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You can’t buy your kids clever. What’s more, if they’re merely above average, by sending them to some hideous Holland Park hothouse, you’re probably buying them miserable.

As far as I know, clever and miserable are both adjectives, not nouns. So why were they used with to buy? Is this an idiomatic way of saying You can't buy your kids intelligence and you're probably buying them (moral) misery? If so, what is the idiom used here? I'm not familiar with it.

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5 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

And (adding to oerkelens' statements about meaning), analysing the grammar involved, you're quite right, clever and miserable are still adjectives, referencing the (resulting state of) the kids here. This makes the usage a (resultative) transitive link-verb structure. However, it is a non-standard example, akin to

Quote me happy.

More common examples are:

He hammered the metal flat.

She shot the gangster dead.

The ants were eating the man alive.

(the last depictive rather than resultative)

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It's a similar construction to 'You can't make your kids clever' (which is obviously grammatical, if highly contentious). –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 at 19:54
    
That makes more sense, although because that form of the idiom is rarely ever used, it was more difficult to see it that way at first. –  Joe Z. Feb 10 at 20:43
    
It makes the same sense. With less technical terms. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 at 20:47
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Buy them clever and buy them miserable means that by spending money, you make them clever (or miserable).

In this case, what you buy them is education.

You can't buy your kids clever.

Simply means

No matter how much money you spend on education, books or training, if your kids are not clever, no amount of buying stuff will make them clever.

For the grammatical construct that is used, see Edwin Ashworth's answer :)

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This is a case of the author using adjectives as nouns as a sort of grammatical liberty, as you suggested.

You can't buy your kids clever

implies that "clever" is some sort of object, presumably the state of your kids being clever. And

you're probably buying them miserable

means that "miserable" is the same sort of object, again, the state of your kids being miserable.


If you wanted a more strictly grammatical version, you could say:

You can't buy your kids cleverness, but by sending them to some hideous Holland Park hothouse, you’re probably buying them misery.

which is pretty much what you thought in your question.

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If this is the case, then why isn't the author using "cleverness" and "misery"? I think Edwin Ashworth's answer makes more sense (idiomatically), and that's the way I'd read the quote. –  Kyle Strand Feb 10 at 19:44
    
The author probably just wanted to be more informal in that one way, or perhaps it makes it more rhetorical. I can't speak to his intentions. –  Joe Z. Feb 10 at 19:49
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It's a coy reference to how people talk about their children.

My son is so clever!

I just want my daughter to be happy

The adjectival forms are fine as predicate adjectives following various forms of the verb to be.

The quote in the question is a response to those unstated goal. It uses the non-standard adjectival form for emphasis. It's a form of literary license.

There is a common aphorism in the US using similar constructions (although the adjectives are used nominatively rather than as predicates)

Pretty fades but stupid is forever.

One could just as easily say Beauty fades but stupidity is forever, but it wouldn't have quite the same punch.

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You are reading it the wrong way. The author is trying to say that you cannot buy your children smart or clever, off the shelf. You have to work on them and show them how to be clever and smart.

You cannot buy that item black. Black is an adjective here and describes item.

You cannot take him home dirty. It means you cannot take him home in that condition.

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Yeah, like "buy 'in a state of being' X" is being taken implicitly. –  d'alar'cop Feb 10 at 11:31
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That explanation does not go for "buy them miserable". The kids are already there. –  oerkelens Feb 10 at 12:03
    
In the context of the rest of the article, I'm pretty sure they're not talking about buying clever children, but buying cleverness for their children. –  Joe Z. Feb 10 at 19:26
    
I think this discussion is at least consistent with the possibility that the author was trying to turn a clever phrase and failed, if not miserably, publicly. –  Levin Magruder Feb 10 at 23:07
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