Thursday, April 26, 2007

As as a pre pre-position

Over on the Spectrum Blog I found a strange sentence. Many of them actually. But only one that I care to write about.

Adding to a discussion of religious-marketing/evangelism one commenter writes the following:

But Dutch Reform is as about an 'easy sell' as Adventism!

It's pretty clear right away that the sentence means to say that Dutch Reform and Adventism are equally easy to sell. Whether or not the speaker believes they are easy to sell isn't clear. Or relevant.

The closest rewrite I can give this sentence will move only two words: "as" and "an". I'll have to change 'an' to 'a' because of the following word. Thus:

But Dutch Reform is about as easy a sell as Adventism!

But is it possible to parse the original sentence so that it makes sense? If we represent the sentence with the following skeleton, Concept-A is as Quality-X as Concept-B (is Quality-X), we see that the sentence doesn't fill the Quality-X slot appropriately. To call Concept-A/B "an 'easy sell'" is not the same statement about quality. "An 'easy sell'" is a modified predicate nominative and the qualifier is on "sell." So our construction is looking for a predicate adjective but the adjective is already modifying another word. It would be acceptable to say Concept-A is as easy as Concept-B (is easy). So "as" has to be followed by an adjective. The adjective could be modified by an adverb and still sound fine: Concept-A is as incredibly easy as Concept-B (is incredibly easy)

Let's rethink what the writer sees as his constituent phrases. Let's play with his punctuation and move the first quotation marks:
But Dutch Reform is as about 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

Now we paraphrase "about" and put another word in there. We could also go with "near" "almost" or "close to" "around" or several other proximators. We see the switch working in other sentences:
Are you nearly/about done?
That about/almost does it.
About/close to 10 people showed up
It took us about/around 3 hours

So now we have these possibilities.
1. But Dutch Reform is as nearly 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

2. But Dutch Reform is as almost 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

3. But Dutch Reform is as close to an easy sell as Adventism (is)!

4. But Dutch Reform is as around 'an easy sell' as Adventism!

Sentence 4 is the worst. Three sounds best to me. To my ear 1 and 3 sound okay (just okay) while 2 and 4 sound pretty bad. #1 functions as an adverb and #3 uses an adjective alongside a preposition. Three works so well because "as" gets it adjective and "an easy sell" functions clearly as the object of a preposition and doesn't even need quotation marks as a reminder of constituency. The other two sentences use lone prepositions and following "as" they don't fulfill the required adjective/adverb requirement of the comparative. That would require a full phrase "almost an easy sell" or "around an easy sell" to function adjectivally and that's just clumsy no matter how much we try to argue for a possibly grammatical structure.

Quiz: Would fixing the common prescriptions I eschewed in the first 3 sentences of this post make the opening better?

Jaŋari suggests that one reading might view "about" as closer to a phrase like "intent upon" (see the comments). If so I could see a decent reading of the sentence this way:
But Dutch Reform is as [interested in] an "easy sell" as Adventism (is)!

This is so simple a reading that I tracked it down the comment at the source to see if this was a likely intention from the writer Dr Thomas J Zwemer.

Because the two preceding sentences focus on the difficulty of gaining "converts" through evangelism I'll stick with my original reading that he is comparing the easy sell-ability of the two philosophies. Though Jaŋari's reading makes for a better sentence I don't think we can give the good doctor that pass. It's the very awkward sentence I first thought it was.

If he had intended to say that Dutch Reform and Adventism are both interested in or dedicated to the easy sell A clear indication would be a wording like X is as much about an easy sell as Y is. Or not as smooth would be X is as all about an easy sell as Y is.

I'm all about giving suggestions.]


  1. I parsed this differently altogether. Upon re-reading (it eluded me altogether first time 'round) I identified the Quality-X in your template as about an 'easy sell'. So, Adventism is about an easy sell, and Dutch Reform is also about an easy sell. This could be entirely wrong in context, but that parsing at least for me, satisfied the template A is as X as B.

    About your quiz, I can see the issues with the second and third sentences, but what's wrong with the first?

  2. That's the reading I hint at in my final paragraph. The two phrases "almost an easy sell" and "around an easy sell" don't work well for the same reason "about an easy sell" doesn't work (for me).

    The first sentence is perhaps not as clearly unacceptable as the others. It's the missing comma. I say it doesn't need it but I've been chastised before for opening with such a long prepositional phrase and not setting it off with a comma.

  3. In this case, when I have to deal with a sentence built like this, I tend to lean towards "lost cause" and see if I can rework it along with the preceeding and proceeding sentences into something with more clarity. However, editing contextually in that manner requires some consultation with the author; though arguably many of the suggestions would as well.

    I think perhaps dropping attachment to 'an easy sell' and using the meme in a broader sense might lead to the best answer. In this way the sentence can also have a less passive reading.

    "But Dutch Reform is about as easy to sell as Adventism!"

    Considering the use of the exclamatory, the more active connotation of this feels more appropriate. While this changes the use of the phrase, it's use as an expression is unnecessary when the subject of discussion is the marketing of something, wherrein the act of selling in one manner or another is inherent to the subject matter. In this case 'an easy sell' is not being borrowed from another field of endeavor. Though, in fairness, this adds an understood concept to the sentence; "to sell (people on)".

    In my case I'd substitute "roughly" for "about", but that's of less consequence.

  4. Michael, I meant 'about an easy sell' as in 'for' or 'oriented towards', rather than the... adverbial sense (grimace on using that ill-defined category).
    Another example He's all about winning, it isn't the case that he is 'almost winning', he is consciously intent on winning.
    Maybe 'geared towards' is a close synonym:
    But [Dutch Reform] is as [geared towards an 'easy sell'] as [Adventism]!
    Does that make any sense?

  5. Aaahh yes I see that now. I must have just overlooked that meaning of 'about' for some reason.

    And that reading sounds much less awkward to me. So much so in fact that I'm going to go back and read the entire piece to make sure that's not what he intended.

  6. Do keep me posted; I can't find the thread to read it myself.

  7. I found it Jaŋari. Read the update at the end of the post.

  8. Thanks for the welcome-back notice.

    I can't even understand the quiz, but I really enjoyed the Quality-X and Concept-Z style of this post. It makes me think my one time meta-re-write of the beginning of John's gospel might "have legs":

    "In the beginning was the Structure...

    In the beginning was Concept-Z, and Concept-Z was with Quality-X, and Concept-Z was Quality-X.

    Or would it be the other way around?


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