ENGLISH SENTENCES WITHOUT OVERT GRAMMATICAL SUBJECTS
by Quang Phuc Dong
South Hanoi Institute of Technology

There is an extensive literature dealing with English imperative sentences. As is well known, these sentences have no overt grammatical subject:
(1) Close the door.
There is general agreement among scholars that these sentences have deep structures involving an underlying subject you which is deleted by a transformation.

There is a widespread misconception that utterances such as:
(2) Fuck you.
which also appear to have the form of a transitive verb followed by a noun phrase and preceded by no overt subject, are also imperative. This paper will study the syntax of sentences such as (2). While it will offer only a tentative conjecture as to what the deep structure of sentences such as (2) is, it will at least demonstrate conclusively that they are not imperatives.

One characteristic of sentences such as (2), which--as has been often noted--is an anomaly if they are analyzed as imperatives, is the absence of reflexivization; while
(3) *Assert you.
is ungrammatical, (2) is not. There are many other anomalies which are not so widely recognized. While there are a large number of structures in which imperatives appear either embedded in a matrix or with various adjuncts:
(4) I said to close the door.
(5) Don't close the door.
(6) Do close the door.
(7) Please close the door.
(8) Close the door, won't you?
(9) Go close the door.
(10) Close the door or I'll take away your teddy-bear.
(11) Close the door and I'll give you a dollar.
there are no such sentences corresponding to (2):
(12) *I said to fuck you.
(13) *Don't fuck you.
(14) *Do fuck you.
(15) *Please fuck you.
(16) *Fuck you, won't you?
(17) *Go fuck you.
(18) *Fuck you or I'll take away your teddy-bear.
(19) *Fuck you and I'll give you a dollar.

Further, while ordinary imperatives can be conjoined with each other, they cannot be conjoined with (2):
(20) Wash the dishes and sweep the floor.
(21) *Wash the dishes and fuck you.
(22) *Fuck you and wash the dishes.

Similarly, sentences such as (20) can be reduced to sentences with a conjoined verb if the two conjuncts differ only in the verb; however, the fuck of (2) may not appear in such a construction:
(23) Clean and press these pants.
(24) *Describe and fuck communism.

Likewise, there are sentences containing the word fuck which are ambiguous between a meaning parallel to (1) and a meaning parallel to (2):
(25) Fuck Lyndon Johnson.
This sentence can be interpreted either as an admonition to copulate with Lyndon Johnson or as an epithet indicating disapproval of that individual but conveying no instruction to engage in sexual relations with him. When sentences with the embeddings and adjuncts of (4) to (11) and (20) are formed, the resulting sentences allow only the former of these readings:
(12a) I said to fuck Lyndon Johnson.
(13a) Don't fuck Lyndon Johnson.
(14a) Do fuck Lyndon Johnson.
(15a) Please fuck Lyndon Johnson.
(16a) Fuck Lyndon Johnson, won't you?
(17a) Go fuck Lyndon Johnson.
(18a) Fuck Lyndon Johnson or I'll take away your teddy-bear.
(19a) Fuck Lyndon Johnson and I'll give you a dollar.
(20a) Fuck Lyndon Johnson and wash the dishes.

Consideration of these examples makes it fairly clear that the fuck of (12a)-(20a) (henceforth fuck1) and the fuck of (2) (henceforth fuck2) are two distinct homophonous lexical items. These two lexical items have totally different selectional restrictions, as is shown by the examples:
(26) Fuck these irregular verbs.
(27) *John fucked these irregular verbs.
(28) Fuck communism.
(29) *John fucked communism.

Moreover, fuck2 has a peculiar restriction on the determiner of the following noun phrase, a restriction not shared by fuck1, namely that the determiner must be either definite or generic:
(30) Fuck these seven irregular verbs.
(31) Fuck irregular verbs.
(32) Fuck all irregular verbs.
(33) *Fuck seven irregular verbs.
(34) *Fuck any irregular verb.
but
(35) Fuck seven old ladies by midnight or I'll take away your teddy-bear.
(36) Fuck any old lady you see.
(the latter two involving fuck1). It should be noted that the word "generic" must be interpreted in a sense such that all is generic (cf. example (32)) but each is not:
(37) *Fuck each irregular verb.

