The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective SpecGram Vol CLXXXVIII, No 1 Contents Hoity-Toity and Hurdy-Gurdy Romance in the Classical Period: An Overview—Llodio Q. Terenciano

The Unbearable Light Verb of having: Urination, Defecation, Procreation and the Impossibility of a Syntax-Semantics Isomorphism in the English Light Verb

by Professor Herb ‘Herbivore’ von Pherb

As is well known, the light verb may be defined, at least in modern English, as a morphosyntactically verbal lexeme lacking its own ‘heavy’ inherent lexical semantics.1 This should not be taken to mean, however, as some have taken it to mean,2 that the light verb is a black hole, sucking in3 meaning not only higgledy-ly piggledy-ly but also willily-nillily. Indeed no! The light verb is no shell, no gutted sarcophagus desecrated decades ago by grave robbers, no abandoned tenement block devoid of furniture and tenants. Instead, indeed and in fact, the best4 analyses of the semantics of light verbs view these noble beasts as consisting of fairly stable sub-patterns of semantic bundles. There is semantic order of a kind to the (English) light verb as opposed to the chaos that our definition may on first reading suggest: as Marx said, albeit in a different context, idiosyncrasy is out; semantically-motivated patternings are right in. That said, as my 5-year-old niece reminded me the other day whilst we were playing Grand Theft Auto,5 light verbs can struggle against the straightjacket that patterned semantic analyses can impose (after all, isn’t any linguistic form ultimately haecceitic?6); and one example of this resistance concerns the use of the light verb have in have a wee, have a poo, have a baby. It is to this semantic cosmos and the quiddity of its one particular urinatory/defecatory/procreatory members that the rest of this article dedicates itself.

Y’know, I’ve just reread that last paragraph7 and I reckon its wordiness and dense phraseology are exceeded only by its pretentiousness and its anti-hippo­poto­monstro­sesqui­pedalio­phobia. So, let’s take an example to clear things up. Consider have.8 Perhaps you may wish to recline somewhat as you read this, sip gently from a mug of cocoa and put on some light Heavy Funk.9 Better, even, string up a hammock; this, I feel is hammock linguistics at its best. The verb have is typical in that its semantics pattern into two distinct sets. We find such uses as have a bath, have a shower, have a meal, have a chat, have a holiday, have a party, have a cold and have a nice time in which the subject of have is depicted as undergoing some experience projected by the grammatical object. Thus, have a bath means undergo the experience of bathing. Additional examples include have a read and have a think about. Controversially, we’ll label this first pattern ‘Set A’.10

How’s that cocoa going? Did you string up that hammock? No matter; let us proceed. If have a think about, meaning undergo the process of thinking, exemplifies the first type of light verb semantics for have, the ostensibly similar phrase have some thoughts about exemplifies the second. Here the semantics is not one in which the subject undergoes the experience of some domain projected by the object, but instead an associative relationship (which may be prototypically possessive) in which the subject of have owns, controls or holds the reference of the grammatical object. ‘Part-whole’, or ‘intrinsic relation’ was how JFK framed this in Vol XIX of his hitherto unpublished Presidential Linguistics: How Form Relates to Function When Viewed Across the South Lawn series. Other examples of this pattern include have a house/a car, have a family, have a wife, and have a large nose.11 At the risk of complicating matters, we’ll categorise this collection as ‘Set L’. No, sorry: ‘Set B’.12 Yes, that’s it.

Loud and clear, I hear you ask the inevitable question: is there no morphosyntactic reflex of this semantic asymmetry? Well, Austen may open with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, blah, blah, blah” and Brontë may offer “Reader, I married him.” Sensing that neither is fully germane here, I’ll reply simply, “Yes.” Take the use of the so-called progressive aspect (be + V-ing) in English. This works well with Set A(lpha) but never with Set B(eta): “I’ve been having a shower” versus “I’ve been having a family”. Frequency adverbials can modify set [eɪ] but not Set [bi:]: “I have a cold every three weeks”; “I have a party twice a year” but not “I have a large nose four times a week”. Thirdly, the verb in Set ʾalep13 can often be replaced or the object can become the verb (“I took a bath / bathed”, “I ate breakfast / breakfasted”; “I took a holiday / holidayed”). Not so for Set bet.14 Finally, Set B accepts a rephrasing with “I really like your X” which is not available for Set A: “I really like your wife, nose, family” but not “I really like your shower” (in the relevant sense).

