[Ads-l] fuck them

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Aug 29 20:05:28 UTC 2016

> On Aug 29, 2016, at 3:41 PM, Benjamin Barrett <mail.barretts at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> I always assumed “fuck you” is an imperative, but it’s not clear what is being commanded (unless it means something vague like “go jump in a lake”), and even more to the point, the form “fuck them” surely cannot be imperative.
> Is this a subjunctive desiderative such as “May it rain today!"? I don’t know what else to call these forms.
> Benjamin Barrett
> Formerly of Seattle, WA

There's a paper from a while back (45 years, give or take) by the North Vietnamese linguist Quang Phuc Dong of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology (yes, really...or sort of really--the guy looked and sounded suspiciously like the late James D. McCawley) titled "English sentences without overt grammatical subjects"* that seeks to provide a grammar of sentences like "Fuck you", pointing out that they can't be imperatives (as opposed to "(Go) fuck yourself", which is), given the non-reflexive object.  The subject can't be "you" for the same reason and also can't be "God", as might be suggested, given the grammaticality of "Goddamn God" as opposed to *"Goddamn Himself".  QPD also points out the fact that unlike imperatives, these don't embed (*I said to fuck you) or negate (*Don't fuck you) or allow tags (*Fuck you, won't you?) or conjoin (*Describe and fuck communism).  He argues that the "fuck" occurring in "fuck you" is in fact not a verb, much less an imperative one, and is instead a "quasi-verb" with its own idiosyncratic properties shared with the corresponding elements in "Hurray for NP", "Down with NP", "Damn NP", and "To hell with NP".  In each case the resultant speech act is an epithet.  (QPD also observes a subtle intonational contrast between e.g. "Shît on the cárpet" (a true imperative) and "Shít on the cârpet (a quasi-verb epithet), although it should be acknowledged that this might be overridden by contrastive stress.


*in _Studies Out In Left Field: Defamatory Essays Presented to James D. McCawley on the Occasion of his 33rd or 34th Birthday_ (Edmonton: Linguistic Research Inc., 1971)--amazingly, although my copy has entirely disintegrated, the binding having disappeared decades ago, I still seem to have all the individual pages.

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