Friday, June 09, 2006

WTF Comparative

I’ve got two versions of Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 chart topper Blue Yodel (T for Tennessee) on my iPod. One version is from Johnny Cash and one is from the Everly Brothers. The Everly Brothers’ version was released in 1969 as a single and the Johnny Cash version is from his posthumous Unearthed box set. And both have the same line that makes me go "wtf?":

I’m gonna buy me a pistol just as long as I’m tall.
Both Johnny and the Everly Brothers sing it with emphasis on long and not on the I’m. As far as I can tell this line isn’t in the original. Any hint on where it came from would be welcome.

The most salient reading I get for this line is one where the clause just as long as I’m tall is interpreted as a sentential modifier something along the lines of: As long as I continue to be tall tall, I’m going to buy a pistol. However, I’m pretty sure the intended meaning is as a relative clause modifying the pistol: I’m gonna buy a pistol that is as long as I am tall. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I can’t get the intended meaning.

There is a lot of stuff going on in this sentence. For one thing, there is the nonstandard reflexive buy me. But more important is the relative clause just as long as I’m tall. It is missing the verb be. And it doesn’t have a relative pronoun when the gap is the subject of the clause. So it’s like, There’s a pistol is as long as I am tall. This type of relative clause is ungrammatical in Standard English. However, some dialects allow it.

In Scots, as in other non-standard varieties, the relative pronoun is optionallydeleted when it is the subject of its clause:

an it rubbed aa the rat ower wi its fingers – or its paws – wi this stuff was in the bottle ("The three dogs", op. cit., p.234)

And I don’t usually find relative clauses like this that bad. Still, even if we fix those things up, I have a hard time accepting the sentence:

I’m going to buy a pistol that is just as long as I’m tall.
This fact leads me to believe that the comparative is also a problem (for me anyway). And that I can’t figure. Try these two sentences with just the comparative:
The pistol is just as long as I’m tall.
The pistol is just as long as I am tall.
The second one sounds much better to me—though I have to admit I’ve been thinking about these for a while so my brain could be fried.


Anonymous said...

Long is used for nonliving and tall for living; the pistol is as long as a male body part. This makes the line make more sense and fits the ozark dialect.
ps for a dislexia the letter shapes in the verification ar weird. do others find that so?
I came from a view from a broad for the paid troll stuff

liberal elite said...


Good point. But it's not the word choice that bothers me. It's the sentence structure. I like the sentence without contraction better than the one with. I wonder why that is.

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