Arrant Pedantry

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Most Awarded

The other day a friend of mine complained about the use of the phrase “most-awarded” in a commercial for the Jeep Cherokee, which called it the “most-awarded SUV ever.” It bothered him, he said, because “they are saying lots of Cherokees get given away as awards, but that’s not what they mean.” I was surprised—I thought it was pretty clear that it meant “the SUV that has been given the most awards”—but several other people chimed in to say that they read it the other way—the SUV most given as an award. One person suggested that it was just another example of advertisers bastardizing the language, while another thought that it was an attempt to be funny by saying one thing but meaning another. And of course the question came up, “Can you correctly say that something has been ‘awarded’ if it is not the award?

There’s absolutely nothing incorrect about it, though it is technically ambiguous. The problem is that in this instance, “awarded” is a passive construction (technically a reduced one), meaning that what is normally an object has been moved to subject position. But it’s ambiguous because “awarded” is ditransitive, which means that it can take both a direct and an indirect object. Most transitive verbs (that is, verbs that take objects) can take only one object, as in “The boy kicked the ball,” but some can take two, as in “The boy gave his friend the ball.” In both sentences, the ball is the direct object, but in the second sentence, we also have an indirect object, his friend.

The same holds for the verb award—you award something to someone (or something), like “The committee awarded him (indirect object) the Nobel Prize (direct object)” or “Car and Driver awarded the Cherokee (indirect object) SUV of the Year (direct object).” (I don’t know if they actually did.) To put the sentence in the passive voice, we can move either one of the objects to subject position, giving us either “The Cherokee was awarded SUV of the Year (by Car and Driver)” or “SUV of the Year was awarded to the Cherokee (by Car and Driver).”

The structural ambiguity comes in when you turn a sentence like this into a reduced passive, as in “most-awarded SUV.” The adjectival phrase “most-awarded” derives from the fuller passive clause “The Cherokee was awarded the most.” Structurally speaking, because award is ditransitive, this could derive from something like either “The Cherokee was awarded to people the most” or “The Cherokee was awarded the most awards.” (Ignore the awkward repetition of the latter; we’re just interested in the structure here, not in elegance.)

Put back into the active voice, this could be either “(Someone) awarded the Cherokee to the most people” or “(Someone) awarded the Cherokee the most awards.” (In either case, it’s not relevant who the subject is, especially since it’s presumably multiple someones.) In the first sentence, the Cherokee is being given as an award; in the second, it’s receiving the awards.

At first, my intuition was that there was something strange about giving a car as an award; it could be a reward or a prize, but in my mind an award is something like the Nobel Prize or an Academy Award or some sort of cash prize. But then I remembered the infamous leg lamp from A Christmas Story, which the father repeatedly describes as “a major award.” So obviously an award could be something other than a medal or a cash amount.

Corpus data wasn’t very helpful, either. COCA gives only five hits for “most awarded,” but all of them support my reading—“the SUV that has received the most awards”—by making the subject the recipient of the award, not the thing being awarded to someone. The Google Books corpus provides more hits, and though most of them still use the “has received the most awards” sense, there’s a little more variation here, with some employing the “most given as an award” sense, such as “The Nobel Prize in physics is the most awarded of all the five prize categories.”

Next I turned to Twitter to solve the argument. I wrote, “Help me settle an argument: Does ‘most-awarded SUV’ mean ‘SUV most given as an award’ or ‘SUV that has received the most awards’?” The results were not terribly helpful. Out of five responses, three voted for “most given as an award” and two voted for “has received the most awards,” though one noted that either was possible.

Honestly, I was baffled, though I think there’s something of an answer in here somewhere. In most of the examples I came across in the corpora, it’s very clear from context what the award is and who or what is receiving it. If I tell you that Schindler’s List is the most-awarded movie in history (at least it was in 1994, when one of the corpus examples was written), you know that the movie received awards, not that someone received a movie as an award. And if I tell you that the PhD is the most-awarded degree, you know that someone is receiving the degree, not that the degree is receiving an award.

But with a car, it’s more ambiguous. Cars can receive awards, and people can presumably receive cars as awards. And although I think it’s clear that the first meaning is intended, a lot of people are irked by it or don’t get the intended meaning at all.

The upshot of this is that it underscores the importance of researching points of usage before declaring an answer. At first I was convinced that I was clearly right and everyone else was wrong. But though my intuition coincides with the intended meaning, intuition alone isn’t enough to explain what’s going on. You need real-world data for that, and sometimes you find that the answer is not as simple as you thought.

15 Responses to Most Awarded

  1. Joe Iriarte says:

    Clearly I can not take the SUV in front of you . . .

  2. Esther says:

    What you really ought to do is print out copies of this blog and award them as prizes to people who can distinguish between “who” and “whom”, or “lay” and “lie”, or even between “Mary”, “merry”, and “marry”.

    Then, after you’ve distributed all those awards, you can promote your blog as “the most awarded language blog in America”.

  3. Jonathon says:

    Joe: What in the world can that be? *points over there*

    Esther: I like the way you think.

