20 May 2006

til subjunctive do them get

I really don't mean for this to sound prescriptive, but I have to comment on it somehow. Flipping through a magazine, I came across a full page ad for an upcoming episode of CSI: Miami. Very dramatic, with David Caruso glaring out you out of one corner, and a blurry image of what appears to be someone important being dragged by paramedics towards the sliding side door of an ambulance. Wait, is that possible? And at the top, in intimidating sans-serif capital letters, is a nifty catch phrase: Til Death do they part. Uh, is that possible too?

OK, here's why I'm not complaining. Traditional wedding vows contain a few phrases that are archaic in various ways, like With this ring I thee wed. This one's archaic because of its use of the old second-person singular object pronoun and its placement of this object pronoun before the verb. At least as archaic is another phrase, Til death do us part. Again, there is an object pronoun before the main verb, but in this case, do shows up, in what appears to be a subjunctive. Wedding vows being as ritualistic as they are, I am not surprised that these phrases aren't parsed like non-ritualistic language. I also believe most of us know what both these phrases mean and can paraphrase them, but probably will stumble over novel productions with a parallel structure, like With this hose he it watered and Til syntax do me bore.

Again, I'm not complaining. Weird, memorized old structures. Also, subjunctives. We don't really use many subjunctives at all, probably because they look like indicatives. In the present tense, subjunctives take no overt agreement, so they only look different in 3rd person singular for all verbs except be, whose subjunctive is invariantly be and thus distinct from all its present indicatives (am, are, is). I'll bet very few people use any present subjunctives productively other than in memorized constructions. One notable example is the shed in God shed his grace on thee, discussed a while back by Geoff Pullum on Language Log. Another is the use of be in learned-sounding phrases like Be that as it may, So be it, and in listing options like I'll drink any cola, be it coke, or pepsi, or RC. Oh, and the b in goodbye (< God be with you). And the example that started this, til death do us part, where do takes no 3rd person agreement - an indicative would be death does us part.

On the other hand, some people do use past subjunctives, like invariant were, as in if I were there, I would have said something or Were I to do it again, I would have been more careful. Note the inversion in the second example, which also shows up with past subjunctive had, as in Had I known better, I wouldn't have stayed so long. But again, look how the subjunctives look like indicatives.

The functions of subjunctives are more typically carried out with auxiliaries, like May your birthday be bright, Let there be light, and Let it be known, or with conditional markers, like if or whether, as in the prescriptively frowned-upon If I was ... construction.

Anyway, we have other ways of expressing what subjunctives express, in past tense and especially in present tense. So the fact that the do in Til death do us part is subjunctive is no doubt not obvious to fluent English speakers. Neither, evidently, is the fact that the subject in this SOV phrase is death.

Add to this the fact that, though we don't know how to parse this phrase, we know vaguely what it means: "we'll be together til one of us dies". So it's really easy to think that us (despite its object form) is the subject of the sentence - and hey, it also precedes the main verb. To complete the puzzle, it's also easy to parse do as an auxiliary that agrees with us, since death do looks weird as a subject-verb combo. Just like Ray Charles parsed shed as a past indicative, and made it emphatic by embellishing it to done shed.

So ultimately, if you write ads for CBS and you love wordplay, and you want to allude to the wedding vow phrase Til death do us part, you'll switch out the us and put in some other pronoun - but a subject pronoun. Voila, Til death do they part. The rest of us recognize the phrase, and immediately think of the paraphrase, yielding "they'll be together til one of them dies". Job's done, great ad, let's go out after work. But look at the actual phrase Til death do they part - since they is clearly the subject now, til death is an adjunct, and it maps to an intepretation of "they'll be apart til one of them dies". Maybe the other's dead already, and they'll finally be together in the afterlife.

Like I said, I'm not complaining. Not complaining that basically nobody uses present subjunctives in English. But if your job as an ad writer is to manipulate language and use wordplay, maybe you should know what you're messing with. It's like a mechanic deciding it would be funny to fill your radiator with gasoline.

Coincidentally, the magazine that had this ad was Us.


At Sat May 27, 06:55:00 PM 2006, Blogger Neal said...

Yeah, this one bugs me, too. As I put it , "As a linguist, I can understand it, but I don’t have to like it."

At Tue May 30, 10:39:00 AM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Apologies for not linking back to your earlier post on the same topic! I didn't think to do a blog-lit-review with this one. Looks like we've both noted the syntactic/semantic disparity. I now wonder whether some might understand "till death" as an adverbial, loosely meaning "at death".

It's clear that lots of wordplay has occurred, with just about every pronoun having been switched in for us or you. Here's some ghits counts for till death do ___ part:

I - 73
me - 168
you - 28,600
he - 2
him - 13
she - 0
her - 18
we - 17,600
us - 777,000
they - 939
them - 983


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