Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Can’t Go From Strict to Sloppy

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2011

A sign on a local electronics store says:

I can start my car from inside my house. Can you?

I’ve written about strict vs. sloppy anaphora (aka strict vs. sloppy identity) a couple of times before. The canonical example, at least for me, is an old joke that plays on it:

Wife: Jim kisses his wife goodbye before he leaves for work every morning. Why don’t you do that?
Husband: Because Jim wouldn’t like it!

Strict anaphora is the funny reading, where do that is understood as “kiss Jim’s wife”; sloppy is the wife’s intended reading, where do that is understood as just “kiss one’s wife,” resolving to “kiss your wife”.

In the store sign, though, we have two opportunities to choose between strict and sloppy, because there are two mys to deal with. Logically, there would seem to be four possible meanings. The intended one would be the Sloppy/Sloppy interpretation; i.e.

Can you start your car from inside your house?

Then there’s the Strict/Strict reading, implausible and funny, but as far as I can tell, available:

Can you start my car from inside my house?

Maybe I can even imagine a context in which this reading would be the intended one. Suppose I want you to house-sit for me and drive my car around while I’m away from home for an extended time. Furthermore, my car is temperamental, and requires ten minutes of gas-wasting idling time before it can reliably be driven on a cold day, so if you’re going to house-sit for me and drive my car, you need to be able to use my powerful remote-control ignition from inside my house. Knowing that you’re sometimes a bit of a technophobe, I ask you if you’ll be able to meet this prerequisite: “I can start my car from inside my house. Can you?”

Now for the mixed readings. There’s the Sloppy/Strict interpretation:

Can you start your car from inside my house?

Maybe I’m having a party, and the guests and I are bragging about the ranges of our remote-control ignitions. As I look out the window at my car and the guests’ cars parked on the street, I lay down a challenge: “I can start my car from inside my house. Can you?” We all whip out our tools and the contest begins.

OK, so how about the Strict/Sloppy interpretation?

Can you start my car from inside your house?

At this point, theoretical syntax has something to say. In reading a paper by Kyle Johnson on a different subject, I came across this line:

Dahl (1974) discovered that when an ellipsis has two pronouns in it, the first of them cannot get a strict interpretation if the second gets a sloppy interpretation. (p.4)

Johnson’s example:

James said he’d rob his constituents and Peter did too.


  1. James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “I will rob my constituents” too. [Sloppy/Sloppy]
  2. James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “James will rob his constituents” too. [Strict/Strict]
  3. James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “I will rob James’ constituents” too. [Sloppy/Strict]
  4. *James said, “I will rob my constituents” and Peter said “James will rob my constituents” too. [Strict/Sloppy]

I kind of agree with Johnson’s judgment, but I still wonder if the right context would make it OK. So how about with our RC car-ignition example? I don’t think I can get a Strict/Sloppy interpretation with that, either, but it might just be that I can’t imagine a suitable context where it might make sense. Maybe if you and I are trying to set up some kind of practical joke … yeah, let’s say that I’ve secretly removed the batteries from my remote ignition, and am going to drive my wife crazy by having her continually try and fail to start our car from inside the house. You are my confederate, sitting in your house a few blocks away, with my spare RC ignition, listening to me through a secret microphone transmitter we’ve put in my house. Now, every time I show my wife how easy it is to operate the remote ignition, you will hear me and at my signal, use the spare to start our car. But it will only work if the remote is powerful enough to unlock my car all the way from inside your house. How about that? With that scenario, can you get the Strict/Sloppy reading now?

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking into two categorial-grammar analyses of anaphora, with the aim of seeing if they can generate a Strict/Sloppy reading. If such a reading is truly ungrammatical regardless of context, and the CG analyses fail to generate that reading, woohoo! If you’re a CG fan and this question interests you, let’s talk.

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5 Responses to “You Can’t Go From Strict to Sloppy”

  1. EP said

    None of this would have been a problem if the guy would have started his car from inside his car to begin with. No, wait a second… Never mind.

  2. P Whitman said

    Jim’s wife might not like it either. Or your wife. Or you.

  3. Blar said

    What if we’re next door neighbors and I call you up, worried that my dog ran off, to ask if you’ve seen him. Then I say “Never mind, I can see my dog from my window,” and you say “I can too” (same dog, different window).

    Also, it looks like you have a typo for Johnson’s example b – it should be strict/strict.

    • Neal said

      Good example; much more plausible real-world scenario you got by breaking away from the immediate example of car electronics. And with that much more imaginable scenario in mind, it seems to me that “I can too” is not quite right. If I were the hearer I’d almost want to turn around and see if you had suddenly managed to come up behind me in my house, as a practical joke or something.

      Thanks for pointing out the label error; it’s fixed now.

  4. johnwhoever said

    Reminds of the old joke. Kennedy is talking to Krushchev and says: “In the USA we live in a democracy. Any US citizen can walk into my office and tell me exactly what he thinks of me.”
    Krushchev retorts: “In the USSR we live in a democracy too. Any USSR citizen can walk into my office and tell me exactly what he thinks of you.” (sloppy/strict)

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