Linguistics Is for the Birds!
Posted by Neal on January 19, 2010
“I’m so excited that you found lard!” my wife said. “I’ve been looking all over the place for it! How did you find it?”
“Well, first of all,” I said, “our lives must be pretty pathetic if this is what counts as excitement. But anyway, it occurred to me to look in the Mexican food aisle.” Which was true. I’d suddenly remembered a tortilla recipe that came with a tortilla maker my wife and sons gave me for my birthday a few years ago, and the recipe called for lard. And there it was, in the Mexican aisle, labeled in both English and Spanish (manteca). But before I remembered the tortilla recipe, I tried to find lard in the baking supplies aisle.
“Luckily, there was a guy stocking groceries in that aisle,” I said. “But I hesitated to ask him about lard…”
“Why?” asked Doug.
“Well, he was kinda fat,” I told him. “But it was OK. I just said, ‘Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but is this the aisle for lard? And I really am talking about lard, I’m not trying to insult you or anything.’”
“Oh, Neal, you didn’t,” my wife said, in a tone of dismay.
“No, I just said, ‘Is this the right aisle for lard?’ and he pointed me to the shortening, and I said it had to be lard, and he didn’t know where it would be after all.”
“I know some people who would have done it like you said,” my wife said. “They’ll say, ‘No offense, but…’ and then you knock yourself out trying to figure out what they were saying that they thought you might take offense at.”
Wow. I’m glad I don’t know those people. Anyway, the reason my wife wanted lard so badly is that she and Doug are still into watching and feeding birds, enough that it has occurred to her that it would be more economical to make their own suet blocks than to buy the pre-made ones, and the recipe she found calls for lard.
Refilling the bird feeders has also become one of Doug’s regular chores, although it’s an easy one to forget when there’s snow on the ground and it gets dark early. After a couple of days of asking Doug to refill the feeders and finding out at bedtime that it hadn’t been done, my wife spoke to Doug before school one morning:
“OK, Doug,” she began. “When you get home this afternoon…”
“Yes?” said Doug.
“…while it’s still light outside,” my wife continued.
“Yes?” said Doug.
“Go out and fill the bird feeders.”
I was listening while I packed Doug’s and Adam’s lunches. “You know, Doug,” I said, “This just goes to show how one little word can change a sentence into a fragment.” I was remembering our previous discussions on this topic, and knew a teachable moment when I heard one.
“‘You get home this afternoon’ — you, subject; get home this afternoon, predicate,” I explained. “‘When you get home this afternoon’ — you know there’s more. ‘It’s still light outside’ — sentence. ‘While it’s still light outside’ — you know the main sentence is still on the way. ‘Go out and fill the bird feeders’ — now there’s your sentence!”
My wife laughed, and Doug just kind of shook his head as he cleared his breakfast dishes. That was probably the last either of them thought about it for the rest of the day. But I kept thinking about it, and at supper that night, I had to make a retraction.
“You know how I said the when and the while told you that there was more to come?” I asked Doug. “Well, maybe not. Your mom could have just said, ‘This afternoon, you’ll get home from school’: a complete sentence. But you’d still have said, ‘Yes?’ And if she’d said, ‘It’ll still be light out,’ that’s a full sentence, but you’d have still been waiting for her to get to the point.”
I didn’t get into stuff about the Maxim of Relevance, or a rising intonation at the end of a sentence instead of a falling one. I didn’t even explain the main lesson I took away: a reminder that what qualifies as “a complete thought” syntactically, maybe even semantically, is not always the same as a complete thought in terms of a real conversation.
“You’re learning how I operate!” my wife said.