Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Pot That We Have to … Get Off Of

Posted by Neal on July 1, 2011

One of my dad’s favorite expressions is Shit or get off the pot! I like it, too, and use it regularly. (Ha, ha.) But I’ve never used it quite in the way it’s used in this line from the 2009 movie Beyond a Reasonable Doubt:

This is the proverbial pot that we have to shit or get off of. (link)

(Hat tip to Wilson Gray, who posted a message about this line on the American Dialect Society email list.)

The relative clause that we have to shit or get off of is interesting, for reasons other than its use of a colorful expression of questionable taste. For one thing, I’ve never heard get off of the pot in the more typical use of this idiom. It’s always been just off the pot, a phrasing copy editors would appreciate, since it eliminates (ha, ha) the needless of. But in this relative clause, the stranded preposition at the end is not off; it’s the double preposition off of. Maybe without the of, the verb phrase get off sounds too sexual. Shit, or get off? Which would you choose?

However, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. This relative clause contains a compound verb phrase, consisting of two verb phrases joined by or: shit, and get off of. To see what’s different about this, take another relative clause containing VPs joined by or:

This is the shirt that I have to return or exchange.

Notice that it’s still grammatical even if we have only of the conjoined verbs:

This is the shirt that I have to return.
This is the shirt that I have to exchange.

But try splitting shit and get off of into separate relative clauses, and only one of them is still grammatical:

*This is the proverbial pot that we have to shit. [Assuming we're not talking about passing a pot through one's digestive tract.]
This is the proverbial pot that we have to get off of.

Only one of those VPs contains a gap: get off of __, where the blank is understood to refer to the pot. The VP that doesn’t contain a gap, shit, can’t make a good relative clause, unless we do decide to take shit as a transitive verb (as it is in shit a brick, for example). I’ve written before about coordination of phrases that contain gaps with phrases that don’t, but usually when this happens, the conjunction is and. I’ll list a few examples below, with the coordinated VPs or clauses bracketed, and gaps indicated with __:

  • tears I’ve [sat here] and [cried __]
  • words you [look back on __] and [cringe]
  • crimes he’s [committed __] and [not gotten caught]

So far, though, the only other example I’ve found with or as the conjunction is these two that I blogged about in 2006:

  • Is there a criteria, you know, a list of things that [a star has to pass __ ] or [it sort of gets eliminated]?
  • Chomsky’s importance as a linguist lies in the fact that he regards the limitless abundance of language its most important property, one that any theory of language must [account for __], or [be discarded].

Both of those or examples had the same kind of relation holding between the coordinated clauses or VPs: a kind of cause/effect relation, such that the first event not happening causes the second event to happen. I also saw another example a few years ago, which I don’t seem to have written about. I’ve forgotten the exact wording, but it was from Bob Seger, when he was talking about doing concert tours. He said something like, “There are songs [we have to play __] or [the audience feels cheated].” Again, the same kind of cause/effect relation. And in all of these examples, the gap occurs in the first VP or clause.

In the potty example, the gap is in the second VP, get off of __. Is it the same kind of cause/effect relation? It could be, I guess. If you don’t shit, you will have to get off the pot; if a theory doesn’t account for some property, it will have to be discarded; if you don’t play the songs, the audience will feel cheated. But it also strikes me as a sentence primarily about the pot. In the Chomsky example, there’s an indirect relationship between the property to be explained and the gapless clause about a theory being discarded. In the Seger example, there’s an indirect relationship between the favorite songs and the gapless clause about an audience feeling cheated. In contrast, there’s a very direct relationship between the pot and shitting. It’s so direct, you could even make it explicit by adding a single preposition, in. The other examples need a few more words than that to make the relationship clear.

In fact, the current example looks to me more like the “Occasion” relation that holds in the tears I’ve sat here and cried example. That example describes a single situation, of sitting at a bar and crying over your lost love. This example describes a single situation of sitting on the toilet. The difference is that the sitting and crying are concurrent actions, while the shitting in the pot of getting off it are alternative actions. (Or consecutive ones, if the pot-sitter is successful.) And notice now that both coordinations have the gap in the first element, not the second — another way in which the sitting/crying and shitting/getting-off-of examples match up.

I can construct other examples of this kind of gapped/gapless coordination with the “alternatives” relation holding between the coordinated phrases; the test you have to give a presentation or take, etc. I’m more interested in seeing if others occur in the wild. If you’ve heard them or read them, leave a comment! (And for any literal-minded readers out there, not just any comment; a comment telling us about the example.)

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9 Responses to “The Pot That We Have to … Get Off Of”

  1. Andy said

    Here’s a possible instance in the wild — it’s a handwritten sign taped to the inside of the door to my apartment building, courtesy of our super:

    CAUTION
    Do not hang on or open door too wide!!!

    These strike me as true alternatives, and the gap is in the first element (hang on ____). There might be something different going on here, though, because “door” is buried in the second element? Of course, the sign is actually ON the door…

  2. The Ridger said

    The whole thing is always about the pot. Or, at least, that’s how I’ve always understood it. After all, what’s it saying? Don’t hog the pot while others are waiting unless you need to use it.

    • Buzz said

      I’m not certain that it IS all about the pot. It seems to me that it’s more about the alternation: EITHER shit (doesn’t necessarily need to be in the pot, although one would assume it would be) OR get off the pot. To say, “This is the proverbial pot…” is missing the point. more properly, in my opinion, would be to say, “This is the age-old decision; do I shit, or get off the pot?” You’re not deciding between shitting IN the pot or getting off of it. You’re deciding between shitting (in general) or getting off the pot.

      As an aside, I just discovered this blog and I really enjoy it.

  3. Ellen K. said

    I think it works because it’s referring to the phrase rather than to the actual actions of shitting and getting off of. Adding “in” after “shit” (to make it grammatical) would make it not semantically match the phrase. Just the opposite with “of”, though. Not adding “of” would make it not semantically match, adding the “of” not in the original makes it semantically match the origina.

  4. This is quite curious. First of all, it seems to provide evidence for a hidden “of” after “off” that becomes overt when P-stranding. (SBaCL covered the optionality of the “of” a while back.)

    Secondly, I think there are different types of these asymmetrical gappings. Along with the proverbial pot example, tears and words examples are just fine. For the crimes example, I feel like adding “for” at the end would make it better, though I’m not sure why. And I think the concert example is the most natural, since it’s conjoining two CP/TPs rather than VPs or something else.

    But when it comes to the criteria or Chomsky examples—which I think are more similar to the type that you normally track—I just don’t like them. Full star for me.

  5. “Both of those or examples had the same kind of relation holding between the coordinated clauses or VPs: a kind of cause/effect relation, such that the first event not happening causes the second event to happen.” <- this reminds me of short circuit evaluation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short-circuit_evaluation

  6. [...] More specifically, it’s one of these asymmetric coordinations in which the conjunction is or instead of and. Those are a bit rarer, and tend to be overlooked in the literature on the subject (at least, in the papers I’ve read). I’ve blogged about them most recently in this post, about “the pot we have to shit or get off of”. [...]

  7. [...] extractions with or that seem to embody this relation? The best candidate I’ve found is the pot we have to [shit] or [get off of ___], since to my mind, getting off the pot isn’t really an undesirable outcome. Also, the way it [...]

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