Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Glen Gets Literal

Posted by Neal on November 20, 2004

My brother Glen noticed and wrote about a strange usage of remarry in an advice column, where it said someone “remarried two years ago to a woman I’ll call Beth.” Paraphrasing Glen’s comments, both marry and remarry can be used intransitively (although get married is more idiomatic than intransitive marry):

John married.
John remarried.

Both verbs can be used transitively, too:

John married Marsha.
John remarried Marsha.

However, if you use remarry transitively, the “again” component of the meaning must take wide scope over the direct object. Thus, John remarried Marsha has to mean that John married Marsha again, not that John married again, and this time the bride was Marsha.

So far Glen and I are in agreement. But Glen maintains that even the insertion of a to before a woman I’ll call Beth fails to get the semantics right. My take is that it doesn’t even get the syntax right. To use a to with either marry or remarry, in my dialect you have to use the periphrastic get (re)married, and even then the to sounds a bit strange with remarry.

The very oddness of the phrasing, though, is what I think lets the reader get the semantics right. You read it and think, “Why is there this unnecessary to? The writer must be trying to convey some meaning that wouldn’t be conveyed by the simpler phrasing.” And then you figure out that the meaning that the writer is trying to avoid is that the man married Beth twice. (Or as it’s put in the linguistic subfield of pragmatics, you draw a Q-inference.) But I agree with Glen that you don’t get this meaning from the compositional semantics of the phrase, just from the context.

Glen moves from there to the general ambiguity of marry illustrated in, “The minister married me,” and from there to an amusing musing on interspecies mating and polyandry, based on ambiguous song lyric that I really need to add to my list.

All that talk about the semantics of marry took me back ten years ago, when I was introducing my wife fiancée then-fiancée now-wife to Mom and Dad. “And we’re getting married!” I told them. “To each other!” Later, when Dad told me he heartily approved, I checked just to make sure he’d said “heartily” and not “hardly.”

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3 Responses to “Glen Gets Literal”

  1. jeff said

    I’ve been pondering a semantics/social anthropology issue on a similar topic: marriage proposals. In the past two years, four of my female friends have called/written to inform me of their engagements, and the news was broken in the following fashion:

    E proposed to me!
    G proposed this weekend…
    J asked me to marry him!
    M asked me to marry him!

    whereas I’ve been expecting to hear a joint announcement such as “We’re engaged” or “We’re getting married”. Can this be due to the importance our society puts on preparing girls for marriage (and in the past, housewivery) so that being the recipient of a proposal is more overwhelming than the impending marriage?

  2. Neal said

    Jeff,
    Don’t leave me hanging here! The guys proposed; what’d these women say?

  3. jeff said

    Sorry, Neal. All four did say “yes”… and on the other end of the gender spectrum, a guy friend informed me of his engagement with something along the lines of “I finally popped the question and we want you to be in our wedding party,” again focusing on the act of proposing.

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