either of them, but that may be because I seem to interpret language in terms of the context. I can find all kinds of flaws in isolated sentences that make perfect sense and are unexceptional in context.

In the cartoon, it's obvious that the kid is doing kindergarten wrong. In the second one, since it's an advertisement for a slimming (i.e. beauty) product, the understood text is something like (flaunt yourself on the beach), and is perfectly parallel.

John Roth

Unknown said...

In Britain most people would say 'can't be doing it right'. Mustn't always means 'it's forbidden' to me.

Anonymous said...

For me, in both examples, it's all about "be" (that's why "I'm happy, and you're too." sounds funny, you're inserting the "be" (are) into the conjunction). With the swimsuit image, I think you are focusing too much on the words. As an advertisement it's a package deal—words and image. There's nothing grammatically wrong with the words, they just don't make any sense until you see the poor girl holding a bottle of Slim-Fast. That's the moment you complete the story: "Your swimsuit is ready for the beach. Drink Slim-Fast and you will also be ready for the beach."

I had no issues with "mustn't be." I agree it's a little older (these days it's all about the "can't"), but I automatically interpreted the sentence as "you can't be doing it properly." I think that sort of phrasing comes up fairly frequently in that series of cartoons. It's a kind of dry humour that they like. To my ear "mustn't be" does sound softer than "can't be" and less definitive than "must not be" (it's less dismissive, less accusatory). But that's entirely my personal interpretation—technically, it means the same thing.

S. Walsh Dettloff said...

As a copy editor at an ad agency (Midwest), I would have objected strongly to the swimsuit ad copy. I think it's difficult to interpret the meaning. You would never say "You're ready? Great, I'm too." I see the swimsuit copy as posing similar difficulties. However, I don't see anything technically wrong with the construction.

I agree with some of the others here on "mustn't." I had no problems understanding the cartoon, but the word itself just sounds so stuffy.

Patrick Sugrue said...

Anonymous said...

All sound fine to this Northern Brit.

Unknown said...

I'm on the fence about "mustn't". It sounds alright to me.

As for the Slim-Fast ad, I would have preferred the chiastic, "Your swimsuit is ready for you. You'll be ready for it.

I am thinking the advertisers were paying the author by the word up to a maximum of 7.

Warsaw Will said...

I'm a Brit, and I would tend to use 'can't' in this context, and that is what we teach TEFL students. This from Practical English Usage (BrE for foreign learners) by Michael Swan:

"In negative clauses we generally say 'cannot/can't' to say that something isn't true. However, 'must not/mustn't' is occasionally used in this sense, especially in American English."

So I don't think it's a British thing. And personally, I see no semantic difference between the contracted and uncontracted versions, except that 'must not' sounds as though it's stressed, and is therefore more suitable for a prohibition than a deduction.

Unknown said...

This is really interesting, thanks for posting -- and for all the comments as well! Contractions are a really crucial part of learning English, so I'll be recommending this page to all my English students.

Monica v : )