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By Jessica Love
November 17, 2011
Consider the following poem:
Fireflies glowed in the field.
The field glowed with fireflies.
The garden danced with fireflies.
The floor danced with graceful couples.
The hall resounded with music.
The city square tinkled with the sound of many bells.
The road marched with soldiers.
His head danced with visions of success.
His face burned with emotion.
The sky blazed with lights.
The sky flew with birds.
The forest ran with deer.
The streets ran with blood.
The wall crawled with roaches.
The table crawled with seventy-three cockroaches.
The square rang with the sound of a bell in the tower striking 1 A.M.
Every line except the first shares the same syntactic construction, the “swarm-with” construction (popularized in linguist Maurice Salkoff’s 1983 paper “Bees Are Swarming in the Garden”). In the “swarm-with” construction, a location fills the sentence’s subject position, and the location’s inhabitants are tacked on to the verb as the object of the preposition with. Bees are swarming in the garden thus becomes the garden is swarming with bees. As constructions go, the “swarm-with” is playful, hyperbolic, even ominous, suggesting as it does that an entire location has been overrun. It is a construction of abundance. Poets love it.
Although many of the poem’s lines are okay—and others could be, with a bit of generosity, forgiven—poetic license only goes so far. Some of these lines are inexcusably weird. Streets can run with blood, but forests cannot run with deer. What gives?
Generally speaking, a verb’s meaning determines the types of sentences in which it occurs. This makes sense: verbs like hit and shove seem to entail contact, so we can quite sensibly expect them to appear in transitive sentences, where the victim of all that hitting and shoving can be mentioned as the direct object.
Semanticist David Dowty (from whom I borrowed some of the lines in the poem above) argues that the “swarm-with” construction describes a scenario in which a simple event, sound, smell, or sight has become so continual and so widespread as to obscure any single motion, call, scent, or flicker: the garden may be swarming with them, but damned if it isn’t tough to pick out an individual bee’s path. Rather, what is most apparent is a dynamic texture, a circling, swirling, careening swell.
Therefore, objects can crawl, ring, and glow themselves into a tizzy. But a verb like spelunking is less acceptable because, though it requires athleticism, it is not a simple, repetitive sort of athleticism: it is crawling and ducking and squeezing and checking the map for directions. To remark, “The caves spelunked with boy scouts” is beyond weird—it is confusing. On the other hand, grazing and sleeping—which do not naturally appear in this construction—aren’t dynamic enough. From a distance, a thousand grazing cows or sleeping cats resemble dynamic texture less than they do polka-dotted wallpaper.
Some verbs, like run, have an absolutely absurd number of senses, or distinct meanings. (As well as a way of traveling on foot, run can be a synonym for bustle, flow, rupture, operate, supervise, transport, perform, compete, span, spread, dissolve, and compute.) It’s actually unsurprising, then, that although some senses may describe dynamic texture (e.g., the streets ran with blood), others don’t (e.g., the forest ran with deer). This goes a long way toward explaining the construction’s fickleness.
Interestingly, as Dowty loves to point out, the more literal verb senses are often the least appropriate. Take dance. The floor danced with graceful couples is about as awkward as it gets, but sentences like his head danced with visions of success and the garden danced with fireflies work just fine. Why? Perhaps the “dancing” of graceful couples is too specific and complex for any given couple to blend into the background (think: one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four). Visions and fireflies don’t dance in the same way. They can’t four-step. They can’t even count.
Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.
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