Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Wanna Turn On the Gamecube!

Posted by Neal on February 5, 2007

One day last week when Doug got home from school, he took off his backpack, threw his coat on the floor, and headed to the basement to play videogames. Adam went with him. They had been cooperating to earn extra characters in Super Smash Brothers Melee for the past few days, and now that Doug was home, Adam was eager to play some more Super Smash with him. As they headed downstairs, Doug said to Adam:

I wanna turn on the Gamecube!

Uh-oh. I sensed trouble. For whatever reason, Doug wanted to be the one to turn on the Gamecube when they got down there, and he wasn’t going to get his wish. Adam had played some Super Smash after he got home from kindergarten at noon, and had paused the game when we went to do some errands. Now it’s fine with Doug if Adam plays the game while he’s gone, since sometimes Adam will earn a new character all by himself and it will be ready for Doug to play with when he gets home. But for some reason, it sounded like today, Doug was going to insist on turning on the Gamecube himself, and I could just see him getting on Adam’s case when he found it already on and paused. It didn’t make sense; how could it be OK for Adam to play the game but not OK for him to turn it on? Sensible or not, I figured I’d better take the heat off Adam before it was too late. I called down after him, “It’s already on, Doug; Adam was playing it earlier.”

“Yeah, and I wanna turn on the Gamecube!” he responded.

Was he listening to me? I just told him he couldn’t do that. I called down to him again: “You can’t turn it on, Doug! It’s already on!”

“I know it’s already on!” Doug hollered back up. “I wanna have a turn on it!”

“Oh! Sorry!” I said. A second passed, and then we both started laughing.

“That’s funny!” Doug said, coming back up the stairs.

“What’s funny?” Adam demanded. What were we laughing at? I introduced Adam to the want a/want to ambiguity of wanna, and then he got the joke.

This particular case, though, I found funnier than the ordinary play on the ambiguity. Let’s consider the ordinary case, where, say, it’s mid-1984 and Weird Al Yankovic is guest VJ on MTV. He’s doing one of his mock interviews, and asks Dee Snyder, “Which would you rather have, a million dollars, or this big, heavy rock?” Then he plays a snippet of a Twisted Sister video with Snyder yelling, “I wanna rock!”, and responds, “Well, uh, OK, Dee, whatever you say,” before heaving the rock offscreen. The want a/want to ambiguity is supported by the lexical ambiguity of rock between its noun and (intransitive) verb meanings. But in I wanna turn on the Gamecube, the ambiguity diagrammed here:

I want to [turn on] [the Gamecube]
I want a [turn [on the Gamecube]]

is made possible not only by the lexical ambiguity of turn between its noun and verb meanings, but also by a structural ambiguity: on the Gamecube could be a noun modifier (for the noun turn) or a chunk consisting of the on of the phrasal verb turn on, plus the direct object of this phrasal verb, the Gamecube. Furthermore, the ambiguity survives because Doug uttered the entire noun phrase the Gamecube, instead of referring to it as it. If he’d done that, then he would have said:

I wanna turn on it!

No ambiguity there. In that sentence, turn has to be a noun. If it were a verb, then we’d have an unstressed pronoun coming after the phrasal verb turn on, and that’s something you just don’t do in English.

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2 Responses to “I Wanna Turn On the Gamecube!”

  1. Rachel Klippenstein said

    Oh, that’s great!

  2. Russell said

    [ps sorry if this gets posted twice]

    Great story!

    Though, on the last point, I have an anecdote:

    I was playing with a friend’s 3 year old cousin, and we both had our sweatshirt hoods on. When it came time to finish up our game to go eat dinner, she said (among other things), “okay, let’s take off them.”

    There was a noticeable pause either between “take” and “off” or “off” and “them,” but I can’t remember which.

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