  4. Stan says:

    If I heard the phrase “most-awarded SUV ever”, I’d infer that it meant the SUV was winner of the most awards (by whatever criteria), but because of the secondary meaning I wouldn’t be fully confident. It’s a curious oversight that so ambiguous a phrase would make it into an ad.

  5. Jonathon says:

    Maybe the ad-makers were like me, and the meaning was so clear to them that they never considered that it was ambiguous. I occasionally read car magazines, so it was obvious to me that they were talking about it receiving awards, but obviously one shouldn’t assume that everyone will come at it the same way.

  6. The Ridger says:

    I can barely understand why people are enraged when grammar changes, but come on. Pronunciation????

    Anyway, we tend to read a reduced passive as having the “direct object” in the subject slot. (It’s much the same with noun complements: “the Allies’ defeat of Germany in WWII” is fine, “the Allies’ defeat” is not). Sometimes context favors one reading over the other, but when both readings are valid, we lean strongly toward the “direct object” reading even if context suggests the other.

  7. Tricia says:

    Titanic tied Ben Hur as the most awarded film in Academy history, IIRC. But first I will check, following your example. Ah, as I suspected, Return of the King also “goes to 11.”

  8. wr says:

    They obviously mean “most highly awarded.” What were these awards? Booby prizes? “Most awarded” is meaningless. It’s like saying someone breathes more than another person. What does that mean? More deeply? More rapidly?

  9. Jonathon says:

    I would disagree that it’s meaningless—it has two possible meanings. But “most highly awarded” seems to disambiguate the sentence quite nicely.

  10. Ophelia says:

    I’m agreeing with Jonathon here. ‘Awarded’ needs a modifier to take the sentence meaningful (in the way the writer intends).

  11. boris says:

    I know I’m late to the party, but for some reason I can’t get the “most given as an award” meaning for the SUV (now, I’d understand it in an ad, but I would think it’s incorrect usage. Oddly, “most awarded film” sounds better until I start thinking about it.

    As for cars not being awards, but rather rewards or prizes, can’t you award a prize to someone? That phrase gets 1,630,000 ghits.

  12. Jonathon says:

    “Award a prize” sounds okay to me—perhaps not how I’d say it, but otherwise unobjectionable. But “award an SUV” sounds decidedly odd to me if intended in the sense of “to give someone an SUV as an award”.

  13. joe says:

    I for one cannot see how someone could read this the wrong way, what would be the point of saying “Most awarded” in any other case.. did these people think that they were going to get a free jeep for watching the commercial? anyways here is a list of the awards given

    this is for the 2011 edition:

    4×4 Australia Magazine: 4×4 of the Year
    Auto123.com: Mid-size Utility of the Year
    Auto Bild allrad: Best Imported 4×4 (between 40,000 and 60,000 Euros)
    AutoPacific’s Vehicle Satisfaction Awards: Premium Mid-size SUV category
    AutoWeek: Best of the Best 2011 Truck
    Car and Driver: 2011 Editors’ Choice Awards/Mid-size SUVs
    Car and Driver: Best Performer — Interior Sound Level
    Car Middle East Magazine: Family Car of the Year
    Consumers Digest: Best Buy
    Decisive Media: Urban Wheel award — 2011 Urban Truck of the Year
    Detroit News: Truck of the Year
    Four Wheeler magazine: Four Wheeler of the Year
    Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS): Top Safety Pick
    Internet Truck of the Year (2011)
    Kelley Blue Book: 2011 Top 10 Family Cars
    Motoring 2011: 2011 SUV/SUV Over $40,000 award
    Motorweek: Drivers’ Choice Award
    msn.Autos: Safest Cars in America/Safest Sport Utility Vehicle
    New England Motor Press Association: Official Winter Vehicle of New England
    Northwest Automotive Press Association: Best SUV
    Northwest Automotive Press Association: Best Off-road SUV
    Playboy: Best SUV
    Popular Mechanics: Automotive Excellence award — Off-road Ability
    Ruedas ESPN: Best SUV
    Rocky Mountain Automotive Press Association: Best SUV
    Society of Plastics Engineers: Environmental Innovation award
    Texas Auto Writers Association: SUV of Texas
    Texas Auto Writers Association: Full-size SUV of Texas
    Ward’s: 10 Best Interiors
    Utah Rides: 2011 Truck/SUV of the Year

  14. turdsandwich says:

    Award winningest. I’d much rather accept an informal word. The intended meaning was never ambiguous to me, but the phrase registers as the SUV being the award when I hear it. It just sounds wrong, even though they obviously meant the car had won the most awards. I cannot stand these commercials and I never want to buy a Chevy or Jeep because of the way they use awarded. Yes, there is probably something wrong with me. Thanks for the informative article though! This had been bugging me for a while.

    p.s. I almost feel scared to post here because I know my grammar and punctuation are probably terrible.

  15. Phil Sheo says:

    I agree with turdsandwich. (Is that bad to say?)

    Why not just say “…received more awards than any other vehicle in its class…” or something similar? I know it uses more words, but it is certainly much more clear – and it does not take that much longer to say.

    One commercial I was willing to overlook; however, it seems as though every car manufacturer is now saying it.

    I, for one, am not looking to fast-track our way to ‘Idiocracy’.

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