REALLY MISPLACED.

I didn’t actually watch the Super Bowl the other night (I care almost nothing about football), but out of some vestigial loyalty to family tradition I checked in on it now and then, and I happened to see an exciting moment at the end of the second quarter. It was a touchdown pass from New England quarterback Tom Brady to David Givens, described by Kevin Hench thus:

This was a clinic in read and recognition as Brady went through his progressions, surveying all the way from one side of the field to the other before finding Givens at the right edge of the end zone. Philly corner Lito Sheppard got caught leaking toward the middle just as Brady located Givens and delivered a perfect strike for the Patriots’ first touchdown.

And here’s what the TV announcer said of Givens as the replay was being shown: “He had nowhere to really else go.”
That is perhaps the single most astonishing sentence I’ve heard a native speaker of English utter (in terms of grammaticality, I hasten to add); it’s so bizarre I had to retype it because I automatically moved the “really” as I was copying it. By comparison, the Murray Chass sentence I analyzed here is a model of construction. There are two words independently misplaced: “else” should come immediately after “nowhere,” and “really” should… well, really, it could go almost anywhere other than where it is and make better sense. But the latter is less of a problem—if you delete “else,” you get “He had nowhere to really go,” which any copy editor would emend to “He really had nowhere to go” but which is a plausible verbal bumble of the kind we all find ourselves making. It’s the “else” that baffles me, and I’d love to hear one of the Language Log mavens or other linguabloggers try to account for how it got there. This is the kind of thing that makes me very skeptical of efforts to derive sentences from little NP-VP nodules that get lexical items inserted before being extruded from the assembly line and out of our mouths.
Update. Language Logger Mark Liberman takes up my challenge and does a bang-up job; I think his conclusion makes perfect sense:

The announcer started to put together the simple cliche “He had nowhere else to go” (689 whG). He decided to modify else with really: “He had nowhere really else to go”. Then in the excitement of the moment, his sequential preferences (“nowhere to”, “to really”) pulled “really else” over past “to”.

(And “mavens” wasn’t a dig, honest, just the aftereffect of reading too much Safire!)

Comments

  1. theophylact says:

    “He really had nowhere else to go” is pretty straightforward. Hard to see how such an easy sentence became so deformed.

  2. Michael Farris says:

    “He had nowhere to really else go.”
    It isn’t that complicated to me (I think), just move ‘else’ in front of ‘to’
    “He had nowhere else to really go.”
    Which sounds like perfectly normal spoken American.
    So that ‘else’ is moved over two slots (one if you consider ‘to’ to be fixed to what follows it.

  3. Agreed that it’s as odd a sentence as I’ve ever heard.
    I see it as a verbal editing problem — he remembered at the end of the sentence that he had forgotten to put something in at the beginning. And also forgot that “else” isn’t really movable like the versatile adverb “really” is.
    In a way it gives you the feeling of the heat of the moment, when you’re all excited and fluff something terribly. Sort of like dropping the ball, etc. (The PDQ Bach play-by-play man would predict that that announcer wwas headed for the minors.)

  4. What is the purpose of really and else? He had nowhere to go.

  5. Robert Staubs says:

    Else definitely has a purpose. With the else in there he went somewhere and that somewhere was the only place he could go to. Without the else he would have had to have remained in one place. (Wow, weird sentence.)
    Really doesn’t serve that much purpose usually. It’s a mild emphatic, showing that “Contrary to what some might think, he had nowhere else to go.”

  6. I think the else at least has a purpose.
    He had nowhere to go implies that he stood still because he could not go anywhere. He had nowhere ELSE to go implies he went to one place, because no other choices were available.

  7. Actually, I don’t think the announcer was referring to Givens, but to Brady. “To go” often means “to travel across the field”, but it also has the idiomatic meaning “to deliver a forward pass”, and in context that makes much more sense.
    On this play, in other words, after looking at all other possible receivers and finding that they were covered by defenders, Brady had nowhere to really else go with the ball.
    So, while I look forward to the spoken sentence “he had nowhere to really else go” being used as an odd boundary case to test the latest theories of lexical production, I suspect the person who said it he may have been simultaneously trying to formulate another sentence containing the phrase “or else”, such as “he had to throw the touchdown pass or else throw the ball away”, and in his excitement jumbled them together.

