Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Noun incorporation in English?

No less than F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

But first some explanation. Just what am I talking about? Consider this word:
It describes a person who walks dogs. The key is that in English we don't care if there are twelve dogs, three dogs or just one. The exact dogs being walked don't matter. You would never say something like this:
This word isn't any good in English. It wants to make a distinction we don't want to make. It's not that you could go for this form optionally. In fact, it would seem to imply that there are specific dogs being walked in both cases, but we don't want that in English. It's good enough to be generic. Now, it turns out that there are some languages that allow for that—Mohawk for one. You can take the verb's object and glom it onto the verb. You keep the same meaning as if you hadn't. It's called noun incorporation since the verb incorporates the noun into itself.

And it's not normally a feature of English, so you cannot imagine how surprised I was to see Fitzgerald say this:
…the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home…
Now I don't actually think Fitzgerald was doing this to prove a point. I don't even know that he knew what he was doing, though it must have been on purpose. It's too weird to not be on purpose. He's violating a real rule in English grammar. It leapt off the page for me, so I'd not be surprised to hear it did the same while editors were having their way with the text. Likewise, I'm sure the printers noticed to as they were making plates. It's just weird, but there it is.

Fitzgerald has glommed a plural object (men) onto the verb (carrying). Oh, sure, there's a hyphen there, but it almost serves to underline the weird usage.

In case you don't believe me, here's the page the quote is taken from.