Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Lemon, Please

Posted by Neal on August 1, 2010

“Can I get you a refill on your iced tea?”

“Yes, please,” I answer. “And some more lemon, too.”

That’s right, more lemon. I like my iced tea with one or two wedges of lemon in it, depending on the size of the glass. I don’t get pre-sweetened tea, because it’s always too sweet. I don’t put in sugar, either. Want to know why? Because it doesn’t dissolve worth a damn! You get tea that’s not sweet at all at the top of the glass, and tea that’s too sweet at the bottom, with a white sludge that all of your stirring couldn’t keep from precipitating out. The same goes for sugar substitutes: Equal, Splenda, Sugar Twin. The only thing I’ve found that dissolves evenly through the tea is Sweet N Low. When I get the mix just right, it’s great. In fact, I’m having some right now.

But eventually, the glass is empty and it’s time for a refill. Usually the server will bring you another lemon with the tea if they’ve taken away the whole glass to refill it, or they’ve brought you a new one. But you still have to ask, because you never know when they’ll bring the glass back with no fresh lemon, and what then? You just cannot get the right mix of tea, sweetener, and lemon juice when you’re trying to use the same, sorry, squeezed-out lemon wedge that you used before. You have to be especially vigilant if you’re at a fancier place, where there are people whose job it is to come around and refill glasses of water and iced tea. A momentary lapse of attention there, and the balance is thrown off before you’ve drunk even half the glass, and you’ll have to spend the next ten minutes looking for someone to flag down for more lemon. Or worse, actually drink enough of the tea for someone to come by and top it off again.

So my server returns, with a fresh glass of iced tea, with more lemon. Yes! But wait: This time, instead of one lemon wedge straddling the rim of the glass, there are two, maybe even three. That’s great, but why, when one would have done?

Maybe it’s so they won’t have to bring more lemon for the next refill. But often, when I get my second refill, they’ll bring another two or three wedges with it, so that explanation can’t always be true.

Well, I asked for more lemon, and (unlike merely one wedge) two or three wedges of lemon are more than one wedge.

But on the other hand, if the server brings just one lemon wedge, I will still have more lemon than I did have, right? What gives?

At times I’ve thought it had to do with the vagueness of sentences with more when you don’t express them fully. For example, the sentence The server brought more lemon could mean, among other things, that they brought more lemon than lime, or more lemon than the restaurant manager brought, or more lemon than they brought the first time. It’s probably that last meaning that has servers bringing me two or three lemons when they brought me only one with the first glass.

But that still leaves the meaning I actually have in mind when I ask for more lemon. What kind of sentence would carry across that meaning? Bring me more lemon than I have now? No, that doesn’t work. That still seems to call for the server to bring at least two lemon wedges if I have one already.

I think that we actually have an ambiguity in the word more. There’s the one meaning, where the amount of lemon wedges that the server brings has to be greater than the size of some other contextually determined set (like the amount of lemon wedges the server brought the first time).

And then there’s the meaning I have in mind. For that one, what you’re considering isn’t the amount of lemon wedges the server brings when they refill your glass. It seems to me that what you’re considering is the amount of lemon wedges the server brought this time and last time put together, and that amount has to be greater than just the amount of lemons your server brought you the first time. As long as none of the amounts are zero, that’s an easy requirement to satisfy.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with different ways of asking for “more lemon”: some more lemon? additional lemon? extra lemon? Nothing works consistently.

Well, except for one thing. These days, when a server asks for our drink orders, my wife will jump in and ask, “Could you bring us a little bowl of lemon wedges with the drinks?” Now is that cheating, or what?

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12 Responses to “More Lemon, Please”

  1. How about “And some lemon again, please”?

    Although maybe in practice the issue is not always linguistic. Perhaps the servers generally do understand your request the way you intend it, but they follow some thought process like “This guy is clearly more keen on lemon than the average customer, since he specifically asked for it; so maybe he’ll be extra happy if I put in more than I usually would”.

  2. Ran said

    Lewis Carroll plays with this ambiguity in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII (“A Mad Tea-Party”):

    “Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
    “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I ca’n’t take more.”
    “You mean you ca’n’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

  3. Cecily said

    “another slice of lemon”?

  4. The Ridger said

    I’m with Cecily: “another wedge of lemon” or “a fresh wedge”.

  5. Philip Whitman said

    Your wife’s solution is optimal with respect to best satisfying your lemon requirements, but it is counterproductive to your exploring the ambiguity of the word “more” through direct experimentation with the servers.

  6. Ellen K. said

    I’m almost with Cecily, except I’d just say “another lemon”.

  7. I think James has the explanation right. The waiter/waitress/”waitron” (remember that word?) is trying to minimize the possibility of error. Maybe you just want one wedge, but you *might* want more, and it’s easier to bring you several wedges than to risk having to make another trip just for lemon. Lemons are cheap (at least to the server), while time is scarce.

    And as you know, I’m with you on the whole keeping-the-balance thing. They are *not* providing better service by filling my glass and screwing up the chemistry every time I’ve taken a few sips of my tea. I don’t know why restaurants haven’t figured this out yet.

  8. a said

    It sounds like you need to stir your tea :)

  9. bob said

    also,

    But that still leaves the meaning I actually have in mind when I ask for more lemon. What kind of sentence would carry across that meaning? Bring me more lemon than I have now? No, that doesn’t work. That still seems to call for the server to bring at least two lemon wedges if I have one already.

    I think more does mean more (than I have now). Not in the sense of bring me more lemon, and the number of lemon slices you bring must be more than the number I have now. In an absolute sense — you have a certain amount of lemon (one slice), and you want any amount more — which could be one more slice, or two, or three. Sort of like if you say, ‘bring me one more lemon slice.’

  10. Fern said

    I’d ask for ‘with a fresh slice of lemon’. ‘More lemon’ sounds, to me, like one slice of lemon wasn’t enough – you couldn’t get the drink as lemony as you wanted it with one so you want more than that. ‘More lemon taste’, if you like.

  11. Zan said

    Coming from a country where the verb ‘explain’ means ‘Hungarianize’ or ‘Hungarify’, I would add an explanatory appositive, as in, “And lemon, please; one slice.” This sounds polite and no-nonsense at the same time. I would also remember to tip handsomely.

  12. Hannah said

    I thought you might be interested to know that in German you probably wouldn’t have this problem:

    ‘Ja, und nochmal mit Zitron.’ = Yes, and with lemon again.
    vs
    ‘Ja, und noch mehr Zitron, bitte.’ = Yes, and with even more lemon, please.

    My translations show that it’s possible to aim for extra clarity in English, but the forms I’ve used in German wouldn’t be considered unusual, or as carefully adding clarity; they’re just the way that each request would naturally be phrased. In French, I think it would be similar:

    ‘Oui, et encore avec citron.’
    vs
    ‘Oui, et encore plus de citron [cette fois].’

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