Indeed, substitution into the frame "Fuck____irregular verb(s)" is an excellent diagnostic test for genericness. As example (35) makes clear, the two fucks also differ in their potential for co-occurring with adverbial elements; while (35) is normal,
(38) *Fuck you by midnight.
is not. Moreover, note the examples:
(39) Fuck my sister tomorrow afternoon.
(40) *Fuck these irregular verbs tomorrow afternoon.
(41) Fuck my sister on the sofa.
(42) *Fuck communism on the sofa.
(43) Fuck my sister carefully.
(44) *Fuck complex symbols carefully.

Evidently, fuck2does not allow any adverbial elements at all. This restriction suggests that fuck2 not only is distinct from fuck1 but indeed is not even a verb. Chomsky observes that the adverbial elements of (39)-(42) are outside of the verb phrase and that only elements within the verb phrase play a role in strict subcategorization of verbs. That principle would clearly be violated if fuck2 were a verb. While the "principle of strictly local subcategorization" proposed by Chomsky is in fact not valid in precisely that form, the fact remains that no case has been reported of any English morpheme which is unambiguously a verb and which allows no adverbial elements whatever. Since the only reason which has ever been proposed for analyzing fuck2 as a verb is its appearance in a construction (that of (2)) which superficially resembles an imperative but in fact is not, one must conclude that there is in fact not a scrap of evidence in favor of assigning fuck2 to the class "verb", and indeed, assigning it to that class would force the recognition of an anomalous subclass of verbs which violate otherwise completely valid generalizations about "verbs".

If fuck2 is not a verb, then what is it? To make some headway towards answering this question, let us consider the following expressions, which have much in common with (2):
(45) Damn Lyndon Johnson.
(46) Shit on Lyndon Johnson.
(47) To hell with Lyndon Johnson.
(48) Hooray for Christine Keeler.

These expressions likewise exclude adverbial elements and require the following noun phrase to be definite or generic:
(49) Damn those irregular verbs.
(50) *Damn those irregular verbs tomorrow.
(51) *Damn seven irregular verbs.
(52) Shit on all irregular verbs.
(53) *Shit on each irregular verb.
(54) *Hooray for an irregular verb last night.

Only rarely have hypotheses been advanced as to the deep structure of expressions such as (45)-(48). One hypotheses has been that (45) has an underlying subject God, which is deleted. However, this proposal is untenable since it would exclude the completely acceptable sentence
(55) Damn God.
and imply the grammaticality of the non-sentence
(56) *Damn Himself.

It is interesting that in this respect goddam works exactly like damn:
(57) Goddam God.
(58) *Goddam Himself.

While the assumption of a deleted subject, God, has semantic plausibility in the case of sentences such as (46) and (2), such an analysis must be rejected for the same reason as in the case of damn, namely, the grammaticality of
(59) Fuck God.
(60) Shit on God.
and the ungrammaticality of
(61) *Fuck Himself.
(62) *Shit on Himself.

Consider now the semantics of fuck2, damn, to hell with, shit on, hooray for, etc. A sentence consisting of one of these items plus a noun-phrase has neither declarative nor interrogative nor imperative meaning; one can neither deny nor answer nor comply with such an utterance. These utterances simply express a favorable or unfavorable attitude on the part of the speaker towards the thing or things denoted by the noun-phrase. The fact that they have such a semantic interpretation explains the restriction on the determiner of the noun-phrase; the noun-phrase must specify a thing or class of things in order for the utterance to be semantically interpretable.

Note further the possibility of using most of the words in question without any following noun-phrase:
(64) Fuck!
(65) Damn!
(66) Shit!
(67) Hooray!

These sentences indicate the attitude in question but do not specify what object that attitude is directed towards by the speaker.