  8. Also, I’m surprised at an unintentionally comical error in Kevin Hench’s print (print!!) account:
    Philly corner Lito Sheppard got caught leaking toward the middle just as Brady located Givens and delivered a perfect strike for the Patriots’ first touchdown.
    “Leaking”? He surely meant “leaning”! There is such a thing as a “leak route” when an offensive player sneaks off to the side to catch a pass, so it may be said of them that they are leaking, but a defensive player would never leak under any circumstances. At least not on the field.

  9. Heh. And I think you’re right about the announcer referring to Brady.

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    I’m absolutely with Pierre that the antecedent of ‘he’ was Brady. I follow football, and this was so obvious to me that I had to go back to the original blog entry to see what Pierre was writing about, since of course it was Brady who had nowhere to really else go.

  11. Doug Sundseth says:

    “‘Leaking’? He surely meant ‘leaning’! There is such a thing as a ‘leak route’ when an offensive player sneaks off to the side to catch a pass, so it may be said of them that they are leaking, but a defensive player would never leak under any circumstances. At least not on the field.”
    I disagree. The defender was caught leaking from his assigned cover spot toward a place he presumably thought closer to the focus of the play’s action. While “leaking” or “leaker” is usually used about an attacker that has evaded some part of a defense (see missile defense jargon, for example), I think the metaphor works here as well.
    Oh, and I kind of like the doubly split infinitive. I consider it a mistake, but then I lean rather more prescriptivist than most who comment here. Isn’t it a bit intolerant for a descriptivist to use such loaded terminology as “misplaced”, though? 8-)

  12. It’s nowhere near as bizarre as the recorded speech error “Rosa only date shranks” (for “Rosa only dated shrinks”, i.e. psychologists). Here the past tense morpheme on “dated” has been misapplied to the noun “shrink” as if it were a token of the verb “shrink”! Almost unthinkable — but it actually happened. See Doug Hofstadter’s discussion of it in _Metamagical Themas_.

  13. It’s nowhere near as bizarre as the recorded speech error “Rosa only date shranks”
    I stand corrected. Wow.
    Isn’t it a bit intolerant for a descriptivist to use such loaded terminology as “misplaced”, though?
    See my earlier discussion (linked in the post) on genuine mistakes, and the Language Log post linked in that one.

  14. I: ‘Leaking’? He surely meant ‘leaning’!
    Doug S: I disagree. The defender was caught leaking from his assigned cover spot
    Ah, but “caught leaning the wrong way” is a common phrase in American football commentary, which accurately describes the situation in which the pass is made while the defender’s weight is on the wrong foot, preventing him from making a final lunge at the ball. At the highest level of play this may be the only opportunity to complete a pass.
    From your use of the term “attacker” I gather that we may speak different dialects of sportscasterese. So now I wonder: which dialect does Kevin Hench speak or write, and can he meaningfully be said to have made a mistake, even when his statement is, strictly speaking, sensible English?

  15. “Really” in that sentence can be fit into every position in the sentence, though in several cases commas are needed: “He had nowhere, really, else to go” is the worst case, but it’s just barely possible. Whereas “else” really fits in only one place, after “nowhere”. Maybe the “else” got confused following the “really”.

  16. Rachel Klippenstein says:

    The craziest speech error I can think of is the time when I once said this:
    “What space it does has keeps works”
    I was talking about a small refrigerator, and was trying to express something like “What space it does have keeps [stuff] cold”
    I think I mixed together “has” and “does have” to get “does has”, and mixed together “keeps [stuff] cold” and “works” to get “keeps works”
    But the final result is that there are 4 3rd person singular present tense verbs in a row.

  17. Very interesting discussion. I’m all for a good, revealing slip from time to time, but is no one willing to extend the criticism here to TV commentators in general? Personally, what gets my goat is sloppy (as opposed to slippy) use of conditionals. I can’t remember the last time I heard 2nd and 3rd conditionals used correctly on American live TV. Or scripted TV, actually. Is “If I would have known, I would have come” really acceptable usage nowadays?

