Thursday, February 15, 2007

It tolls...on thee?

The other day when presenting a Grammy Award Kanye West exchanged a lame joke with Common. In his set-up he used the phrase "I voted on you." This didn't strike me as too odd. I figured he meant that on the previous year's Grammy ballot he cast a vote regarding Common, and I wondered if he was implying that he voted in favor of Common. I wasn't sure.

This is a regular construction when speaking of a vote. Legislators and committees vote on issues all the time. The verb phrase 'to vote on' doesn't typically indicate a vote in favor of either direction. To vote on 'proposition X' means that a vote was cast either for or against it.

I wasn't sure why Common would care to know that West voted on him. Or why West phrased it that way. To say he voted "on the category" would have made more sense to me since I've always assumed that the votes are not yes/no on each performer, rather they are a choice of which performer should receive the award. (Some might argue that not to vote on a performer is a 'no' vote.)

Then West delivered his punchline and revealed that he had not in fact voted on Common. "I voted on myself" he said.

So he didn't vote "on" Common but he voted "on" himself. Since they were both nominated for the same award that's not compatible with the "cast a vote regarding X" meaning I had read into the phrase. Now I have to assume that when West says "voted on" meaning voted in favor of, or for.

Obviously I'm imposing some semantic constraints on these prepositions. And the historical flexibility of prepositions sometimes causes us discomfort. Only a few years ago I was writing about the meaninglessness of a construction like different than. I tried to argue by analogy with far that it made no sense to be different than - I claimed that one must say different from because the word different is not a quantitative comparison. I went on to argue that only when different is used to mean odd or weird could we use than in the phrase more different than. After all, we would never say "I parked far than the front door" would we? Surely those with ears tuned in to logical constructions would agree that both different than and far than sound horrible.

But an analogy can only go so far. X might act like Y in some ways, but X is not Y. If X jumped off a cliff.... The truth is that what works well for one word doesn't have to work for others even when they share some semantic and/or syntactic properties. Consider that in OE there were constructions as læded on westen meaning "led to the wasteland." Though PdE with can have connotation of either cooperation or competition OE wið (or wiþ) was "against" and mid was "with" (in the cooperative sense). And æt could be used as PdE "at" "from" "upon" "into" "into the hands of" and several other prepositional functions.

And the British/American English comparison usually includes some discussion of the alternating preposition in "different {from/to}"

So I won't say that there is any semantic reason for Kanye West's phrase sounding wrong to me. I will admit that it only sounds wrong to me because I've never heard "voted on." And instead of trying to support my reaction with argument I find myself searching for the phrase in our very accessible English corpus: Google™.

It wasn't until the 8th page of results for the search term {"voted on"} that I noticed several uses of "voted on" that seem worked like "voted for." Netscape Tracker lists stories that had been "voted on" by various users. Next to each link is a note that says when a comment is posted, a story is submitted, a member registers or a vote is "cast on" a story. Such a vote denotes a vote in favour of the post. The buttons on the sidebar offer either "vote!" or "sink". So on this ballot it's impossible to cast a 'no' vote. One section heading reads Who voted on this story? and another reads Who sunk this story?

A third section combines prepositions in its heading, reading Members who voted for this story also voted on…. So is it a list of other stories that got positive votes from those who voted in support of the first story? Or is it a list of stories that received votes (i.e. judgment for or judgment against) from those who shared an opinion (~for ~against) on the current story?

So it seems that this phrase has its users. I'm trying think of phrases that alternate the preposition for and on and retain the same meaning. I've come up with the following:

- wait for/on (though for some speakers wait on means "serve")
- ummm...that's it so far. Help?


  1. I have two questions. Do you think this was a teleprompted interchange (given Kanye's "Bush hates Black people" history)? And can't he just be wrong?

  2. I actually wondered about the teleprompter. My guess is that he didn't read it but there was a plan ahead of time. After telling Common that he voted for himself Common came back with a comment something like Good. I was getting tired of hearing you complain about not winning.

    It wasn't a good bit -- but neither was it chaotic and unfocused like ad libs can be (as we saw West prove in that other presentation).

    About him being wrong:
    Of course he could be. It may be that he was nervous and afterwards he reflected on the exchange and thought "Voted on? Voted on? Did I really say that?"

    But he said it twice so I'm tempted to think that he meant to say it. So with the evidence of the construction out there I move towards accepting that for some group it's grammatical. I just don't know what group that is or how they categorise the usage.

  3. As a general rule, I dislike people who say "Standing on line."

  4. Casey you're such an elitist. Can you imagine how difficult it is for my Hispanic relatives to differentiate between 'in' and 'on' when in Spanish 'en' can "mean" either?

  5. I've used the expression: "putting
    gas on the car" forever; but I know
    from ordinary usage it should be
    "putting gas in the car"...

  6. I've never heard that Larry. The image is amusing. And of course some people will think it's wrong, but no one would think it's impossible.

    Imagine a reversal of the in/on usage. Someone who says "let me put some socks in my feet" would probably be told that's impossible.

  7. I think the in/on switch is more understandable/forgivable than the for/on usage. It seems to me there is a stronger semantic difference with the latter.


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