- John only had the Ferrari for three months, but while he had it, he drove the hell out of it.
- I'm pretty sure I aced the hell out of that test.
- That last stuff you got us, we smoked the hell out of it.
This works like most other intensifiers: "X Y'd the hell out of Z" means roughly "X Y'd Z intensely/rapidly/immediately/determinedly", or, for that matter, "X fucking Y'd Z". But how does it work like that? ("The hell out of" is clearly not any kind of syntactic constituent that can head a phrase, unlike the paraphrases…)
Notice that this is different from:
- "The hell" in wh phrases (What the hell is that?), which has been studied quite a bit (and which has a relevant question on this site: What "the hell" is this?).
- "The hell" in non-sentential utterances (The hell you say!), which I think I've seen covered in passing a few times.
- "The hell" as a specifier on a particle or preposition (We got the hell out), which I've only seen a tentative blog post on, but seems relatively simple.1
Presumably there are connections of some kind (and the last one can rarely be ambiguous with this one2), but this clearly isn't the same construction as any of those, and, in particular, there's a major syntax-semantics mismatch here that doesn't exist in any of them.
Syntactically, "he drove the hell out of his car" seems to be identical in form to a transitive resultative, like "he drove his car into town"—"the hell" is a normal NP complement/direct object, and "out of his car" is a normal PP complement.3 Wh-movement, topicalization, passivization, pronouns, etc. all work the way you'd expect.4
But semantically, it's very different. The verb subcategorizes for a patient as the direct object, but instead it gets "the hell". The preposition demands a location but instead gets the verb's patient, and wants to describe a path but instead has its semantic content bleached out or ignored.5, 6
A few more details:
- I think "the hell" can be replaced by any the-hell-NP that works in the particle-specifier case (#3 above), so at least there's no mystery there.7
- The verb seems to have to be one that normally takes a patient as an (obligatory or optional) direct object and has no other obligatory complements; there may be more restrictions to it than that.8
- I have no idea what cross-language parallels there are, if any, or any dialect variation,9 or even how much variation there is in acceptability among speakers beyond the handful I quizzed on a tiny corpus.
But my question is how this can be analyzed.
- In mainstream Chomskyan grammar, I have no idea how you'd even begin to move things into the right position to get the LF and PF right. Or, for MP instead of GB/P&P, I assume the movement happens before case marking, and there's a whole chain of leapfrogging jumps, but I have no idea what constraints could trigger any of that to happen, or what the original form is. (There's no little-n/abstract-N akin to Larson's account of verbs, and, even if there were, the apparent movement here is entirely out of the NP/DP/whatever.)
- In Jackendoff's Parallel Architecture, I can imagine the basic idea a lot more easily, along similar lines to the way he handles, e.g., light verbs. But I'm not sure what kind of constraints in the lexical entry could restrict unification properly without something10 that isn't necessary for any of his worked examples.
- Similarly, in most Construction Grammar variants, how to staple the verb and patient to the construction is obvious, but how to license only the right set of entries… I have no idea (unless it's by listing the cartesian product of every the-hell-able verb and every valid the-hell phrase as individual constructions, which seems implausible).
- If it's been studied in some other formalism, that's fine, but I'd appreciate a pointer to an introduction, along with the study of this construction.
- Failing that, if there are parallels with other, better-studied constructions, that would be helpful.
- … or, if nothing else, at least a solid description without any attempt at analysis.
1. Whatever analysis you like for "right" as a left modifier on Prt/P/PP/whatever, it should straightforwardly apply to "the hell", especially given "right the hell out/*the hell right out". If I'm missing something that makes it tricky, let me know and I'll ask a separate question on that…
2. Most blatantly, "I flunked history 301" and "I flunked out of history 301" are near-synonyms. You can the-hell-out-of the former, and you can the-hell-intensify the particle from flunked-out, and either way you get "I flunked the hell out of history 301". I think the first one may actually be invalid here, because this transitive sense of flunked doesn't take a patient (the other does, of course, so "the teacher flunked the hell out of John"), but there may well be cases that are perfectly acceptable as either.
3. I know there's some dispute about "out of it" in the first place—PP with a compound P, PP with a particle or adverb specifier, nested PP… I don't think it makes a difference; whatever analysis you give normal uses works the same here.
4. That isn't quite true, but I think the exceptions are all caused by register or other pragmatic violations. For example, pied-piping never sounds good with blatantly colloquial constructions except in, e.g., ironic butler-speak, and the same is true here: "Out of whom did the young master beat the hell?"
5. But notice that the PP sounds weird with a specifier, unlike the particle-specifier case: "We got out of there" can be double-intensified to "We got right the hell out of there" just fine, but double-intensifying "We smoked it" to "?We smoked the hell right out of it" is questionable. (In fact, from a quick survey, it sounds British to Americans, and American to Brits, for whatever that's worth…), and you definitely can't use a the-hell specifier in a the-hell-out-of VP, as in "*We smoked the hell the hell out of it" or "We smoked the fuck the hell out of it".
6. Of course "out of the car" is a path, but that sense doesn't seem to appear in the meaning at all—John is literally driving the car, not causing something to take a path out of the car, even metaphorically.
7. For example: He drove the hell/*hell/the nine hells/*nine hells/the heck/the H-E-double-hockey-sticks/the fuck/the fudge/the shit/the sugar/*the shoot/the flaming hell/the all-time fuck of all fucks/every last fuck/*all the shit/*the bastard out of it, which is the same distribution in We got the hell/*hell/etc. off his land.
8. Some verbs are tricky. Besides the "flunk out" case above, there's a whole class of verbs beat/kick/whip/etc. that have an open idiom "beat the tar/stuffing/etc." out of. And you can stretch that idiom to some extent to other contact verbs, even positive ones like kiss/screw/etc. So, is "I beat the hell out of him" a the-hell-out-of of "I beat him", or the "beat-the-N-out-of-NP" idiom with "hell" as the N?
9. For example, some British speakers can use a much wider range of words as intensifiers the way Americans use "fucking". They can at least arsing drive a manual twatting transmission, but can they drive the twat or arse out of a car the way Americans drive the fuck out of it?
9. A second-order lambda that …???