Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Note: I am not a grammarian or an English major. But I do find language fascinating, I try to read a bit, and I was well-trained on Standard English for twelve years of schooling. Some quick Google searches didn’t turn up anything on this particular subject (although, that’s probably because it’s a difficult thing to search for; I’m under no delusions that this is remotely close to being original research) so I haven’t been able to check my work against what actual linguists say. Still, I think I’m mostly correct on the broad strokes but it would be foolish to cite this in your schoolwork.

I recently found myself considering the phrase “Screw you!”1. It’s an elegant construction: concise, yet emphatic. Worthy of some admiration if only for the emotions and meaning it packs into two small words.

And then I tried to diagram it.

And then I found that it’s actually far more interesting than it first appears.

“Screw” is obviously the verb of the predicate. At first glance, it appears to be in the imperative mood so the subject of this sentence must be an implied “(You)”. That leaves the final “you” of the sentence which must be the direct object. Thus, we have a basic subject-verb-object sentence. Done.

Except…that’s a little weird, isn’t it? English doesn’t tend to use “you” as the direct object of an imperative sentence with an implied subject. It’s always “Help yourself.”, “Calm yourself.”, or “Know yourself.”. The alternatives (“Help you.”, “Calm you.”, “Know you.”) are just strange.

It seems perfectly grammatical, of course. “You” is a delightfully versatile pronoun. “You saw the teacher.” (Subject!), “It’s you!” (Predicate nominative!), “The teacher saw you.” (Direct object!), “The teacher brought you the assignment.” (Indirect object!). And so on. “You” isn’t like “he” or “she” which take different forms (“him”, “her”) as they move around in the sentence. So using “you” as the direct object seems as reasonable as using “him”. And “Screw him!” is fine (like “Help him!” or even “Calm him.”2).

And yet, at some point, English decided that “you” just doesn’t work here. I’m not sure why.3 Perhaps someone decided that having the word “you” on both sides of the verb looked silly. But, at some point, English picked up the reflexive pronouns and we have to live with them.

And so, “Screw you!” cannot be an imperative since such a thing would require a reflexive “yourself” to match the implied subject. So it must be something else.

My guess? It’s the tail end of a sentence that goes something like “May all the powers of the universe work together to screw you!” That is, it seems to be an actual curse4.

Fortunately, if our intent requires an actual imperative command, we can manage it with just a little rearranging. “Go screw yourself!” works nicely. Together, these forms give us some options when we need to express just the right sentiment. Do we want to curse someone with an epic universe-sized screw? Or do we want to encourage them to enact a somewhat more personal screwing upon their own person? We can make a choice and add a little subtlety to our invectives.

And then there’s “Screw him!”. Without the reflexive hint, this could go either way. As a command, the subject would still be “You”; so a reflexive object is not required. But, this sentence would also fit into our curse construction from above. So where we gain subtle distinctions in the second-person case, we overload the meaning of the third-person case.5

English. It gives and it takes away.

Screw it.

  1. Please feel free to substitute “screw”‘s stronger and more versatile older brother. ↩

  2. A phrase which I find slightly sinister. ↩

  3. Like I always do when I find something in English strange or silly, I’m blaming the French. ↩

  4. A curse a mere subset of the larger field of profanity. Presumably, “cuss word” derives from “curse word” but I don’t have access to a dictionary good enough to tell me. If nothing else, I think it’s somewhat interesting that most of our cuss words aren’t actually curses and find it refreshing to come across one that is. ↩

  5. Of course, I think it’s rare for the third-person case to be used as an imperative since that implies that there’s yet another person to do the screwing. And it’s not clear if they’re expected to enjoy it or not. Still, acknowledging this in the article proper would have ruined my punchline. ↩

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