There’s a Time for Tmesis

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Tmesis is a linguistic device in which a word or phrase interrupts another word or phrase. (The word is a Greek term that refers to cutting.) Depending on the type of tmesis, it is either acceptable in formal usage or relegated to humorous and/or emphatic colloquialisms.

Phrasing in which the preposition down is located within the verb phrase “turn down” in “Turn down that music,” as opposed to its placement in “Turn that music down,” is a standard form of tmesis, as are whatsoever and unbeknownst, in which, respectively, so is inserted in whatever and be is placed within an archaic form of unknown. (Interestingly, in some literary usage, a tmetic word is itself cloven, as in the biblical verse “He shall be punished, what man soever offendeth.”) By contrast, seemingly tmetic words such as notwithstanding and nevertheless do not qualify, because the framing syllables do not constitute words or set phrases.

A form of tmesis often heard spoken spontaneously but best reconstructed for writing is a possessive phrase such as “the girl in the back row’s,” referring to something belonging to a girl sitting in a back row; the modifying phrase “in the back row” is artificially inserted between girl and the possessive s. “The book is the girl in the back row’s,” for example, should be recast as “The book belongs to the girl in the back row.”

Informal tmetic usage is ubiquitous but discouraged in formal writing. Examples include “a whole nother” and “any old how” as intensifications of another and anyhow. Recently, however, this form of tmesis has been supplanted in popularity by a form formally known as expletive infixation, in which a profane or otherwise emphatic word is inserted into an adjective to fortify its impact, as in abso-frickin’-lutely and la-dee-frickin’-da. Another colloquial construction is the emphatic insertion of so in such statements as “I am so not going there.”

These contemporary conversational habits have their place in transcriptions of casual dialogue and in light-hearted informal prose, but they’re intrusive in formal writing.

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5 thoughts on “There’s a Time for Tmesis”

  1. Huh, still keep learning things I never knew about before. I will have to make sure I keep an eye out when I write for this trickly little devil. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Forty years ago I was studying in Holland. One of my teachers, a complete Anglophile, said that of all the things he loved about English tmesis was the best. He quoted a First World War soldier for his favourite example, the man having served in ‘Meso-bloody-potamia’! So expletive infixation is not all that new.

  3. Is “turn down” just an example of standard forms of tmesis, or are you suggesting that it is only standard in relation to the preposition down? I’m thinking of instances like “turn the water off” or “turn the heat up” or “look this person up” or “turn this situation around.” I work with editors who would hypercorrect to “turn around this situation,” which is not something anyone would say.

  4. A very interesting article! I would say, however, that “down” (in “Turn down that music” or “Turn that music down”)or “off” (in “Turn off the water” or “Turn the water off”) is an adverb, not a preposition, regardless of its placement.

  5. I agree with Melissa regarding the word “down.” I, too, think it’s an adverb.

    For example, in “She turned the heat down” or “She turned down the heat,” “down” is describing the action of turning. This is similar to “off” and “up” in the following sentences.
    “She turned off the heat.”
    “She turned up the heat.”

    As with other adverbs, “down” in these sentences answers the question “How”–Turn the heat how? Down. Also, as with other adverbs, these words can be placed variously in sentences, including the final position.

    In “We will go down from the mountain,” “down” is still an adverb. Here, “down” describes where the action occurs. This example could also be written “Down we will go from the mountain.”

    Regarding ending sentences with prepositions. The sentence “Look the definition up” does not end with a preposition. Rather, it ends with the adverb “up,” which describes how the action is performed.

    Question: If “down” in these cases is an adverb, is “Turn the music down” still an example of tmesis? I’m thinking that it probably is because the main phrase is still “turn down.” Thoughts?

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