Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

No Alcoholic Beverages

Posted by Neal on February 2, 2011

My dad (who BTW has a couple of new posts on his blog) wrote me a month or so ago…

Yesterday, I had lunch with [a friend] at a Lupe Tortilla restaurant not far from here. Anyway, on the way out afterward, I noticed a sign that is commonly seen in business establishments like restaurants in Texas. It said:

No alcoholic beverages to be brought into or leave the restaurant.

Now, I see signs like that frequently, but this time, for whatever reason, it struck me that there was something about that sentence that I didn’t like. However, I couldn’t see anything grammatically wrong with the sentence, because I could make two complete sentences from its parts, and both sentences would be all right, like this:

No alcoholic beverages to be brought into the restaurant. No alcoholic beverages to leave the restaurant.

Still, the sentence didn’t sound right to my ear. I would use a parallel construction, like so:

No alcoholic beverages to be brought into or taken out of the restaurant.

So does that mean that having sentence constructions that use non-parallel phrases in conjunction is a grammatical error?

I’ve written a lot of posts about non-parallel coordinations that are easy to process, and a few on parallel coordinations that are hard to process. At first, I thought the problem with this coordination was that the noun phrase no alcoholic beverages was acting as the subject of one of the verb phrases but as the object of another. This kind of coordination sometimes works, but sometimes sounds off. In this example from a post in 2006, it works, with information filling in for the subject of would tantalize, but as the object of wouldn’t need:

The trick was to give away information that [ ___ would tantalize hard-core fans], but [casual viewers wouldn't need ___ ].

However, when I looked closer at Dad’s example, I saw that no alcoholic beverages was in fact the subject of both VPs, be brought into and leave. Next, I figured that no alcoholic beverages, despite being a subject for both VPs, was filling two semantic roles that are a bit too different to take in one go. For be brought in, a passive VP, it fills the patient role, the thing that’s being acted upon. For leave, on the other hand, it’s filling the agent role. Or is it? The subject of leave is the thing doing the leaving, right? But we know that alcoholic beverages don’t transport themselves anywhere, including out of restaurants; that it’s really something else that’s performing the action. Still, when we write no alcoholic beverages to leave, we’re figuratively thinking of them as the agent, aren’t we? I don’t know. In any case, filling both an agent and patient role was no problem for the noun information in the other example, so why should it be here? Especially since in this case, no alcoholic beverages also fills the role of theme for both be brought into and leave: The theme is the thing that changes state or location.

All I can say for sure right now is that the sentence would read a lot smoother if it had coordinated either passive VPs (be brought into or taken out of, as Dad suggested) or active verbs of motion (enter or leave). Or even more simply, something like this:

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4 Responses to “No Alcoholic Beverages”

  1. Ryan said

    I feel like you could analyze the verb tantalize as having a patient and an experiencer. It would certainly explain why the coordination works.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by rebecca skie, La Rassegna. La Rassegna said: ► No Alcoholic Beverages: My dad (who BTW has a couple of new posts on his blog) wrote me a month or so ago… Yes… http://bit.ly/fIWfqB [...]

  3. Just thinking out loud, could it perhaps be exactly because of the asymmetrical passivization? Or perhaps the asymmetrical use of verb-particle constructions? More evidence is probably be needed to figure it out.

    Also, for the record, I agree with the comment on the 2006 article that says that the second clause should have another “that” (as in “The trick was to give away information that would tantalize hard-core fans, but that casual viewers wouldn’t need.”). I haven’t taken the time to determine if that changes your analysis. (And you did mention back in 2006 that you would have to think about it, as well.)

  4. […] recent post on Literal-Minded brought me back to this way of thinking. There is something about a sentence like “No […]

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