Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Throw Away Whatever You Want

Posted by Neal on November 11, 2004

I caught Adam in the act today. He had the refrigerator door open and was happily sliding the temperature controls back and forth. He’d just slid the freezer setting to zero when I got to him, and I explained that he had just turned the freezer off. Did he know what had happened the last time he did that? The ice in the freezer melted, I told him, and the food in there spoiled. We had to throw it all away, even the stuff we liked.

Actually, it was a good opportunity to wipe all the crud off the shelves, and the ice tray has now been freed of the deformed and fused-together ice cubes and ice dust that had slowly been taking over. But Adam doesn’t need to know that. Besides, this clean freezer is like a shiny new doorknob on a drab, battered door: It just makes it even more obvious how much the refrigerator proper needs a good cleaning (or “needs cleaned,” as they say around here). When was the last time I cleaned it, anyway? Oh, yes, I remember…

[harp music here]

We were getting the house ready for my parents’ annual visit, and while my wife went out grocery shopping, my job was to clean the fridge. Before she left, my wife said:

Throw away whatever you want.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. “I think a better plan is to throw out whatever I don’t want, and keep whatever I want!” Ah, I kill myself sometimes. My wife must have already been out the door, since I didn’t hear her laugh.

Anyway, I had to admire the way two different syntactic facts had worked together to make my one-liner possible. First is the two relevant senses of want. There’s the infinitive-taking want, as in I want to go home, with the meaning of “want to do something”. Then there’s the transitive want, as in I want a cookie, with the meaning of “want to have something”. The second fact is the existence of verb-phrase ellipsis–the omission of a verb phrase in examples like, “Maybe Jim will let you get away with this, but I won’t,” where a second “let you get away with this” is understood to finish out the “I won’t” part of the sentence.

So what my wife intended an infinitive-taking want with ellipsis of the infinitive, like this–

Throw away whatever you want [to throw away].

I took as a transitive want, meaning “want to have”:

Throw away whatever you want [to have].

[harp music taking us back to the present]

As for today though… well, I guess the fridge-fridge doesn’t look too bad compared to the freezer-fridge. If I can just hold out for a few weeks, maybe they’ll be comparably dirty again, and the problem will be solved.

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2 Responses to “Throw Away Whatever You Want”

  1. [...] Posted by Neal on August 23, 2008 As I was starting to write about the analysis of the Dark Knight coordination from the last post, I decided to get some background out of the way. Specifically, it’s that the analysis is based on ellipsis, which is the omission of parts of a phrase which can be inferred from context. It happens all the time in natural language, in examples like I’m allowed to [do something], but you’re not [allowed to do that thing], or When [did you see them]?, or the intended interpretation of Throw away whatever you want. [...]

  2. Kendra said

    That was an enjoyable read. Thanks for the laugh!

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