As we all know, advertising folk like to get creative when they are trying to sell us things, not least linguistically. As a result, one of the joys of sitting on the London Underground is, for me at least, the advertising.
One of the most striking campaigns I’ve seen recently is one for a new music app, called Bloom.fm. Like the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phenomenon in the UK, it hinges on creative linguistic variation around one very simple grammatical structure: what you might call – for want of a better term – the ‘I want to sell you a music app’ construction.
The picture above is just one example of a series of adverts for the app in which the words ‘the _ music app’ are written in bold lettering on a plain yellow background; the only difference between them is what is written in the slot between the determiner ‘the’ and the compound noun ‘music app’. Here are just a few examples that I have spotted out and about:
The absolute steal at £1 music app
The I may even subscribe music app
The trust me fam music app
The all-in-one music app
The borrowing music?? brilliant idea music app
The best thing since sliced bread music app
The there’s a bunch of good things I could write but since I’m a lazy tapper I just want to say download it music app
The I recommend this app for music awesome save money 5 star quality like it very much thanks for the app music app
The ad campaign is interesting linguistically because it shows – in English at least – just how many things you can shove into that slot between the determiner (like ‘a’ or ‘the’) and the noun (‘music app’) within a noun phrase (like ‘the music app’).
‘Absolute steal at £1m’ is an adjective phrase, for example; ‘best thing since sliced bread’ and ‘absolute steal at £1‘ are noun phrases; ‘I may even subscribe’ is a clause or a sentence. Otherwise, the compact conversation ‘(are you) borrowing music?? (that’s a) brilliant idea’ is effectively two sentences back-to-back, each with bits implied but stripped away. And, finally, ‘I recommend this app for music awesome save money 5 star quality like it very much thanks for the app’ is a sentence, then an adjective, then a sentence, then a noun phrase, then two more short sentences: it might be ungrammatical nonsense but, in the context of the ad, it’s carefully constructed nonsense.
The point is, of course, that the possibilities with this slogan are quite literally infinite. In other words, the construction is a goldmine for linguistic creativity – which is why it’s such a clever advertising campaign.
In this blog post, I want to focus particularly on the case where a sentence is placed within this slot – that is, on the particular syntactic construction where a fully formed sentence is embedded within a noun phrase to modify it in some way. Linguists, if they wanted to get technical, might express this kind of construction as follows:
(1) NP -> Det S N
What this means is that, within a grammatical expression in English, a noun phrase (NP) can be assembled from a determiner (Det), followed by a sentence or clause (S), and a noun (N) (the head of the noun phrase). Here are a few examples, of my own devising, where the noun phrase (Det S NP) is written in bold:
That person has a real ‘I hate everything’ attitude
What was that ‘wake me up before you go-go’ song?
I hate all that ‘I love you’ stuff!
The ‘I like embedding sentences in noun phrases’ construction
You can imagine many other possibilities. Indeed, if you put search terms like ‘the I am’, ‘the I love’ or ‘the give me’ into your search engine will find plenty of other examples. Semantically, most of them would seem to have some kind of quotative function. That is, in each case, the sentence evokes something that somebody (or bodies) might say or be thinking; as a result, when writing such expressions in English, it makes sense to use quotation marks. In other cases, the sentence might correspond to a proper name. For example, ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’, for a brand of margarine, or ‘The Boy With An Arab Strap’, for an album by the band Belle and Sebastian, as in:
Do you remember the ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’ controversy?
I loved their ‘The Boy With An Arab Strap’ album
In each case, the role of the sentence (S) is to modify the noun (N). However, it’s worth noting that the sentence is not acting like an adjective, which you would usually associate with the modification of a noun in English. You could, for example, modify a noun with an adjective (Adj), or even adjectives, and a sentence (S) at the same time. However, any adjective would have to come before the sentence, otherwise it would be ungrammatical. For example, you could write:
That person has a genuine ‘seize the day!’ spirit
But you couldn’t write:
*That person has a ‘seize the day!’ genuine spirit
Formally, therefore, you would write (noting the order):
(2) NP -> Det Adj S N
Because of subtleties like this, a full discussion of this type of construction would probably take up quite a few pages (and get linguists like me really excited). However, I’m just going to cover one other feature of this type of construction – something that lends itself to even more creative possibilities.
As we are all taught at school, any sentence (S) must consist of at least one noun phrase and one verb phrase (VP). Again, to get technical:
(3) S -> NP VP
Notice that there’s a noun phrase (NP) within the sentence or clause (S). As Noam Chomsky famously pointed out, one of the basic tenets of any language is ‘recursion’ – that is, the possibility of embedding a thing within another example of that thing (Chomsky, 1957). This might sound terribly complicated but is actually something we do all the time when we speak. In this case, it simply means that you could take a sentence containing this kind of construction and shove it inside another example of the construction. For example, take the following sentences (possibly spoken at two very different stages of the same relationship):
I really like all that ‘I love you’ stuff
We had one of those ‘we need to talk about stuff’ conversations
Now imagine trying to combine them. You might end up with:
We had one of those ‘we need to talk about all that I-love-you stuff’ conversations
Admittedly, it’s a little far fetched (and a little awkward to render in written English given the limitations in punctuation), but it’s a linguistic possibility. Not only can you add almost any sentence between a determiner (like ‘the’) and a noun (such as ‘music app’) to modify that noun, but within that sentence you can also embed another noun, itself modified by another sentence. And, so on. Until your head turns to mush… Now, that’s really creative!
This limitless productivity, as Chomsky calls it, of such seemingly simple grammatical constructions, is a fundamental part of human language. It’s also, as I hope I’ve shown, a fantastic (and literally inexhaustible) platform for linguistic creativity. I have no idea what Bloom.fm is like as a music app, but there’s no denying the cleverness of its marketing slogan.
When it comes to the boundless creativity of the English language, there’s no better advert.
If anyone knows any research about this type of construction, where it comes from into English, how long it has been around, and whether it has any equivalents in other languages, I’d be really interested to hear about it!
Linguistics Girl is a great online resource for more information on the various ‘parts of speech’ in English, like noun phrases, clauses, adjective phrases, and so on: http://www.linguisticsgirl.com/
Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.