Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

How Would You Like How Many Eggs?

Posted by Neal on March 13, 2007

“You’d like this sentence,” my wife told me, looking up from her book.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked. “Whaddaya got?” She read aloud:

How would you like how many eggs?

“Hey, that is a good one,” I said. “When he says, ‘how would you like’, he’s looking for an answer like scrambled or fried, right, not just making an offer like, ‘How would you like a Coke?’?” My wife confirmed this. “Cool,” I said. “Then it’s definitely a multiple-wh question, with how and how many eggs. And what kind of answer does he get? Like, two this way and one that way, or just one number and the way they should be cooked?”

She quoted again: “Two, easy over.”

“Hey, neat! Another multiple-wh question with a single-pair answer!”

I had to stop and consider what a great wife I have. Even though this blog is supposed to (and does) reduce the amount of time she has to spend hearing me talk about linguistics, it still happens from time to time. Multiple-wh questions and coordinated-wh questions have been on my mind a lot recently, and it was now clear that all the times I’d talked about them with my wife, she hadn’t been just listening politely. That would have been enough (much better than the “Neal, WHO CARES?” I got from a high-school girlfriend when I tried to show her the fun of voiced and voiceless sounds), but no, she’d actually been paying close enough attention that now, she had recognized a perfect example of the kind of thing I was interested in, and brought it to my attention. I walked over and she showed me the context:

Meyer smiled down at her. “I don’t know how McGee reacts to that, my dear, but personally I find the inference offensive. How would you like how many eggs?”
“Uh … two. Easy over.”
(John D. MacDonald, Darker Than Amber, p. 41.)

Another interesting fact about this multiple-wh question is which wh-item it puts up front, and which one it leaves in place. In an ordinary declarative sentence such as

I’d like two eggs, easy over.

the amount and the manner of cooking appear in that order. Now if an English declarative sentence contains phrases A and B in that order, then the analogous multiple-wh question that asks about A and B will typically have the A wh word or phrase up front, and leave the B one in place. I’ll illustrate with red and green font colors, which will be easier to read than brackets and A or B subscripts:

  1. Sam saw Phil on Saturday.
  2. Who(m) did Sam see when?
  3. ? When did Sam see who(m)?

This is true not only for English, but for other languages that place one wh item at the beginning of a question. (And for some languages that put all wh-items at the front, even then the wh-items usually have to be in the same order as the analogous non-wh items would be in the corresponding declarative sentence.) So in fact, John D. MacDonald’s multiple-wh question about the eggs doesn’t follow the usual rule of which wh-item to put in front; if it did, how many eggs would kick off the question. Starting with how many eggs, however, gives us the even more awkward

? How many eggs would you like how?

My wife noted that MacDonald himself seemed to recognize the strangeness of the question, since he had the addressee respond to it with uh, possibly indicating a processing difficulty. But that could also be attributable to the suddenness of the change of subject, or general fatigue after being dropped off a bridge wearing concrete shoes and then being rescued. Readers, how would you react to a question like this one (assuming, of course, that it is asked in a context involving the cooking of eggs)? Which phrasing (starting with how or how many eggs) sounds better to you? Does either one seem to ask for a pair-list answer? If you had to ask the question, how would you put it?

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3 Responses to “How Would You Like How Many Eggs?”

  1. Glen said

    The only time I would utter either phrasing (either “how would you like how many eggs?” or “how many eggs would you like how?”) would be if the questionee had already told me and I were incredulous at the answer: *How* would you like *how* many eggs?

    Otherwise, I would say, “How would you like your eggs cooked, and how many?” or something like that.

    I’d be curious to know which girlfriend that was.

  2. Michael said

    I would probably hear the question similarly to “how many people went where?” — and imagine that the answer should be divided to account for the number that accounts for each quality. I could then say “two went to the market, two went to the deli, and two went home.”

    So if I were hungry I might respond to the egg question “I’ll have two well-done, two scrambled, and one boiled.” Otherwise I might say “Scrambled. Three’s enough.”

  3. Joel said

    I think the respondent in this case was defaulting to a known answer rather than consciously making an order choice. I think he recognized that he could answer the question the same way he does when asked “What would you like for breakfast?” He knows how he likes his eggs, and is used to saying “two, easy over”.

    I often make the wrong choice based on a default:
    “Hey, what’s up?”
    me: “Pretty good, you?”

    I only need to correct myself on occasion. Usually people don’t notice or don’t care. :)

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