The Billy Jack incident
by Dirk E. Oldman
When you were a kid, you might have had this one used on you:
If Billy Jack helped you off your horse, would you help Billy jack off his horse?
This little gotcha actually helps illustrate an important fact of English grammar: some verb-preposition pairs are really hustlers.
Here’s what I mean. Say you have a guy talking to a girl at a bar. If they’re sitting together and talking together, they’re functioning together. If they’re not together, they’re not working together. But if only one of them is there, they’re still functioning the same as usual.
But now say the guy and this girl are really just pretending to be two people who just met, and they’re really a team there to hustle – pool, cards, booty, whatever. Even when they’re on opposite sides of the room, they’re still working together. But take one of them away completely – put them in separate interrogation rooms – and their stories don’t stick together.
These hustler couples in English are phrasal verbs. They can look just like normal verb-preposition pairs. But with a normal verb-preposition pair, the preposition’s really with its own posse, not teamed up with the verb. With a hustler verb, I mean a phrasal verb, the verb and the preposition are really a team – you need both of them, but they work together even if they’re on opposite sides of something.
Let’s take the examples jack off and jump off. One of these two is really a hustler verb. How do you know which one? Let’s play around a bit.
Billy jacked off the horse.
Billy jumped off the bridge.
Billy jacked the horse off.
*Billy jumped the bridge off.
Uh-oh. Looks like in jump off the off is really with the bridge, not jump. So it’s not part of a team with jump. But jack off is a hustler team. (I’m using the linguistic symbol * to indicate that something is shitty. It was Kurt Vonnegut who first pointed out that * looks like an asshole.)
Let’s try something that could be either: ████ around.
Don’t ████ around my friend.
Well, now, does that mean
Don’t ████ my friend around
or does it mean
Don’t ████ near my friend
That’s another test right there. Can you swap in another similar word?
But there’s something curious about these hustler verbs. If you use a pronoun instead of a noun, they have to be on opposite sides of it. On the other hand, if the preposition is just a preposition, it has to be before the pronoun. To hustler verbs, pronouns are a special kind of mark that requires double-siding. See:
Don’t ████ him around.
Don’t ████ around him.
Two completely different meanings! Just like with our first examples:
Billy jacked it off.
*Billy jacked off it.
*Billy jumped it off.
Billy jumped off it.
The two in the middle just don’t work.
Congratulations. You’ve just learned a really important concept in linguistics: constituents. Sentences aren’t just strings of words. Those words are working in teams. And sometimes you have to move things around a little to see who’s really on whose team.
Here are a couple more ways to figure out who’s hustling you by pulling them apart and interrogating them.
Try a question and answer with the preposition staying with the noun:
Off what did Billy jump? Off the bridge.
*Off what did Billy jack? Off the horse.
(*)Around whom shouldn’t you ████? Around my friend.
If the preposition can stick with the noun, then it’s not with the verb.
Or try using an It was construction, like this:
It was off the bridge that Billy jumped.
*It was off the horse that Billy jacked.
(*)It’s around my friend you shouldn’t ████.
Now, you can keep the preposition after the verb in either of these tests and it will still work either way, which proves that it’s BS that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition in English:
It was the bridge that Billy jumped off.
It was the horse that Billy jacked off.
It’s my friend you shouldn’t ████ around.
The examples so far are all transitive – or, as I like to call them, sex for two. There are also intransitive, sex-for-one verbs that are phrasal. And there are things that look like instransitive verb-preposition combinations that aren’t phrasal verbs – but the preposition is really an adverb saying what way the verb is being done. (Often these are related to transitive non-phrasal verbs: Get off the couch. Get off!)
Hustlers and non-hustlers are harder to tell apart when they’re intransitive. But you can still try splitting them apart:
I want you to go out.
You want me to go where? Out.
I think I’m going to freak out.
*You think you’re going to freak where? Out.
This actually gives a good opportunity for humour, because it’s wrong, but people can still understand it. They know that the out doesn’t really mean “out”, it’s just part of a phrasal verb, and it’s idiomatic.
He didn’t ████ up until he looked down.
Which way did he look when he ████ed up? Down.
*Which way did he ████ when he looked down? Up.
Let’s go back to the similar word test. If they’re really random strangers, one of the type is about as good as the next. If they’re hustling you, they have to go together.
He didn’t ████ up until he glanced down.
*He didn’t fornicate up until he looked down. (On the other hand, screw up is another hustler verb.)
Now tell me whether ████ off is a hustler verb.
While you’re having fun with that, there’s a good blog post on Sesquiotica that has a poem that uses lots of these hustler verbs.
Got your answer on ████ off? Yeah, of course it’s a hustler verb. Was there any doubt?
While not close to the same thing, this reminds me of one of my favourite parts of Steven Pinker’s essay, Why We Curse:
As it happens, most expletives aren’t genuine adverbs. One study notes that, while you can say That’s too ████ing bad, you can’t say That’s too very bad. Also, as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out, while you can imagine the dialogue How brilliant was it? Very, you would never hear the dialogue How brilliant was it? ████ing.
So, naturally, a friend – who is as perverse-minded as I am – and I decided to use that dialog construct, and fairly frequently, we do. (“How excellent was Sesquiotica today?” “████ing!”)