Superman and Batman and Language!

I bet you weren’t expecting some tricky linguistic commentary in the pages of SUPERMAN & BATMAN VS. VAMPIRES AND WEREWOLVES! But here it is!

In Issue #4 of the six-part series, our heroes are hanging around making plans and waiting to be attacked by demon-like creatures (as you do). That’s when Jason Blood, aka the rhyming demon Etrigan, senses the creatures’ arrival and says “THEY’RE HERE”:

SUPERMAN AND BATMAN VS. WEREWOLVES AND VAMPIRES #4 by Kevin VanHook (w), Tom Mandrake (art), Nathan Eyring (c), and Steve Wandis (l)

On the next page, the narrator jumps in for some deep linguistic insight:

SUPERMAN AND BATMAN VS. WEREWOLVES AND VAMPIRES #4 by Kevin VanHook (w), Tom Mandrake (art), Nathan Eyring (c), and Steve Wandis (l)

The lines are


Granted, one of them is a GRAMMATICAL CONSTRUCTION, but still—

TWO WORDS have SELDOM held so much MEANING.

The question here is about the word(s) they’re. What do you think – is it one word or two? I like to pose this question to my students. Their answer is practical – it depends who’s counting. If you have a 500-word limit and the rules say that contractions count as one word, then you’re going to use them – the conventions of formal writing be damned!

If we take a corpus linguistic approach, however, then the contraction is likely to be analyzed as two words: they + ‘re. At least, that’s how the tagging software will split it up because it’s useful for later on when you’re searching the corpus.

If we think about English writing, then a word is traditionally defined as having spaces (or punctuation) on either side. That would make they’re one word – and MS Word counts it as one word too. But I don’t think we want to rest our claims on the town drunk that is the English writing system.

We can prop up our orthographic analysis by taking a syntactic look at things. Forget about that apostrophe in there – that’s a feature of English writing and there’s no reason that it needs to be there. Syntactically, the ‘re is playing the role of predicator in the clause (in other words, it’s the verb controlling the other elements in the sentence). In this case, we could say that makes they’re two words, since the syntax is (they)Subject + (‘re)Predicator.

But hang on. The “word” ‘re can’t hang out on its own. It is dependent on they, at least phonologically. We can’t just say ‘re like we can say they and are and here. We have to attach ‘re to something like they or we. Most grammars would call ‘re a clitic. This is a piece of language that is somewhere between a full word and an affix (an example of an affix is the –ed that gets attached to verbs to mark the past tense).

Again, try to forget about our writing system and think about how the sound n’t /nt/ gets added to verbs when we want to make a negative statement. In English, we often have to use an auxiliary or helper verb to form a negative statement. So, I teach English becomes I don’t teach English. Sometimes the negative goes onto the verb like that, but sometimes it is left on its own as a “word”. Such would be the case in a clause like They’re not here.

The thing is, the verb BE in English is tricky (as it is in a lot of languages). It doesn’t like to act the way other verbs act. So in English we can say both They’re not here and They aren’t here. You can see how both of those sentences include clitics. In the first one, the clitic is ‘re from the verb are and is attached to the pronoun they. In the second, the clitic is n’t from the word not and attached to the verb are.

So where does that leave us. Well, the comic is right. The term “grammatical construction” is an accurate way to describe the “word” They’re. It could be looked at as one word which includes a clitic. It could, alternatively, be considered two words if our motives for defining “word” were different.

Things get more interesting when we think of another common contraction in English – can’t. This would also appear to be made up of two words, can and not, but since English writing hates you, this construction is written as one word when it’s not a contraction: cannot. Because sure why not.

Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation of clitic here.

Now, for homework, how many words are in the following?

do’s and don’ts


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