The fact that sentences of the form fuck2 plus NP are not known to be validly analyzable as NP + VP in deep structure, the fact that they are not embeddable in any sentences, and the fact that they allow none of the adjuncts which all other sentences allow, makes highly plausible the hypothesis that they should not even be analyzed as sentences--that the category "utterance" be divided into two subcategories, "sentence" and "epithet" (the latter class including utterances such as (2), (46) and (64)), that only "sentence" and not "epithet" be embeddable within an utterance, that "epithet" involve a lexical category of "quasi-verbs" (this category consisting of fuck2, shit on, etc.), that there be a phrase-structure rule
Epithet --> Quasi-verb NP
and that "Quasi-verb" appear in no other phrase-structure rule.

In closing, I should mention certain problems which I have not dealt with and which the reader should be aware of. First, there is the matter of stress in "epithets". I know of no non-ad-hoc treatment of the stress difference between
(78) Fuck you.
(79) Damn you.

Moreover, quasi-verbs have a tendency to take primary stress. Stress may disambiguate (63) (although the distinction is lost when contrastive stress is placed on the NP):
(80) Shit on the carpet. (= Fuck2 the carpet.)
(81) Shit on the carpet. (= Defecate on the carpet.)

A second matter which deserves a full treatment is the process of historical change whereby normal lexical items become quasi-verbs. I conjecture that fuck2 arose historically from fuck1, although the paucity of citations of fuck makes the philological validation of this conjecture difficult. However, it is clearly no accident that many quasi-verbs are homophonous with normal morphemes.

South Hanoi Institute of Technology
Revised version, Feb. 5, 1967

WE SUPPORT OUR BOYS IN THE U.S. EMBASSY, SAIGON.


Wondering what the f*ck this is?  Take a look at this posting to a listserv or, if you just can't do one more mouse click, read on:

Message 2: Haj = Quang, not

Date: Sat, 2 Oct 93 10:04:55 -04Haj = Quang, not
From: Randy Allen Harris <raha@watarts.uwaterloo.ca>
Subject: Haj = Quang, not

A recent posting on the etymology of "Haj" included the following:

>... in a paper under the name of Quang Phuc Dong
>of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology: one of Ross's
>pseudonyms for his essays in scato- and pornolinguistics. ...
(LINGUIST 4.777)

"Quang Phuc Dong" is a nom de guerre (linguistique) not of Ross
but of James D. McCawley, who "created the interdisciplinary field
of pornolinguistics and scatolinguistics virtually on his own" (Zwicky, viii).

Ross, under the name "E. Clifton Gamahuche", took the first and only steps
towards developing metapornolinguistics, with his "Conjunctive Ordering"
(where, among other observations, he notes that in the absence of Copula
agreement, the only option is Reflexivization).

Quang's, Gamahuche's, and similarly minded people's research can be found
in the recently reissued _Studies out in left field:  Defamatory essays
presented to James D. McCawley on his 33rd or 34th birthday_, introduced
by Arnold Zwicky (whence the above quotation), and edited by him et al.
The reissue is by John Benjamins (Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1992),
for about $15 U.S., and, like the original (1971), is not for the squeamish.

Randy Allen Harris                          raha@watarts.uwaterloo.ca
Rhetoric and Professional Writing           519 885-1211, x5362
English, U of Waterloo                      FAX:  519 884-8995
Waterloo ON, CANADA, N2L 3G1



So why the f*ck would I put up a nasty mess like this?  Because it's f*cking funny, and because I couldn't find it anywhere on the web.  Maybe there's a good reason for that.  If you have something nice to say, mail me!

DISCLAIMER: I am not the author of ENGLISH SENTENCES WITHOUT OVERT GRAMMATICAL SUBJECTS. The article clearly states that Quang Phuc Dong is the author. However, you can go to THIS SITE to see that, in fact, one James D. McCawley appears to be the author.  For more on this subject, see set of postings from 1993: Disc: Last Word on Legends

Sadly, James D. McCawley passed away suddenly in 1999
Language Memorial for Jim McCawley



Take me back to Lonnie Chu's home page!
Better still, take me to her taboo language page.  :-)


Last updated April 29, 2010
Originally posted sometime in the last century... say, about 1996.