Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Sachar-Linguistics

Posted by Neal on April 17, 2005

Doug’s been reading a few of Louis Sachar’s Marvin Redpost books, and the one he’s been reading now (Marvin Redpost: A Magic Crystal?) is full of fun linguistic lessons just in the first two chapters. It opens with a syntactic ambiguity, in this exchange between Marvin and his teacher:

“Excuse me, Mrs. North,” said Marvin. “When’s the book report due?”

“I told you Tuesday,” said Mrs. North.

Marvin nodded.

Mrs. North returned to her papers.

He still didn’t know when the report was due. Did Mrs. North mean that it was due Tuesday? Or did she mean that she told him on Tuesday when it was due?

In chapter 2, Sachar moves on to pragmatics. Marvin is invited to go home with his classmate Casey, whose house he has never visited before. On the way to her car, this dialogue ensues:

“I hope you like cats,” said Casey.

“Oh, sure,” said Marvin.

“You’re not allergic?” Casey asked.

“I don’t think so,” said Marvin.

“That’s good,” said Casey.

“Do you have a lot of cats?” Marvin asked.

“No, I’m allergic,” said Casey.

Casey expresses concern over whether Marvin likes cats seemingly apropos of nothing; Marvin assumes she is abiding by the Maxim of Relevance and has a reason for doing so, the most likely one being that there are cats in her house and she is looking out for the comfort and well-being of her guest. But no, she has no cats, and was apparently just violating the maxim. Casey, it seems, is a little bit off, an impression reinforced by the conversation two pages later:

“I’m going to have to call my mom when we get to your house,” he said. “She thinks I’m at Stuart’s.”

“Do you know your phone number?” asked Casey.

“Of course,” said Marvin. “Don’t you?”

“No,” said Casey.

That surprised Marvin. He’d known his phone number since kindergarten. “You should,” he said.

“Why should I?” asked Casey.

“I don’t know it either,” said Casey’s father from the front seat.

That really surprised Marvin. “Did you just move or something?” he asked.

So now Sachar is into the semantics lesson. Marvin intends his “Don’t you?” question to mean, “Don’t you know your phone number?” while Casey is taking it to mean, “Don’t you know my phone number?” Or as semanticists put it, Marvin intends the “sloppy identity” reading (where the you in know your phone number refers to either Marvin or Casey as appropriate), while Casey takes the “strict identity” reading (where it starts off referring to Marvin and continues to do so).

The resolution of the misunderstanding comes a few pages later, along with the revelation that Casey really was obeying the Maxim of Relevance when she brought up the subject of cats: The title of the book he’s been carrying for his report is A Thousand Cats.

A Magic Crystal? is clever and entertaining aside from the linguistically relevant parts, but I do have one minor complaint about it. When Marvin or Casey makes a wish with the magic crystal for something to happen in the future, they say, “I wish,” followed by a present-tense indicative clause–for example, “We wish nobody in Mrs. North’s class is sick tomorrow,” (p. 27) or “I wish I don’t get hurt” (p. 24). That’s not how wish is used in the English I speak. You could say, “I wish nobody would be sick tomorrow.” The trouble now is that it sounds as if it’s understood that someone is liable to be sick. If that’s not the case, you either substitute hope for wish, or go for an infinitival clause: “I wish for nobody to be sick tomorrow.” Sometimes Sachar uses wish in a more normal way, though. When the wish is a present-time counterfactual (i.e., for things to be other than they are right now), Sachar has the characters use a past subjunctive, the normal usage in my grammar: “I wish I had an ice cream sundae” (p. 20), or “I wish you’d shut up!” (p. 46). Does this pattern of usage for wish hold for any of you?

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4 Responses to “Sachar-Linguistics”

  1. jeff said

    In the New York dialect, the “counterfactual” subjunctive is a past or conditional tense, just like you’ve described in the book (I wish I had an ice cream cone). Also, the “wishful” subjunctive calls for a verb in the present tense if there is no coordinating conjunction (I hope he is coming tomorrow). If there is a coordinating conjunction, then the verb used is the pure subjunctive, which looks like the infinitive (We wish that he arrive promptly).

  2. My grammar is the same as yours. I would have used the infinitival clause.

    I’m reminded of two wish-related stories. First, you might recall that Dad used to say “wished” to express a current act of wishing, just to irk me: “Boy, I wished I had me some ice cream!” he would say. And I would ask, “Oh yeah? When was it that you made this wish?” And Dad would reply, “Why, just now!”

    Also, back in my junior high Dungeons & Dragons days, I read an article in Dragon Magazine in which the author explained various methods by which a Dungeon Master (DM) could resist letting his players hijack the game. One point he made was that players could really abuse magical wishes if the DM weren’t careful. One way for a DM to limit their use was to be very strict, or even perverse, in the interpreting the language of the wish. Specifically, the author asked, why should a genie respect the subjunctive mood when so many English speakers don’t? He suggested that if a player said, “I wish I had a +3 Vorpal Blade,” the genie might gift him with the memory of once having had that wonderful weapon and then having lost it.

  3. Glory said

    What a great blog! I’m a grammarphile, too. One of my favorite “oopses” came during a local news broadcast. The anchorman said, “A tornado tore through South Bend today, leaving 10 people dead and counting.”

  4. [...] written about strict vs. sloppy anaphora (aka strict vs. sloppy identity) a couple of times before. The canonical example, at least for me, is an old joke that plays on it: Wife: Jim kisses [...]

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