Why some slang expressions omit major grammatical components

Monash Lens

Some slang phrases resemble ripped jeans – not only do they rapidly ping-pong in and out of fashion, but they appear to have several important chunks missing. But there’s no need for distress (unlike the denim) – these grammatical slots have been left blank intentionally.

  • Isabelle Burke

    Research Fellow, Linguistics, Faculty of Arts

Take the phrase “is sending me”, for example.

If you’re unfamiliar with this one (for example, “that text is sending me” or “you’re sending me”), it’s used as an expression of amusement in response to something funny, although some definitions broaden beyond the Urban Dictionary definition to include a reading “to delight, or thrill”.

In Standard English, the verb “send” requires not only a direct object (for instance, “me”), but also a complement, which is often indicated by a prepositional phrase (such as “to the supermarket”) – generally, you send something somewhere. This complement could also be an adjective (“it’s sending me crazy”), but whatever its word class, it does need to bother to show up. But in the slang context, the complement is conspicuous in its absence.

Sweet as, or just weird af?

A similar phrase, “I can’t even”, is probably now reaching the status of “that old millennial chestnut”. Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch has vividly dubbed this as “stylised verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence” – a phrase that indicates speechlessness from strong emotion. The speaker is understood to be too overwhelmed to provide the main verb that accompanies auxiliary verbs such as “can”. This has spawned several related phrases, such as “I have lost the ability to can”.

The effect of this on the formerly humble auxiliary verb can has been extraordinary – like some miracle drug cure, the power of internet-speak slang has rapidly restored many of the grammatical abilities it centuries ago.

Now, like main verbs, it can occur in non-finite form as an infinitive after to (“I have lost the ability to can), and even take direct objects (“I can piano”). I once (unwisely) chose this verb to demonstrate auxiliaries to an undergraduate syntax class – and quickly learnt of its new abilities.

This is what I most like about slang – its ability to insouciantly sidestep seemingly inviolable rules of grammar.

A building with the words 'Something missing' spraypainted on the side, with a tree trunk in the foreground

“Missing bits” aren’t the exclusive province of slightly-dated internet slang, either. Both Australian and New Zealand English also use slang expressions with missing standards of comparison, as in the classic Kiwi expression “sweet as”.

This once showed remarkable productivity, with a range of adjectives used (“easy as”, “funny as”, “big as”), and adverb use observed (“it worked sweet as”), as linguists Laurie and Winifred Bauer have noted.

However, in recent years it appears to be have been eclipsed by the punchier comparative expression, “af”, standing for – you guessed it – “as fuck”.

This is mostly stylised without the capitals and in lower case only (for example – “this cake is tasty af”). However, it doesn’t seem to have reached the same level of grammatical flexibility as its elliptical cousin (“it worked af”, or even “worked sweet af”? It just sounds weird af).

Elliptical slang expressions are old-as

Elliptical slang phrases go back further than this, too, such as in the classic 1940s Australian and New Zealand expression of annoyance: “wouldn’t it!”.

A wealth of expressions could hide in this absence – “rot your socks”, “rip you”, “make you sick”, “make you spit tacks”, but are shuttered off by “stylised verbal incoherence”, in the style of “can’t even”.

Why do slang expressions omit major grammatical components? It certainly makes them more eye-catching – but it may also revolve around the in-group/out-group function that slang carries.

Only members of your select gang can “fill in the blanks” – and you signal your knowledge of those blanks by using these expressions.

Do you have any examples of slang with bits missing? Send them to me – and you just may “send me…”.

Go to our website to catch up on other discoveries on the history and evolution of Aussie slang, and to comment on this article. We’d love your feedback.

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