This week's publication of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's long-dormant sequel of sorts to To Kill a Mockingbird, has gotten two tunes running through my head. One, naturally, is "Tequila," the 1958 single by the Champs, because of "Tequila Mockingbird," an oft-made pun.

Go Set a Watchman, for its part, has hit "play" on a tune I learned on the recorder in fourth grade, and encountered again when my son started playing the violin seven years ago. It's the folk song "Go Tell Aunt Rhody." It goes like this:

Go tell Aunt Rhody,
Go tell Aunt Rhody,
Go tell Aunt Rhody,
The old gray goose is dead.

Two titles, same number of syllables, and the same syntactic structure, right down to the use of go plus another verb right next to it. But how do both those verbs fit into the place where just one verb should go?

Out of curiosity, I plugged Go set a watchman into a couple of online sentence-diagramming tools. One of them couldn't even find a complete sentence to parse. The other assumed that Go was somebody's name and made it the subject.

This verb+verb construction in Go Set a Watchman is actually pretty limited. First of all, not just any verb will do in the first slot. If you're looking to replace go, you can tell someone, "Come set a watchman," and maybe "Run set a watchman," but that's it.

Second, you can't put go+verb in very many other tenses. For example, what about past tense? This is assuming we even know which of the two verbs gets put into the past tense. The first one? The second one? Both? Go set a watchman is a bad test case for this, because set is the same in the command form and the past tense, so let's use go tell Aunt Rhody instead.

*She went tell Aunt Rhody is terrible! (That's what the asterisk means.) *She go told Aunt Rhody isn't much better. And *She went told Aunt Rhody is also a no. You can entertain yourself for a good ten minutes—and I did—generating all the other grammatical garbage you get when trying to put go tell Aunt Rhody into other possible tenses:

*She's going tell Aunt Rhody.
*She's go telling Aunt Rhody.
*She's going telling Aunt Rhody.
*She had gone tell Aunt Rhody.
*She had go told Aunt Rhody.
*She had gone told Aunt Rhody. …

Even the present tense isn't a good fit, in sentences like She goes tells Aunt Rhody. Still, go+verb isn't completely limited to commands. If you choose your words just right, so that go doesn't have a present-tense suffix, or appear as went or gone, you can make it work:

Every morning, they tell Aunt Rhody.
I can go tell Aunt Rhody.
We want to go tell Aunt Rhody.

But enough about the tenses you can or can't transpose Go tell Aunt Rhody or Go set a watchman into. What is Go set a watchman talking about in the first place? According to this article, the title comes from Isaiah 21:6 in the King James Bible:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

As the article's author writes, "Her choice of the phrase 'Go Set a Watchman' as a title followed the tradition of William Faulkner, who liked biblical allusions in his work." (It's also reminiscent of James Baldwin's 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was named after an old spiritual song.)

However, did you notice what got left behind when Go set a watchman made the jump from the Bible? That's right, the comma! This changes things. Go set a watchman is a single command, telling you to do one thing. Go, set a watchman is two commands. You can hear it in the intonation.

Also, when you have that pause, you can separate the go from the set with an adverb if you like: Go now, set a watchman. Without the pause that the comma represents, it falls apart: *Go now set a watchman. With a comma in between go and set, you can even give each verb its own adverbial phrase: Go now, set a watchman this evening. Without the comma, forget it: *Go now set a watchman this evening.

I don't know whether this sentence in the original Hebrew properly translates to a single command or two commands, but I see that different translations of the Bible make different choices. (This website allows you to browse or search for a book, chapter, and verse, and compare the different translations.) Many use the comma; others don't; some omit the go entirely; and some insert an and between them—a solution which also repairs all those ungrammatical efforts above, incidentally.

In fact, some linguists take this as evidence that the go+verb construction involves a "phonetically null" conjunction, though others disagree. For a lot more linguistic analysis on these lines, you can read this blog post by Arnold Zwicky, who also links to more material that has been written on the subject.

Turning again to the King James Bible, I also found another Old Testament verse with go+verb, this time without a comma. Genesis 27:13 reads:

And his mother said unto him, Upon me be thy curse, my son: only obey my voice, and go fetch me them.

As for the other translations, once again, some use a comma; some don't; some omit the go; and some insert an and.

In any case, it looks like Harper Lee, whether intentionally or unintentionally, went for the single-command, Go Tell Aunt Rhody-style title. And now I'm left with this earworm:

Go Set a Watchman,
Go Set a Watchman,
Go Set a Watchman,
A book I haven't read.

(Click here to learn some words from the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman.)


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 16th 2015, 2:11 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It seems like the parsing issue would be made easier if one posited an "and" between "Go" and the following verb:

Go [and] set a watchman
Go [and] tell Aunt Rhody
Go [and] fetch me them*

In each case, both verbs are imperatives, aren't they?

* An interesting (somewhat archaic?) use of IO and DO pronouns together.
Friday July 17th 2015, 11:52 PM
Comment by: Janice S. (Stirum, ND)
'Go set a watchman' - as the author states, 'every man's watchman is his conscience. I like the single-command.
Sunday July 19th 2015, 12:53 PM
Comment by: S.G. E.
To a hebrew speaker, this structure (imperative + future) would sound perfectly normal and is covered in the basic grammar texts. See for example, 'Hebrew from the Beginning' (Ivrit min HaHatchala) Vol. 2 Ch. 4 ISBN 978-965-350-127-0, which is among the most common for Ulpan classes both here and in Israel. Note: As described in the above, there is not an implied 'and' of any kind.
Sunday July 19th 2015, 5:28 PM
Comment by: Eloise R. (TX)
Go (do anything) is just idiomatic. I don't think it requires parsing.
Monday July 20th 2015, 9:30 PM
Comment by: S.G. E.
Just a quick follow up to the above, The Modern Hebrew uses a form of the verb 'come' (adjusted for gender & number). I am uncertain whether or not this also holds true in biblical hebrew. I believe the 'idiomatic' english phrase was adopted from the hebrew.

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