Original Caption: A Night Out in the Town
Me: I think it’s the “ferener” in me coming out.I meant to say, “A night out on the town”.
Me: I could have also said, “A night out about town” but you would not believe how incredibly discordant that sounds to my ears.
Me: And there’s the simpler, equally dissonant in its convolution, “A night about town”.
Billie: night on the town - but I like night about town best - sounds very elegant.
Me: “Night about town” is indeed elegant, but the word “about” gives me fits. Here’s why.
“About” can be a preposition or an adverb. When it is used as a synonym for “regarding” or “concerning” it is a preposition, as in “I was thinking about you.” When describing movement in an area, or in all directions, the word “about” functions as an adverb, as in “You are now free to move about the cabin.” What a weird definition, the latter, with its quantum mechanical implications! I suspect only sub-atomic particles can truly move “about”.
I admit that it bothers me that “about” is being used in this phrase as an adverb, much less employed and quixotic than its prepositional form. But this is a small matter. My real problem with the phrase “Night about town” is more complicated than that.
An adverb modifies an adjective or another adverb. But in terms of frequency, it mostly modifies a verb. And not just any verb, but necessarily an action verb. Now, we can see that the word “about” is not modifying an adjective or another adverb. In this phrase, it modifies a verb, which is absent. We would perhaps initially suspect that this absence is due to its existence as a fragment, and not an independent clause. But look what happens when you make it one: “We enjoyed a night about town”.
This is where it gets weird. Now we have a verb: the perfectly good, ambitransitive, past tense form of the verb “to enjoy”, in its transitive form. But the important thing here is, “about” is not functioning as a modifier for the verb “to enjoy”! (Analysis: We enjoyed. How did we enjoy? About town. Nonsensical, ergo, not a modifier).
What’s really happening is that “about” is modifying a verb that is absent, and only marginally implied. I suspect that the grammatical sentence would read something like, “We enjoyed a night (walking) about town.” (Analysis: We are walking. How (where) were we walking? About town. Makes sense, ergo, a modifier).
Normally, an absentee verb is a small matter. It happens all the time. The Russians do it with their present tense form of the verb “to be”: “Я хороший мальчик”, transliterally, “I good boy”. The Germans omit motion verbs with disturbing regularity: “Ich habe nach Hause gemusst” (I had to home). But I have to cry foul when the verb is implied, yet not in any systematic way obvious in its absence. The truth is, however, that my real problem with the phrase “Night about town” is more complicated than that.
The non-finite clause “walking about town” alone sounds weird, mostly because an article is needed to complete the adverbial aspect of “about”. Grammatically, it should read “walking about the town”. How did this phrase come to lose a definite article? Is the article implied? Who does implied articles, that is, besides Germans (“Ich bin Ausländer.”). We do it, too. We might not say “I am foreigner” but we do say “I am American,” though not as often perhaps as “I am an American.”
This suggests, by the way, why it’s false pedantry to decry JFK for uttering “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
And still, we have not arrived at the winter of my discontent. We now have the linguistically corrected sentence, “I enjoyed walking about the town.” The word “walking” in this sentence, as you already know, is a gerund, a verb that acts as a noun, and may have characteristics of both (as opposed to a participle, which is a deverbal noun, which sounds like linguistic castration to me). In this sentence, the phrase “walking about the town” acts as the nominal predicative, the object of enjoyment (Analysis: What do we enjoy?). But within the non-finite clause “walking about the town”, “walking” maintains its verbal attributes, which is why “about” is an adverb and not an adjective. So, in sum, “walking” is a noun in the whole sentence, and a verb in the predicate.
A verb AND a noun?! It reminds me of when I first discovered in Physics class that light has the characteristics of both a wave and a particle. I mean, come one! Could God not make up His mind? I am not a fan of that particular genus of existential ambivalence.
In the end, what finally made me banish “Night about town” from my phrasic lexicon was the bald impertinence of that clause to drop “walking”, a word of such broad importance that it has both nominal and verbal properties; and to irresponsibly abandon its sole adverb with nothing to modify, an adverb already suffering from the existential angst of infrequent usage and the constant embarrassment of being initially confused for his prepositional twin brother, not to mention being further maligned by an awkward definition hardly distinguishable from the peripatetic antics of a maniacal roomba. Denuded of its raison d’etre, but with heroic heart, the disconsolate adverb “about” perseveres in his Sisyphean duties, searching for a definite article for the denuded noun “town” on one side, and modifying the Janus-faced ghost “walking” on the other.