Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Don’t Shoot ‘Em and They Fall Over

Posted by Neal on September 17, 2010

Perhaps you remember Doug’s campaign to get some rated-M first-person shooter games. Well, now he has one. He’s been playing Metal Gear Solid, and even now, with the game in his possession, he still likes to mention the game’s redeeming features. The protagonist smokes, but his health suffers for it. If you have him spend too much time in combat, he begins to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re penalized if you kill too wantonly, and rewarded if you avoid doing so. And instead of always shooting with an ordinary gun, a lot of the action is done with a tranquilizer gun. Doug was telling me about what happens when you shoot enemy soldiers with a tranquilizer:

You don’t shoot ‘em and they fall over. They still chase you around for a minute.

While Doug was telling me some further details, I was busy writing down the quotation I set out above. It’s another wide-scoping operator! The negation don’t is syntactically a part of just the first clause: You don’t shoot ‘em. But semantically it scopes over both clauses. If this weren’t the case, and you just read these as you would any other pair of clauses joined by and, here’s the meaning you’d get:

  1. You don’t shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over (for no apparent reason).

But that’s not what Doug means. He means:

    It’s not true that:
  1. You shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over right away.

One clause can be true, or the other can, or maybe neither is true. But you don’t get both of them true. So if Doug shoots the soldiers, making (1) true, then (2) has to be false: The soldiers don’t fall over right away. And before they do, they can call for backup, which arrives in overwhelming force and always finds you. In fact, even if they don’t manage to complete the call, headquarters will send reinforcements to check things out when the soldier who made the call doesn’t respond. And most unfair of all, Doug says, is that one time there was a guy who didn’t get hit with a tranquilizer, who went around and woke the others back up!

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5 Responses to “You Don’t Shoot ‘Em and They Fall Over”

  1. The Ridger said

    I’ll bet the stress on that was “you don’t shoot-em-and-they-fall-over”, wasn’t it?

    ps – how does a guy “wake up” tranquillized soldiers? I cry foul!

  2. Karen McNeil said

    This sentence really confused me when I read it the first few times. But, then, when I imagined it spoken out-loud, it made complete sense: “You don’t, like, shoot them and they fall over…”

    I can’t imagine this construction ever being written though…

    I’ve never heard of a ‘wide-scoping operator’… I guess I’ll have to check the archives!

    • Julie said

      I see it as “kid grammar.” I haven’t seen his age yet, but kids tend to string everything together with “and,” or sometimes “but.” In a few years, he might prefer, “When you shoot ‘em, they don’t just fall over.”

      • Neal said

        Oh, no, I don’t think so. If you click on the “Wide-Scoping Operators” tab to read the other posts on this subject, most of them come from adults. Doug is 12 now, BTW.

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