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Getting squishy.

More than thirty years ago, Haj gave a paper at the Chicago Linguistic Society meeting with the bilingual title "The Category Squish: Endstation Hauptwort," in which he presented the entirely novel idea that there were no absolute categories verb, adjective, and noun, but rather a cline leading from verbs at the one end of the line, via adjectives, to nouns at the other end, with plenty of milk stops in between. What he showed was that a number of grammatical properties preferentially apply to verbs, that intermediate categories (participles, adjectives, adjectival nouns like fun) displayed these properties to an intermediate, "possibly even quantifiable" degree, and that nouns were the least subject to them. The facts were real, his arguments were insightful, but the conclusion, for those of us who were doing discrete linguistics, was, at the time, disturbing. We felt sort of like the bartender who remarked, when a priest, a rabbi, and a duck walked into his bar, "What is this, a joke?"

But Professor Ross has been vindicated. Nowadays there are several lines of itthinking that not only are capable of handling squishiness but can hardly avoid it. One of these is optimality theory, whose title suggests that it treats certain forms as optimal (though not necessarily perfect) and others as less optimal. Bur the theory in its orthodox form evades what would seem to be built-in quantifiability by imposing strict ranking so that the optimal form is perfect and everything else is (equally) chopped liver. There are some optimality theorists who like the texture of chopped liver, however, and get squishy by assigning strengths to various competing constraints (see Boersma and Hayes). My preferred multimodular approach also lends itself to getting squishy. When the demands of different components conflict, the degree of conflict between them--the "tension" between different demands (Sadock)--can be used, as Elaine Francis has shown, to model intermediate degrees of category membership. I have tried to use the same idea to model degrees of acceptability, taking my cue from Haj's practice of eschewing the absolute asterisk, the weasely question mark, the mealy-mouthed asterisk plus question mark, or vice versa, and so forth, by employing only relative markings of acceptability, rankings for which there is a surprising degree of conformity among speakers, as opposed to the differences of opinion that have always plagued the use of stigmata in vacuo.

In this little paper I would like to explore, in good data-fetishist style, a phenomenon that has received almost no attention in the literature. The data in question have to do with proper names like The Hague that come with their own demonstrative prefix. I have chosen, for the sake of consistency, three television shows: The Young and the Restless, That '70s Show, and This Old House. (1) What I want to show is that there is a squish of articlehood from the, to that, to this, which shows up in the ease with which the first element of the title can disappear under syntactic duress. I draw my facts from a source that didn't exist when Haj wrote "The Category Squish," namely the vast amount of writing available on the Internet. My tool of preference is Google. This experimental design does not rank very high on the scientificity squish, but it is better than the introspective techniques that used to be our favorite source of evidence.

When a proper name like this appears in a syntactic context where a determiner would not ordinarily follow, the first element sometimes disappears and sometimes remains. I can say either "some The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy readers" or "some Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy readers." Bur statistical differences with regard to the omissibility of the determiner appear among the various members of the article squish about which we can get an idea by doing Google searches on relevant sequences. For example, suppose we search for the strings "Young and the Restless," "'70s Show," and "Old House" with and without the demonstrative prefix that is part of the title. We turn up an amazing amount of data, if it can be called that. There were 22,500 sites containing "That '70s Show" and 46,600 that included '"70s Show." It would seem, then, that 48% of the time the right article was present and 52% of the time it wasn't. Unfortunately, a great many (I'm too lazy to look through all 46K examples) are spurious, using the phrase not as a part of the title of this show, but in its common noun usage, referring to any show from the 1970s. Forget about "Old House," which is not only an extremely common common-nominal bur also part of the title of a separate magazine, the Old House Journal.

So the search often has to be very carefully crafted so as to avoid getting smacked silly with red herrings. If, for example, you search for the string "a the Young and the Restless" hoping to find out how many examples contain a double article, the first a real one and the second part of the title, you get some 70 examples. Bur a surprising number of these turn out to be like: "Egy tevesorozat, a The Young and the Restless" (2) or "In questo modo, chi vuole leggere i messaggi relative a The Young and the Restless" (3) where the a is not the English article but a Hungarian demonstrative or an Italian preposition. There are also plenty of cases like "the only television soap opera i[sic] watch with any ounce of interest is: a) The Young and the Restless b) General Hospital c) Passions ...."(4)

But there are ways of partially avoiding these pitfalls. You can pare the search down to assure you are actually getting references to the shows themselves by, say, including the name of a character in the series, like Nikki on The Young and the Restless, (5) Eric on That '70s Show, (6) or Steve Thomas on This Old House. (7) Now we can check to see what percentage of the total number of trustworthy results with a single article actually have two articles. Looking for "The Young and the Restless" and "Nikki," "That '70s Show" and "Eric, and "This Old House" and "Steve Thomas" with the appropriate article and also with a or the preceding it, I obtained these results:
(1) "The Young and the Restless" and "Nikki" 1,870
"a The Young and the Restless" and "Nikki" 0
"the The Young and the Restless" and "Nikki" 4

