The Body Part Off Construction: a pattern distinct from the caused-motion pattern

Some semantic properties of the Body Part Off Construction

The Body Part Off Construction (or BPOC), exemplified in (6a-b), is a pattern which superficially looks like the CMC but which does not involve the idea of actual displacement of the object NP:[1]

(6) a. Susan worked / swam / danced her head off last night.

b. Fred talked his head / his ass / his butt off, but to no avail.

(Jackendoff 1997a: 551)

This pattern has received quite some attention in the literature (Cappelle 2005: 46-65; 453-455; 2007; 2008; Culicover and Jackendoff 2005: 32-38; Espinal and Mateu 2010; Glasbey 2003; 2007; Goldberg and Jackendoff 2004: 560; Jackendoff 1997a: 551; 1997b: 171; 2002a: 86-87; 2002b: 173-74; Kudo 2011; Sawada 2000). As I argued elsewhere (Cappelle 2005), the idiomaticity of the pattern involved can be appreciated if we consider the following web-attested examples:

(7) a. They work their ass off. (www)

b. It’s ten degrees and snowing its ass off. (www)

c. I laughed my proverbial ass off at that movie. (www)

In (7a), the head of the object NP has no plural suffix, which it should take if it literally referred to the buttocks of the multiple agents involved (cf. subject they). In (7b), the subject it refers to the weather, so the object NP its ass obviously cannot be given a literal interpretation. In (7c), the speaker makes it explicit that the word ass is part of an idiom (perhaps to mitigate the taboo value of this word).

It has also been noted (e.g. Jackendoff 1997a: 551) that the BPOC construction has different aspectual properties from regular resultatives. Compare:

(8) a. ... we’ve developed a whole new set of exercises that tone every part of

your body, and blowtorch the fat off in no time. (www)

b. I have been exercising my ass off for the past 3 weeks and I think I have lost oh about ONE POUND!!!! Discouraging much.!!!! (www)

In (8a), blowtorch is used in the resultative (caused-motion) pattern, by analogy of such verbs as burn and melt. The direct object (the fat) is really a theme argument which is claimed to undergo motion (i.e. removal) off of one’s body. The situation is therefore an “accomplishment” in Vendler’s (1957) terminology: a telic event allowing the use of an in X time adverbial adjunct. In (8b), exercising is used without a true theme argument. The postverbal sequence my ass off means “intensely” and/or “excessively”. The (excess fat of the) subject referent’s ass has not been significantly removed from her body: the one pound mentioned can hardly count as the intended result expressed by the verb phrase, which is an “activity” in Vendler’s terminology. Such an event type allows the use of a for X time adverbial adjunct as in this example, but not of an in X time adverbial adjunct.

  • [1] The BPOC is not the only pattern with the syntax of the CMC but with specific semantics.Another such idiomatic pattern is the “A hole through Y” construction (AHTY), discussed byBoas (2008). In Joe knocked a hole through the wall, the direct object argument does not referto an affected but to an effected entity: the hole doesn’t move anywhere but is brought intobeing by the action of knocking the wall. Note also that the object of the preposition throughin the AHTY is not just a Landmark but a patient argument, which gets unified with the patientrole associated with knock.
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