Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Get Dressed, Your Bed Made, and Your Teeth Brushed

Posted by Neal on October 3, 2005

The other morning, I was surprised to hear myself saying to Doug that he could do something or other that he wanted to do,

…after you’ve gotten dressed, your bed made, and your teeth brushed.

Using only a single get, I finished the sentence with a three-piece coordination, which would look like this if it were (partially) unpacked:

After you’ve

  1. gotten dressed,
  2. gotten your bed made,
  3. gotten your teeth brushed.

In the first item in the list, we have the intranstive variety of get, followed only by an adjective (dressed). In the second and third items, it’s transitive get, followed by a direct object (your bed, your teeth) and then the adjective (made, brushed). So in the quotation from me, get has to be both intransitive and transitive.

I’ve learned that using a verb as both intransitive and transitive simultaneously isn’t that unusual. Verbs such as eat can do it pretty easily, as in this sentence from a letter to the editor I once read:

Don’t eat fast food, or at restaurants, food-service companies, or caterers.

Followed by the noun phrase fast food, the verb eat is transitive, but followed by the prepositional phrase at R’s, FSC’s, or C’s, it’s intransitive.

But with eat, whether it’s transitive or intransitive, the subject is still the one doing the biting, chewing, and swallowing. If you choose a verb whose transitive and intransitive subjects don’t play the same role, using it both ways at once is much more difficult. For example, the subject of intransitive walk is the one who does the walking; but the subject of transitive walk is the one who makes someone else do the walking. If we try a coordination that forces burn to be parsed both ways, it doesn’t work:

*This morning I walked three times around the block and my dog.
*This morning I walked my dog and three times around the block.

Actually, the first of those sentence is grammatical, but only if you mean that you walked around the block and your dog three times–in other words, if walked is only intransitive. And come to think of it, the second one could be grammatical, too, if you mean something like, “I walked my dog, and I did it three times around the block.” (Russel Lee-Goldman of Noncompositional talks about this kind of “Do it, and fast” coordination here.) But again, it’s parsed in only one way, this time as a transitive.

And so my spontaneous coordination with get was surprising, since the subject of intransitive get is the one undergoing some change of state, while the subject of transitive get is the one causing something else to undergo some change of state. In fact, I’ve heard it used this way only once before, from my sister-in-law a few years ago, when she said,

[The karate lessons] make it tough for him to get his things done and to bed on time.

Well, that’s enough. Now I need to get this post done, and busy with the stuff I really need to do tonight.

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11 Responses to “Get Dressed, Your Bed Made, and Your Teeth Brushed”

  1. Justin said

    Wow — this is a problem that’s tough under any theoretical framework I can think of. I’m not aware of any theory that lets you get away with what are effectively simultaneous multiple lexical entries/functional projections /what-have-you as representations of the same syntactic object.

    But I’m inclined to think that you’ve identified something that’s more of a problem with our definitions of transitive and intransitive than with the architectures of existing theories. Intuitively, it seems difficult to me to say that “get has to be both intransitive and transitive” when these terms apply so robustly in other cases. I’m more inclined to cast your observation as evidence that these properties are somehow graded OT-style, even though the mere thought of implementing it computationally is making my head hurt.

    –Semantic Compositions

  2. blahedo said

    As a data point, I found this coordination to be desperately WTF, both in the page title and when it was first presented—although it’s clear what is meant, the rephrase “…gotten dressed, made your bed, and brushed your teeth” was what first occurred to me, then “…you’ve gotten dressed, your bed is made, and you’ve brushed your teeth” (that last one resists passive somehow). When I first read your unpacking, I blinked for a minute before I saw that this was all legit.

    So for me at least, this isn’t a case of “huh, the conventional rule is wrong” so much as “this is a crashingly bad error”. Which did it feel like when you said it?

  3. This post has been removed by the author.

  4. First, I agree with Blahedo: that sentence sounded wrong to me.

    Second, I think what you’re calling the intransitive sense of ‘get’ might actually be an auxiliary verb (or “linking verb,” as they started calling them when I was about 14). It’s almost synonymous with ‘become,’ which I learned was a linking/auxiliary verb.

  5. Blar said

    Would the offending sentence be properly coordinated if you changed it to “…after you’ve gotten yourself dressed, your bed made, and your teeth brushed”? Maybe some spillover from this reading keeps it from sounding too strange.

  6. Neal said

    Glen: The intransitive ‘get’ is indeed a linking verb, mostly synonymous with ‘become.’ I take the transitive ‘get’ to be a causative version of it, in the same way as ‘walk’ can mean “cause s.o. to walk.”

    Blar: My reaction when I said this was surprise, so it can’t have been good enough to be completely grammatical. On the other hand, I did say it, and I don’t think I’d say the other examples by accident. Of course, contexts in which you have a subject that, say, causes something to burn and also, itself, burns up are pretty hard to come by, so the opportunity to utter examples like these rarely arises. So I’m not sure what to make of the two ‘get’ examples. And you’re right, everything would be fixed just fine if I said, “get yourself dressed,” since ‘get’ would be uniformly transitive in that case.

  7. Ben Zimmer said

    I’m reminded of the immortal words of Missy Elliot:
    If you’re a fly gyal, get your nails done,
    Get a pedicure, get your hair did.

  8. brenton said

    hi, i just stumbled across your blog–it’s fascinating! i think i’ll be reading it a lot. you use so many advanced grammar terms though, i wish i could remember what they all mean! i got an A in “grammar” at CSUC, but i don’t remember half of what you’re saying.

  9. Foster said

    I know ths has nothing to do with your current post, but maybe someone here could answer a question for me. When you add the inflectional affix of possessive (‘s) to a noun is the noun now an adj as in “That is Tim’s ball.” I am haveing trouble finding information on this, it was taught in class but I did not write it down and now I can not find it in my book.

  10. Neal said

    Foster: In the unrefined terminology of my high-school grammar textbook, it would be, just as the articles a and the were said to be adjectives. Linguists, however, call these determiners. One reason for not calling them adjectives is that they can’t appear where true adjectives can. For example, *a really Tom’s book is no good, but if you replace Tom’s with an adjective such as good, it works.

  11. ian said

    i don’t know how useful the following information would be, but the problem that you are addressing has a formal rhetorical name: zeugma. It’s a figure of speech, that, as far as i know, was used from classical oratory to the speeches of yesterday. It doesn’t help resolve the dilemma presented, but just sort of acknowledges another field that recognized and formally named it.–>

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