(2) "That '70s Show" and "Eric" 3,490
"a That '70s Show" and "Eric" 26
"the That '70s Show" and "Eric" 42

(3) "This Old House" and "Steve Thomas" 2,960
"a This Old House" and "Steve Thomas" 40
"the This Old House" and "Steve Thomas" 102

So almost 5% of the time, there is article doubling with this,(8) 2% of the time there is article doubling with that, but only 0.2% of the total number of sites containing the title of the soap opera The Young and the Restless have a double article. Presumably, the same communicative exigencies are in effect in all these cases, so we can guess that very often, where we might expect, say, "a The Young and the Restless," we actually find "a Young and the Restless." The article that is part of the title is, then, while squishy, not very sticky. The word that in these names is more adherent, and this cleaves even more tightly to the rest of the title. (9)

There is a way to check on how many actual examples of deletion of substitution of the article for the word of the title we find which will confirm (or put the lie to) the results above. In a compound with a singular count noun as head, such as dog catcher, English requires a determiner to form a noun phrase. Outside of headlines, we cannot say: "*Dog catcher resigned." So if we find an example like "The Young and the Restless star" and the article is part of the title, we should really expect a double article, for example, "the The Young and the Restless star was recently seen" or "a The Young and the Restless star was recently seen." If we don' t find a double article, then the first element of the title has been displaced by a real article, sometimes masquerading (see McCawley) as the word that is part of the title. Here are some figures:
(4) "the Young and the Restless star" 99
"the The Young and the Restless star" 0
"a Young and the Restless fan" 13
"a the Young and the Restless fan" 0

(5) "the '70s Show star" 2
"the That '70s Show star" 8
"a '70s Show fan" 0
"a That '70s Show fan" 2

(6) The Old House show" 0 (10)
"the This Old House show" 12
"an Old House special" 0 (11)
"a This Old House special" 29

The numbers are very small, but they seem significant to me. (12) What we see is categorical replacement of the article the, only infrequent replacement of the demonstrative that, and invariable nonreplacement of the demonstrative this. There seems little doubt, then, that what we have gotten hold of here is a mushy category:

(7) The Article Squish: the > that > this(13)

Haj's timeless dissertation, "Constraints on Variables in Syntax," still cited obligatorily in any work on syntactic movement, begins with a story that has "bull' s eye relevance to the study of syntax." It concerns a woman who challenged William James's description of the earth revolving around the sun in the solar system, saying "I've got a better theory is on the back of a giant turtle ....the first turtle stands on the back of a second turtle ....It's turtles all the way down" (i). So it should be no surprise that when you start getting down toward the bottom of things, some o' them turtles are gonna get pretty squishy. This verity about the structure of language is one of many that the honoree of this volume figured out three decades ago.

Works Cited

Boersma, Paul, and Bruce Hayes. "Empirical Tests of the Gradual Learning Algorithm. "Linguistic Inquiry 32 (2001): 45-86.

Francis, Elaine J. "Variation within Lexical Categories." Diss. U of Chicago, 1999.

McCawley, James. "A Case of Syntactic Mimicry." Functionalism in Linguistics. Ed. Vilem Fried and Rene Dirven. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1987. 459-70.

Ross, John Robert (Haj). "The Category Squish: Endstation Hauptwort." Papers from the Eighth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society 1972:316-28. --. "Constraints on Variables in Syntax." Diss. MIT, 1967. Published as Infinite Syntax! Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1986.

Sadock, Jerrold M. "Grammatical Tension." Papers from the Thirty-Fourth Regional Meeting: The Panels, Chicago Linguistic Society 1998:179-200.

Jerrold M. Sadock

University of Chicago


(1) The author does not actually watch all of these shows, of course, but that gives him the advantage of impartiality.

(2) <>.

(3) <>.

(4) <>. Google neglects all punctuation even when enclosed in quotation marks.

(5) Who knew?

(6) See note 5.

(7) I knew.

(8) 40 + 102/2960 = .0479, and similarly for the other percentages. Now that's science!

(9) In other words, it is harder to cleave from the title.

(10) The search actually returned 12 results, bur all referred to a housewares show in Las Vegas or were in some other way not relevant to the task at hand. The author was not too lazy to examine all of the twelve putative examples.

(11) There were three irrelevant results for this string.

(12) This is science?

(13) It is a commonplace in the literature on grammaticalization that articles develop from demonstratives. The present study indicates, however, that this is not a sudden thing; there is no point in the article squish where we can say, "Aha! Now it's an article." Yet it is, of course true that articles are less contentful than demonstratives, having become bleached into pale wraiths of their former robust selves. When the riddler asks, "What do Winnie the Pooh and Ivan the Terrible have in common?" we are misdirected from the right answer ("Same middle name") due to the fluffy nature of the article.
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Title Annotation:linguistics and grammaticality
Author:Sadock, Jerrold M.
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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