Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

No Such Thing as a Fring

Posted by Neal on August 7, 2004

Since beginning his occupational therapy more than a year ago, Adam has made great strides in being willing to try new foods. The range of foods that he will eat has expanded so much that we can actually take him to a restaurant every now and then without having to bring along one of his preferred foods as a failsafe. I took him to a burger place for lunch today, and one of the sides listed on the menu was “Frings.” Ah, frings. That word brings back memories. Here comes one now…

Glen: You know, Dad, I’d like to get some fries, but a basket of onion rings sure sounds good, too.
Dad: Funny you should say that, Glen. I was just thinking about getting an order of onion rings, but I could really go for some fries. I don’t want to order both, though…
Glen: Hey, I have an idea! Maybe I could order some fries, and you could order some onion rings, and we could, you know, share them!
Dad: That’s a great idea, Glen! We could put them all in one big pile between us.
Glen: Yeah, let’s do that! This is such a great idea, we ought to have a name for it. Like… like, onion fries, or…
Dad: Nah, I don’t like that name. What about… fry rings?
Glen: Or just, frings?
Dad: Hey! I like that! Frings!

Later, when the food arrived:

Glen: OK, Dad, here are the fries.
Dad: All right, I’ll just put the onion rings here… mix them up a little bit…
Glen: Mmm, frings!
Dad: Frings!

They would just keep going like this until I said something, so I did what I had to do.

Neal: Frings, huh? Can you show me a fring?
Dad: Well, Neal, look, there’s a whole pile of them right there!
Neal: OK, so pick up one.
Glen: (holding up a french fry threaded through an onion ring) OK, here’s a fring!

Overall, a typical episode of Glen and Dad’s fring-baiting. But this time, the whole business of there being a plural noun which could denote a mass of stuff, but whose singular form didn’t denote anything, was reminding me of something I’d been reading about recently. What was it?

Ah, I remembered! It was reminding me about the different classes of verbs we’d been discussing in my semantics class. One class is the atelic (“without end”) verbs, which denote actions that don’t have a definite endpoint (as opposed to telic verbs, which denote actions that do have a definite endpoint). One way of identifying these verbs is checking to see if they can be modified by an adverb showing duration, such as for two hours. Sleep is an atelic verb: I slept for two hours sounds fine. Wake up is telic: *I woke up for two hours sounds weird. You can say, “It took me two hours to wake up,” or “I kept waking up (and falling back asleep) for two hours,” but not simply, “I woke up for two hours.”

As the details came back to me, I was relaying them to Glen. There was a further distinction among atelic verbs, I told him: simple ones and complex ones. For simple atelics, such as sleep, if it is true that someone was sleeping for some interval (say from 4:00 to 6:00), then it is also true for any subinterval: from 4:10 to 5:00, from 4:30 to 4:31, from 5:55:55 to 5:55:56, etc. But for complex atelics, such as walk, this isn’t true for every possible subinterval. If someone was walking from 4:00 to 6:00, it may be true that they were walking between 4:10 to 5:00, but as you slice the intervals more and more finely, you get to a point where the action no longer qualifies as walking. It will be a foot-lifting action, or a foot-placing action, or a leg-swinging action, but those actions individually do not qualify as walking.

“So,” I concluded, “What we have is a walking event composed of lots of little subevents, none of which itself counts as walking, but which, taken together, uh…” My brilliant analogy wasn’t going in the direction I’d planned. In fact, it looked like I hadn’t had much of a plan for it at all, and now I was kind of sorry I’d brought it up. But it was too late. Glen was saying, “That’s a great example, Neal! Thanks!”

D’oh!

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14 Responses to “No Such Thing as a Fring”

  1. Anonymous said

    See what I mean, Neal–you amused me greatly at 3 in the morning! I may be getting quite literal-minded myself. I began to wonder if a fring is possible after all with genetic engineering. You know, insert the onion flavor gene into a potato (and hope it doesn’t mutate and take over the earth). So Glen suggested sharing frings to your dad, did he? That must have been before he got corrupted by all that property rights jazz. Your dad must be a good guy. He might have told Glen to get a paper route or plant a potato and onion plant in the back yard or even threaten to dock his allowance. Ah, the innocence of youth. Tell Glen that all that greasy food isn’t good for him either!

  2. Anonymous said

    That last comment was written by, you guessed it, trumpit again!

  3. Mark said

    “Wake up is telic: *I woke up for two hours sounds weird.”

    What about “I woke up for two hours (and then I went back to sleep)”?

  4. Neal said

    Sorry, still no good. If you said that to me, pure force of context would allow me to understand you, but I’d still be thinking, “He kept waking up again and again? No, he must mean that he woke up *and stayed awake* for two hours, but he didn’t get that part of the sentence planned out before it was time to say it.”

  5. Anonymous said

    If I remember correctly, the Jerusalem dialect of spoken Arabic makes a grammatical distinction between the two in the nonpast tense. Telic verbs use the prefix conjugation, while atelic verbs use the participle.

    David Boxenhorn

  6. Anonymous said

    My fiance is a professional computer animator, and so he has actual experience with the walking “analogy” you put forward… you know, naturally, that animation works by means of still images (frames) that pass by so quickly they look like their subjects are in motion. So it wouldn’t be wrong to look at one of the still images, a picture of an instantaneous frozen moment, and ask, “What is the character doing at frame 50?” The answer would of course be, “Walking.”

    speedwell

  7. Neal said

    Speedwell,

    Sure, it’s perfectly OK to say that the character pictured in a single frame is walking. For it to be true, though, it has to be the case that that frame is from a sequence of frames which encompass at least one minimal unit of walking, i.e., taking a step. Or even if the character doesn’t appear in enough frames to be determined to be walking, asserting that he is walking indicates your belief that the pictured event is part of a sequence of events that, taken together, qualify as walking.

  8. codeman38 said

    That reminds me of the question posed, I think, by Richard Lederer in Crazy English: when you’ve narrowed down a box of odds and ends to only one item, what do you call it, anyway?

  9. codeman38 said

    …and then I see the last paragraph of the August 12 post. Silly me. :)

  10. Ezra said

    The thing is, I’m supprised some fast food chain doesn’t have Frings! I mean, I think the idea is brilliant. You’re very right neal, but it’s really funny regardless!

    http://www.ezrahorne.blogspot.com

  11. Ezra — Jack in the Box introduced frings many years ago (about 20 years, I would guess). Neal was viscerally opposed to the concept, so Dad and I made a point of ordering them every time. Eventually, Jack in the Box eliminated frings from the menu, and that’s when Dad and I started doing the fring-baiting routine that Neal describes. I have found some diners offering frings now, though. I think Ruby’s has them.

  12. Anonymous said

    You can get frings (without making them/it? yourself) at Fuddrucker’s. And that’s probably where Neal took Adam since I know he gets a kick out of the name Fuddruckers (or Rudd… rather).
    -Ellen

  13. Anonymous said

    “Wake up is telic: *I woke up for two hours sounds weird.”

    That can only be because you don’t wake up slowly. I routinely wake up for 15 minutes. And it’s like “Stand up”. I was sleeping, then 15 minutes later I was up, and in between I was making the transition.

    Maybe it’s because of the extreme time scale you’ve exampled: try “I woke up for 5 minutes” instead.

  14. [...] …teamed up with my brother to mess with me, with the word fring as their weapon of choice. [...]

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