Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Don’t Waste Disgraces

Posted by Neal on July 18, 2006

Local columnist Joe Blundo had an article today about the lack of participation in recycling programs in central Ohio. The headline read:

What we waste is a disgrace

Hmm, that headline looks like a pseudo-cleft, I thought to myself. If it really were a pseudo-cleft, it would mean the same thing as We waste a disgrace, just like What I want is a chocolate chip cookie means the same thing as I want a chocolate chip cookie. Ha, that’s funny!

I didn’t read the article right then because I got busy making breakfast for the kids. But when I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes, I saw the headline again. Yeah, I thought, it’s definitely not a pseudo-cleft. What it’s really saying is that whatever the stuff is that we waste, it’s a disgrace that we waste it. So let’s see, instead of

There exists an X such that:

  • X is a disgrace
  • we waste X

the semantics would be more like

There exists an X such that:
the fact that we waste X is a disgrace.

I didn’t read the article right then because I had to take Doug and Adam to their swimming lesson. When we got back and I was making their lunch, I stacked up the sections of the paper into a neat pile and found Blundo’s column on top again. Oh, yeah, I remembered, the pseudo-cleft meaning is “We waste a disgrace,” but the actual meaning of “The fact that we waste what we waste is a disgrace”… oh, forget it! I turned over the section so I could finish assembling the bologna sandwiches.

Tonight, as I was taking out our own recyclables, including the newspaper, I saw Blundo’s article again, but this time I resolved not to waste any more time parsing that stupid headline and trying to isolate the source of the ambiguity. It was silly to do that, when I had a perfectly good copy of CGEL in my office, which certainly would cover this kind of thing.

And it did. On page 1427, it teases out the different readings for this kind of sentence as follows. For either reading, What we waste is a free relative clause (i.e., it can be paraphrased as “the stuff that we waste,” or “that which we waste,” or just “whatever we waste”), but for the “We waste a disgrace” pseudo-cleft, the is is said to be a “specifying” be; it identifies the stuff we waste. For the “the fact that we waste X is a disgrace” reading, it’s “ascriptive” be; it places the fact that we waste what we do in the set of things that are a disgrace. So the locus of ambiguity is in the different meanings of is. Or as one famous person once put it, “It depends on what you mean by is.” (BTW, I think we can add “It depends on what you mean by X” to the list of snowclones.)

Now I guess I’ll read Blundo’s article before I go to bed.

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One Response to “Don’t Waste Disgraces”

  1. […] So how about that, eh? I told you you’d love this ambiguity! Was I right, or was I right? (This is pretty much the same ambiguity, by the way, that I discussed in 2006 for What we waste is a disgrace.) […]

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