“To sound/seem/feel a [noun]”

Usually, my sources for Not One-Off Britishisms are writers for the New York Times or the New Yorker, or some other American publication with aspirations to elegance or class. Imagine my surprise the other day to see our president tweet out what struck me as a palpable NOOB.

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(Some background: Trump is in a fight with Republican Senator Bob Corker, who is slightly shorter than average, hence the “Liddle’.” The “d”s presumably represent an approximation of American flapping. The apostrophe is mystifying.)

What activated my NOObs-dar was “Was made to sound a fool.” It seemed to me that the standard American version of this would be “was made to sound like a fool,” while the “like” might be left out in BrE. To find out if I was right, I consulted my go-to source, American-born Sussex University linguistics professor Lynne Murphy.

She confirmed my sense and pointed me to a blog post she wrote on the subject in 2009. She observed:

I’ll quote [John] Algeo’s British or American English on the topic, “A group of copular verbs (…) have predominantly adjectival complements in common-core English, but also have nominal subject complements in British more frequently than in American.” In other words, in AmE or BrE, you could say I feel old (because my students told me yesterday that Brad Pitt is ‘a sexy old man’). You could also say I feel like an unsexy geriatric case, because the like phrase in that case plays an adjectival role in the sentence. But in BrE, you can also forgo the like and just go straight to the nouny part of the description….

Here are some examples showing more of this pattern:

sound: He sounded a complete mess. [Jeremy Clarke in The Independent]

look: Joey Barton has made me look a fool. [Oliver Holt on Mirror.co.uk]

Was Trump trying to sound an Englishman? I doubt it. Possibly he was echoing a common expression found in Twelfth Night (“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool”) and in the classic 1972 soul song “Everybody Plays the Fool.” It was also suggested when I raised the question on Twitter that the “like”-less construction is common in African-American English and/or in the rural South.

But I think I have a more likely explanation. Using “like” would have put Trump’s tweet at 142 characters. So he ditched it.

9 thoughts on ““To sound/seem/feel a [noun]”

  1. Trump could never sound like an Englishman if someone deposited a rather large plum in his mouth, and squashed both of his cheeks firmly inwards so he could attempt to simulate refined vowels. It simply is never going to happen. He may however, be remembered in the annals of history as the most illiterate president of all time.

  2. Although I haven’t see this theory put forth elsewhere, I wonder if the so-called apostrophe is really a quotation mark, with the other quotation mark mistakenly omitted. I believe he has put some of his nicknames in quotation marks before. Of course the use of single quotes would be another Britishism!

  3. “I doubt he’ll come” (leaving out “whether”). Is that also a Britishism? It’s now very common.
    (Robynne Black: what a sweet-tempered posting!)

    1. I think not–sounds pretty normal to my ears. The other word-leaving-out Britishism I’m aware of is in a sentence like “Now you’re sixteen, you can legally drink.” Americans stick a “that” after the “now.”

  4. “Sound an Englishman”? That doesn’t make sense. It would always be “sound like an Englishman”.

    I suppose you might say it’s linguistic licence – or maybe an attempt to insert an example of this construction into the blog… but it’s wrong on both sides of the pond and it’s very jarring.

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