Theiling Online    Sitemap    Conlang Mailing List HQ   

USAGE: English adverbials 'the heck', 'the hell', etc.

From:John Quijada <jq_ithkuil@...>
Date:Friday, April 9, 2004, 0:00
I have been pondering the strange morpho-syntax of the class of adverbial
phrases in colloquial American English involving expletive nouns or
expletive-like nouns which convey a harshly annoyed connotation.  Such
expressions include ‘the hell’, ‘the heck,’ ‘the f**k’, etc.

I notice the peculiarly narrow range of grammatically acceptable usages.
For example, they appear acceptable with all the WH-class of question
words, but using them in any answer to a WH-question appears to be
permissible only by means of an additional prepositional or quasi-
prepositional element, as in the following examples (grammatically
unacceptable forms marked with asterisks):

WH-type Questions:

What the hell are you doing?
Where the hell did he find that?
Why the hell is he coming?
Who the hell cares?
How the hell should I know?

Answers to WH-type Questions:

I’m mowing the lawn.
*I’m mowing the hell the lawn.
*I’m the hell mowing the lawn.
I’m mowing the hell OUT OF the lawn.

He found it up in the attic.
*He found it the hell up in the attic.
*He the hell found it up in the attic.
He found it WAY the hell up in the attic.

There also appears to be a restriction in effect based on whether the
context denotes a scalar degree versus a fixed absolute degree (or is it an
aspectual restriction?).  For example:

I beat the hell out of him.
*I killed the hell out of him.

And a different restriction appears to operate in the following:

We trashed the hell out of his house.
?? We ate the hell out of those beans.
*We closed the hell out of that door.

The specific phrase ‘the hell’ (but apparently not ‘the heck’ or ‘the
f**k’) also appears in the following construction:

The hell you’re going to any party!
The hell he’s marrying my daughter!

The phrase can also function as a whole predicate in conjunction
with ‘with’, as seen in the following examples:

The hell with you! (which appears equivalent in meaning to ‘To hell with

ANYWAY…I’m curious as to whether anyone on the list is aware of a formal
grammatical treatment of such phrases in the linguistic literature.  I’m
especially curious as to why such phrases carry the highly unusual
compositional structure of DEFINITE ARTICLE + NOUN being used adverbially.
I can’t think of any other types of nouns used this way in English, e.g.,

*Why the table don’t you call me?
*When the sky did you get here?
*Where in the noodle have you been?
*They trashed the convenience out of his house.
*The responsibility you’re marrying my daughter!
*The cat with you!

Another question:  although I speak formal (non-colloquial) French,
Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian with varying degrees of fluency, I learned
them academically, so I am not aware of how they handle equivalent
translations to the above colloquial English sentences.  Do these or other
languages handle such expressions similarly using a highly restricted
morpho-syntactic structure?

Lastly, does anyone have a conlang where such noun-based adverbials are
formally designated for use this way?

--John Quijada


Gary Shannon <fiziwig@...>
Ph. D. <phild@...>
Philippe Caquant <herodote92@...>
And Rosta <a.rosta@...>