Thursday, October 04, 2012

Foreign Heat (Not a Pornographic Film Title)

I was at the liquor store, “Eetz hot,” the man behind the counter proclaimed. It was hot, in fact. Last Monday afternoon had been sweltering, and it didn’t diminish the moist, chaffing ick of it to recall that the end of the week was forecasted to be ten degrees cooler.

“Yeah, it’s awful. I don’t even want to think about how hot it is in my apartment.”

Him, again: “Yesterday, I go home, and there are ninety degrees!”

Now, this actually stopped me. Even knowing he hadn’t yet mastered English idioms, I was not immediately sure what he meant. Then, I realized: It was ninety degrees inside his house when he got home. I’d just never heard anyone phrase it that way. I thought he was talking about, like, right angles — and godammit, homes need corners, as far as I’m concerned.

Then, the overthinking as I walked home: Isn’t it strange, grammatically, that the temperature is uncountable but nonetheless treated like a singular? Even when it’s almost always given a value of more than one? We say “It is ninety degrees” and not “They are ninety degrees.” If you had learned basic from-the-book English without understanding how it’s actually used, however, I think you might actually be inclined to say, “They are ninety degrees.” It makes logical sense — plural thing is plural thing, rather than singular thing is plural thing. That's how the guy in the liquor store put it together in his head, I'm betting.

Looking at the sentence “It is ninety degrees,” I’d say it looks like a predicate nominative construction — or what we use when we express the idea “X is equal to Y.” If I say “The boy is a murderer,” I’m saying that in this case, the boy is the same as a murdererboy is the subject and murderer is essentially another subject, because you could flip the sentence around and it would basically mean the same thing. On either end of that is is a noun that being treated equally and assigned the same case. English-speakers would never say “The boy is murderers,” because that doesn’t make sense, yet that would seem to be what we’re doing with “The temperature is 90 degrees.”

Is it just that “The temperature is 90 degrees” is elliptical? We’re really expressing that “The temperature is valued at 90 degrees,” or something to that effect. But no one really says that either; we just say “It’s 90 degrees.” So at what point does a construction like this cease to be elliptical and just become standard grammar? If it’s not elliptical, how do you explain what’s going on here, grammatically speaking?


  1. 1. Predication is not the same as identity. Bill Clinton jokes aside, "is" means different things in different contexts.

    Identity is when A and B are two names for the same thing: "Venus is the Morning Star" is a classic philosophy textbook example. Because the two things are identical, you can flip them around without changing the meaning—"The Morning Star is Venus." Similarly, "Superman is Clark Kent" or "Clark Kent is Superman" have the same meaning.

    Predication is when you say A is a member of class B or A is B-y. (All "noun is adjective" sentences are predicative, as are most sentences of the form "concrete noun is an abstract noun.") You can say "the ball is red" but "red is the ball" only works poetically. Taken literally, "red is the ball" would be a statement of identity and would mean that redness is the same as the ball, which is nuts.

    "The boy is a murderer" is a case of predication. It means "the boy is one member of the set of murderers." You can't really flip it around because "to be a murderer" is not the same thing as "the boy."

    2. English often uses "it" as a dummy word because we need something to be the subject or object of a sentence. "It's raining" is nonsense; there is no "it" that is raining. However, "is raining" is an incomplete sentence in English, so we add in the dummy word "it." Other languages don't have this same problem. The Japanese, for example, say what works out to be literally "rain is precipitating." Similarly, Spanish (so far as I recall from high school) has no equivalent to the dummy it.

    3. There are a lot of cases in English where things that look plural get counted as singular and vice versa, especially around numbers. "The police are evil" uses a plural verb in American English, as though we thought of the police as being a lot of people working independently and not a single unit. British people tend to talk about sports teams in the singular, "Manchester United is good." Talking about companies, both "Apple is releasing the new iPhone" and "Apple are releasing the new iPhone" can be acceptable depending on if you think of Apple as one unit or a bunch of individuals. We say "the pencil is three inches long" but "it is a three inch pencil" drops the plural from inches. "Six miles is a long way to walk" is more standard than "six miles are a long way to walk" although I wouldn't be surprised to learn British is the other way around.

    Anyway, grammar is nuts.

    1. Wait, so are you saying that "Venus is the Morning Star" is not a predicate nominative construction? Isn't a statement of identity inherently a predicate nominative?
      I feel like what I'm talking about just comes down to people talking about units of measurement but not explicitly saying that because anyone listening would get what's being said, like in your mention of inches and miles: There's a [measured as] that's implied. And I'd say that's different than talking about a group of people as a plural -- "The jury are deliberating" -- or those weird English words that appear plural but are treated like they're singular -- politics, acoustics, billiards, measles.

    2. I think this is a difference in terminology between philosophy and grammar. In philosophy, only non-identity expressions are called predication, but in grammar, identity and non-identity expressions are both called predicates.

    3. Ah. That would make sense. I'm definitely thinking about it more from a grammatical standpoint than a philosophical one, but then again I'm convinced that grammar goes a long way toward shaping a person's outlook on life.

  2. You wouldn't say, "It is twenty dollars in my wallet," would you?

    1. A native English-speaker wouldn't, no. But we do say "The price is twenty dollars," which I'd guess works in the same way we talk about temperature.