So, syntax semanticisesand vice versa!

Harmony; scented candles all round and the sweet smell of lavender in the air.

The light verbs shine with the light of form-function alignment.

Yet, and here’s the Lee Van Cleef of the whole murky affair, these two broad semantic patterns have (no pun intended) exceptions. And, to illustrate the point, we’ll take the urination, defecation and procreation examples of the title: have a poo, have a wee and have a baby15 (the last of course neither as a synonym of have a cow, man or in the sense of “You have a terribly ugly baby, Your Royal Highness”, but rather in its reading of “give birth”). Although the syntactic tests place these in category A, their semantics would beckon us down other paths: the set A examples all result in the consuming or using up of the object whose properties are infused into the subject: in have a bath the cleaning potentialities of the bath wash away the dirt of the grammatical subject; in have a party the fun and laughter character of the party is taken on (in theory) by the party-goers. But in have a wee, have a poo and have a baby, the wee, poo and baby are the products of the event, and are not (at least in civilised society!) consumed or imbibed by the grammatical subject. Moreover, Set B was characterised as pertaining to part-whole or associative relationships between entities (as opposed to events undergone by an entity): on these grounds, wee, poo and babies are B-er than they are A.

Wee, poo and baby straddle our once clean and clear semantic distinction!

Zoom! Ka-zaam! The punches are thrown and both pugilists lie face-up and panting in the pig-farm out-buildings illegal boxing ring where Form fights Function amidst the braying of the wide-eyed hordes. What was once a neat and tidy syntax-semantic isomorphism, twin pigtails on a Swiss milkmaid, is no more. Syntax and semantics divorce each other in a flurry of blame-game finger-pointing and the twin pillars supporting the arch that beckons one into the recesses of the Temple of the Gods of Language come crashing down, into, through and across each other. It turns out there’s nothing light about light verbs after all. But, hey, we’ve had a think, you’ve had a read, and most of all we’ve all had a lot of fun. So, have at you, sir/madam, if linguistics doesn’t have it all. But we’ve had our moment of time together today and now, perhaps, here at the end of all things, we’ve all just about had enough. So, have a care as you move through life, and most of all, have a lovely day.



1 If you had to mark my freshman syntax papers, you’d know it can be defined pretty much anyhow including ‘verbs like shine, gleam, glitter and twinkle’.

2 Among them, Plato, Nietzsche, and that chap down the pub the other night.

3 I know black holes don’t suck (unless you’re caught in one).

4 I.e. the ones that come with free delivery.

5 Ironically, it was someone else’s copy of GTA which we’d earlier thieved from them using an automobile (my niece’s idea; I just wanted to do a jigsaw).

6 Of all Duns Scotus one-liners, that’s the best. No wonder he was so successful in stand up up in Berwick.

7 Someone has to and the editor charges for proofreading.

8 Have you considered have before? Maybe you have.

9 Mussorgsky’s cover of Beethoven’s 5th 2nd movement would go well with this. As would the chardonnay.

10 The <A> may be read as [eɪ] or alpha. The editor would prefer it not to be read as ʾalep unless any reader self-identifies as a Phoenician (or phonetician).

11 Or, indeed, have a small nose; but not have a nose for, be nosey, nose something out, or he knows where you live.

12 Again, [bi:] or beta are acceptable; we prefer not bet as you might lose money.

13 I self-identify as a Phoenician phonetician (at least today) so get to use ʾalep twice! Ha ha! (One ha per use.)

14 I bet my best buddy Betty I could use bet.

15 Others are better placed than me to draw out the semiotic symbolism of excretion and reproduction to the English light verb and I shall leave them to do so.

The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective
Hoity-Toity and Hurdy-Gurdy Romance in the Classical Period: An OverviewLlodio Q. Terenciano
SpecGram Vol CLXXXVIII, No 1 Contents