Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Whatever your judgment

Yesterday Mark Liberman posted an image (taken by Aaron Davies) of a poster by the National Peanut Board that gives us the "friendly reminder" that "Peanuts are a good source of protein for whatever your conquest."

That's the second line in the ad. I'm pretty sure the first line is 'Why just get through the day when you could conquer it?' but it's cut off halfway through the <q> of what I believe to be 'conquer'.

The use of conquest strikes Liberman as so strange that he jokingly suggests it might be the product of outsourcing to China.

I don't think it sounds so strange. I left a comment saying so. John left a comment agreeing with me. Andrew thinks it's "perfectly normal English" while nat finds it "acceptable" if "slightly cavalier." Josh doesn't object tho he calls the use "unusual." Dave is OK with it but grants it might be awkward.

Some commenters are on the fence depending on prosody and semantics.

Gary writes If I put the major stress on the “ever”, I don’t find the sentence strange at all. and he adds If I use even stress on ever and conquest, the sentence sounds very strange.

Adrian Bailey observes

The problem with “conquest” is that it’s used to describe a completed action rather than an action itself, and in this case it could be taken to refer to a person or thing, rather than to an event.

Otherwise, the construction is sound and the message is gettable. And in the world of advertising its ghitlessness is a plus.

That quality she mentions -- ghitlessness -- means that the phrase doesn't show up in a Google™ search. Each result of a search is a 'ghit'.

Whether a search produces results is important to the phrase discussed here because Liberman uses search results to support his claim that the phrase is odd. It is unexpected to him and to everyone else writing text indexed by Google.

Now note that Liberman never said that this is ungrammatical. He calls it unexpected. He says it's unusual. And it is obviously unusual. The lack of search results is good support of that. The lack of support might even be the definition of unusual. It's just not out there.

But why is it unusual? Conquest is a noun and the form 'whatever your [NOUN]' is out there with several nouns filling the slot.

"whatever your needs" -- 210,000
"whatever your problem" -- 87,200
"whatever your goal" -- 71,800
"whatever your passion" -- 66,700
"whatever your task -- 8,400

Not all of these are the same type of noun final phrase as in the peanut poster. But a raw number for each search is relevant for comparison since a simple search for the conquest phrase brings up nothing.

But what interests me is not that the ad uses a rare phrase. I'm curious about why the phrase is so rare. Because it still doesn't sound so strange to me. Except for the fact that conquest isn't often used in ad copy or in conversational speech. Simple phrases are worth comparing:

"his goal" -- 3,480,000 : "his conquest" -- 246,000
"her goal" -- 973,000 : "her conquest" -- 33,500
"their goal" -- 3,760,000 : "their conquest" -- 175,000

Goal is easier to use without a complement than conquest is. A conquest is either over something or it can be that 'thing' that was conquered. In the ad it looks like the latter. If you conquer the day then the day is your conquest.

Looking for similar words -- prize reward accomplishment -- we find small numbers.

"whatever your prize" : 12 hits
"whatever your reward" : 315 hits
"whatever your accomplishment: 5 hits

In his comment Liberman adds Nowhere on the web does a sentence starting My conquest today is __ or My conquest today will be __ appear.*

Neither will you find a single result for my prize today is or my prize today will be. That surprises me.

So are we looking at a pragmatic constraint? Even tho the statements make sense and even tho they're grammatical people just don't use them. Dips and gaps like that aren't likely to be accidental. Conquests and prizes and rewards are usually spoken of in the past or in definite terms. These hypothetical and anticipatory contexts might be part of the block. But I'm not sure.

I looked at the picture and thought little of it. Liberman's ear must be better than mine. Perhaps I'm permanently scanted out.**


*Liberman's comment in response to John is puzzling. He doesn't expect that people read LL only to agree with accept every judgment does he?

**more on this later


  1. For me, it's actually ungrammatical, for reasons that have nothing to do with the markedness of the word conquest. I just can't elide the verb phrase from a whatever-clause when it's the object of a preposition. So for me, either of these would be (syntactically) okay (though perhaps a little odd pragmatically or stylistically):

    1. Peanuts are a good source of protein for whatever your conquest {may be, is}.
    2. Peanuts are a good source of protein, whatever your conquest.

    But I can't omit the may be or is if I include the for.

  2. That's been mentioned in further comments on the post. And I definitely hear the difference.


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