Friday, June 13, 2008

This Post is a Sin to Read

I imagine pretty much all English speakers agree on the grammaticality of the following sentence:
* It is a sin to eat pork.

But looking around online recently, I was struck by the following construction:
* Pork is a sin to eat
* Soon it will say in the bible that Speghetti is a sin to eat.
* I don` t think any kind of food is a sin to eat

To me, this construction seems rather odd, and the extreme rarity of such constructions on Google suggests that I'm with the majority of English speakers on this point. Do people who do find this normal allow it with other verbs, I wonder? Can they say "This post is a sin to read?" or "Wine is a sin to drink?" Or, indeed, "Tea is a pleasure to drink?" Has anyone else heard constructions along these lines? Presumably, these speakers were influenced by the analogy of sentences like "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" or "Tea is a good thing to drink"; but if I ever figure out why the former seem so weird and the latter are perfectly grammatical, I'll make sure to tell you...

12 comments:

Chris Bogart said...

I didn't notice anything funny about your title until I read the post. Your other examples seem OK to me too: "Tea is a pleasure to drink". Of course I see what's illogical about that, but they just don't sound wrong to me.

Anonymous said...

This post is a cinch to read.

MMcM said...

Part of this seems to be covered by CGEL Chap. 14, 6.3 (a) “Hollow to-infinitivals as complement to predicate adjectives and nouns.” That definitely seems to be lexically licenced: a list of a few dozen representative words is given. They all have to do with ease / difficulty or some kind of emotional attitude toward the situation. It would further seem that sin is a borderline case. So too, I imagine, duty. I am struggling to immediately come up with a word that makes sense as describing the situation but is absolutely illegal. A complication in running things through my head is that very similar sentences involve ordinary predication, and not a raised subject from a semantic argument, like, “Pork is poison[ous] to eat.”

David Marjanović said...

I find them all grammatical because I interpret them as either:

- "Pork is a sin", with "to eat" stacked on at the end for explanation after the speaker has finished speaking and has noticed an explanation would help. (That's something my dialect, as opposed to Standard German, is very tolerant of.)

or:

- Deliberate imitation of the above phenomenon for emphasis.

Chris Bogart, what is that, uh, intriguing character you use as your photo meant to symbolize?

MMcM said...

“Pork is a sin to eat” is semantically the same to me as “To eat pork is a sin”; only the topic is different. I only apply your analysis, David Marjanović, to the superficially similar “poison” case. Do you permit “Food is a shame to waste”?

Jens said...

I more or less agree with the other posters. "Pork is a sin to eat" might sem to mean that "pork" is a kind of "sin" (hence a category error) that can be eaten (in other words, that you can "eat" a "sin"), but I think that most people would interpret that without problem as meaning "eating pork is a sin". Because people don't eat sins.

Chris Bogart said...

David,

It's relevant to my long-neglected blog about computer and human languages. The left half is a radical that shows up in lots of Chinese/Japanese characters having to do with language, and the right half is the lambda from lambda calculus, which is a mathematical foundation for computer language theory.

Chris

chinaphil said...

I read all the examples as ungrammatical at first, but the more I look at them, the more I think some of them are OK, but they're all quite highly marked.

This example for me is not marked:
This book was a pleasure to read.

But this example:
Books are a pleasure to read...

is definitely incomplete for me, waiting for a complement like "magazines are rubbish".

I can't really explain why the sin example seems wrong. All of these are OK for me:
Quadratic equations are difficult to solve.
Cuffs are a pain to iron.
Pork is a nightmare to cook.
She is lovely to look at.

There is a distinction, in that all of the above are good sentences if the hollow to-infinitival is removed; whereas "pork is a sin" is not a good sentence for me. Don't know whether that's a relevant indicator.

Malik said...

In the nominal sentence, "It is a sin to eat pork", the infinitive phrase "to eat pork" is part of the predicate nominal "a sin to eat pork". You could take the entire infinitive phrase and make it the subject of the sentence and the semantic content would be the same, e.g. "To eat pork is a sin". But taking the object of the infinitive phrase (pork) and making it the subject of the nominal sentence results in a sentence that is syntactically correct but semantically unsound (or at least it should be), because the infinitive phrase has been split into the simple noun "pork" and the simple infinitive "to eat", with both "pork" and "to eat" replacing the infinitive phrase "to eat pork" as the adjectival modifier in the noun phrase "a sin to eat pork". If you keep the original structure of the sentence and replace the infinitive phrase "to eat pork" with "pork" and "to eat" as standalone modifiers, it's clear that the sentence is nonsensical: "It is a sin pork to eat."

Nonetheless, using the object of an infinitive phrase that modifies the predicate nominal as the subject of a nominal sentence is comprehensible because semantically, the subject is still the recipient of the "action" of the infinitive. But that wouldn't work for a verbal sentence. You could say "John hopes to win the game", but you couldn't say, "The game John hopes to win." Unless you are Yoda, or, as those who speak the language inform me, Korean.

David Marjanović said...

I think I've figured out what's going on: the object is the topic and therefore dragged kicking & screaming to the beginning of the sentence. That would result in *"tea to drink is a pleasure", *"books to read is a pleasure", *"pork to eat is a sin", *"food to waste is a shame".

In German, where objects come before infinitives, this is how it's done. (And it's done often.) Emphasis on the pleasure: Es ist ein Vergnügen, Bücher zu lesen; emphasis on the books: Bücher zu lesen ist ein Vergnügen. The latter is more marked, but only a bit.

English marginally allows putting the object first, but it does not allow putting the infinitive directly behind it. This makes the above examples ungrammatical. The closest thing that's allowed is: "tea is a pleasure to drink", "books are a pleasure to read", "pork is a sin to eat", "food is a shame to waste". This is highly marked because the subject-verb-object word order is much stricter than in German.

You could say "John hopes to win the game", but you couldn't say, "The game John hopes to win." Unless you are Yoda, or, as those who speak the language inform me, Korean.

Or Russian, or probably any reasonably highly inflected language.

German doesn't allow that, but it allows pulling the object forward as long as verb-second word order is kept: "The game hopes John to win" (even though nominative and accusative happen to be identical for both "the game" and all personal names!). It's not even terribly marked, for example it works as the answer to the question "what does he hope to win?", but also as the answer to the question "what does he hope?", even though it's not the most preferred option in the latter case.

Wait, it... almost works in English when we use a little trick to pretend that there's a verb behind the subject: "The game does John hope to win!" That's rather awkward, though, as far as I can tell.

David Marjanović said...

almost works in English when we use a little trick

Argh. Make that "if", not "when". There I go pontificating about the differences between English and German... <facepalm>

David Marjanović said...

I wrote:

>>Emphasis on the pleasure: Es ist ein Vergnügen, Bücher zu lesen; emphasis on the books: Bücher zu lesen ist ein Vergnügen.<<

The opposite can also be the case. In both cases, the topic comes first and the comment second; in both cases, the topic or the comment can be emphasized. So, when I wrote "emphasis on", I meant "the topic is".

Or wait...

Whatever. I'm tired and should go to bed. German isn't a real topic-and-comment language like Mandarin, Japanese or Quechua, so I don't necessarily know what I'm talking about. Anyway, both word orders are allowed, and the second is a bit more marked.