Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Snake(-)Eating Cake

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2005

And while I’m on the subject of kids’ books…

One that Adam has been enjoying recently is A Giraffe and a Half, by Shel Silverstein. It’s one of those poems that gets longer and longer, with a new verse appended to the end each time. At one point, Silverstein introduces a snake that’s eating a piece of cake, and adds the phrase “a snake eating cake” to the end of the lengthening poem.

With every turn of the page, each time I read “a snake eating cake”, I kept thinking, “A snake eating cake. Not a snake-eating cake, but a snake, eating cake. Whoa…”

On the printed page, it’s not ambiguous. For the adults, there’s the absence of a hyphen between snake and eating, and for the kids, there’s Silverstein’s picture of a snake with its mouth wrapped around a tall slice of cake. But spoken, it’s ambiguous. You could disambiguate it by putting a pause between snake and eating. Or you could give a little bit of extra stress to the eating, to distinguish it from the destressed eating in participial compounds like man-eating or kite-eating. I couldn’t rest until I had nailed down the precise source of this ambiguity between a snake that eats cake and a cake that eats snakes. It all came down to the fact that cake is a mass noun. Here’s how:

The phrase a guy reading a book is unambiguous with respect to who’s doing the reading and what’s getting read. But *a guy reading book is just plain wrong. As a countable noun, book has to have a determiner before it, such as a in the previous example. The only way *a guy reading book could be grammatical would be to let book grab the a way at the beginning of the phrase, and interpret the phrase to mean a book that habitually reads guys (i.e., a guy-reading book).

So if *a guy reading book is no good, why is a snake eating cake OK? It’s that cake (like water, information, and snot) is a mass noun, and mass nouns in English don’t have to have a determiner. On the other hand, cake doesn’t have to go without a determiner, and if it latches on to the a at the beginning of the phrase, then you get the meaning of a cake of the snake-eating variety.

There, that’s all sorted out. Now I can sleep.

[later]

Oh, no! After all this thinking about snakes and cakes, I can’t get these song lyrics to stop running through my head!

Did you ever see a snake
Eating a cake
Down by the bay?

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2 Responses to “A Snake(-)Eating Cake”

  1. Uly said

    I’m going through the past entries. Don’t ask me why, I doubt I even know.

    A poem or song that just keeps getting longer because of new additions, like “I Knew an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” is called a cumulative rhyme (or song).

  2. […] The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”. […]

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