  18. sissoula: We’re distinguishing between “actual” errors, those that aren’t English by any measure and that the speaker would acknowledge as slips, and the kind of thing you’re talking about, which may not be “acceptable usage” by some standards but is perfectly grammatical in the dialect of the user. The conditional construction has been changing rapidly for some time now, and the fact that you can’t remember the last time you heard it used correctly is an indication that you’ve been left behind by the ever-shifting tides of the language (as have I, I hasten to add — I don’t like it either). Regardless of how you feel about the latter category, it’s clearly distinct from the former.

  19. Benoit Essiambre says:

    Maybe the answer is just that the words in the sentence contained so little ambiguity as to which one went with which one that it wasn’t necessary to have the right word order to make the sentence clear.
    Our language faculty being lasy, maybe the commentator’s brain just decided it wasn’t necessary to have the right word order in this case. I find we usually don’t generate more disambiguation information (syntax and morphology) than necessary when we speak instinctively. For example some languages (like latin) do not rely on word order because they contain other clues that make the language unambiguous. Maybe it is the part of the brain responsible to make the language efficient that kicked in and naturaly made him forget about part of the syntax.

  20. Doug Sundseth says:

    Me (in part): “Isn’t it a bit intolerant for a descriptivist to use such loaded terminology as ‘misplaced’, though?”
    LH: “See my earlier discussion (linked in the post) on genuine mistakes, and the Language Log post linked in that one.”
    Sorry if it wasn’t clear that I was just, hmmm, “taking the p*ss”. (I think I’ve not abused the transoceanic jargon, though IIRC that phrase used to require “…out of [something or someone]“.) I tend toward resistance to rapid change in formal writing rather than true prescriptivism.
    Pierre: “From your use of the term “attacker” I gather that we may speak different dialects of sportscasterese.”
    Maybe not; I thought it an unusual, but not unreasonable recasting of a cliche. Since the most common unit of speech in standard sportscasterese seems to be the cliched phrase, nearly any attempt at originality deserves some praise (or at least leeway).
    “So now I wonder: which dialect does Kevin Hench speak or write, and can he meaningfully be said to have made a mistake, even when his statement is, strictly speaking, sensible English?”
    Now, see, this is the road down which rampant* descriptivism leads — the road to hell, or at least really cutting satire.
    Doug Sundseth
    * And if descriptivism is rampant, would prescriptivism be “couchant”? FWIW, I suspect “statant gardant” might be the correct choice.

  21. Probably I have been left behind (I’m still fighting that losing battle against the demise of “whom,” for example) but my point was that people seem to be embellishing their speech in ways that may seem sophisticated, but in fact, are quite the opposite. I don’t see what the commentator said as a slip, but rather as a misguided effort to fancy up an otherwise routine description.

  22. There is a long tradition in American newspaper reporting for sportswriters (and, with the television era, sports announcers) to strain themselves self-consciously for unusual idiom. (“Hit the ball” becomes “bludgeon the pill”, etc., ad infinitum.)
    James Thurber’s short story “In the Catbird’s Seat” exploits this phenomenon. (“Are you sitting in the catbird’s seat? Are you tearing up the pea patch??”) Also, Mencken had some pungent things to say about it.
    Generally speaking I’m with sissoula on this one, with the caveat that some genuine talents can do and have done remarkable things; but genuine talents will not be discouraged in any case.
    Doug S: Taking the piss, ha. I thought of trying to work that in, but lacked confidence. I knew you were really a soccer fan!

  23. Doug Sundseth says:

    Pierre: “Doug S: Taking the piss, ha. I thought of trying to work that in, but lacked confidence. I knew you were really a soccer fan!”
    Absolutely. I like soccer almost as much as real football, Australian Rules football, Rugby Union football, indoor football, Rugby League football, and indoor soccer (to only mention the various footballs, pardon me if I’ve forgotten some). When it’s very good (1982 World Cup semifinal between Germany and France, for instance), it’s extraordinary, but when it’s average, it’s pretty tedious.
    For sheer entertainment value, the Oz variety is probably the best of the lot, but American football is something of an inherited preference (and rather easier to find on TV).

  24. Sportswriting and restaurant reviewing are the Hells to which writers and journalism are condemned. So they overwrite.

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