Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

When We Get Married

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2011

It’s been light blogging during the past week, since my parents were visiting. Pretty much all I did was check in on the Grammar Girl giveaway a few times and put links to relevant GG podcasts or blog posts (here or elsewhere) for topics people asked about that I probably won’t choose because they’ve already been covered. The puzzling entries are the ones that say something like, “I’d love to win one of these books!” and nothing else. I don’t think they read the post as closely as they should have.

Anyway, one night while Mom and Dad were here, we went out to eat to celebrate their 45th anniversary (from a few days earlier) and my wife’s and my 15th anniversary (that day). Dad made a comment about our anniversaries being 30 years apart but so close to the same day. Adam spoke up.

“Maybe someday when Doug and I get married, we’ll get married in July, too!”

“Oh, you couldn’t do that!” I said. “He’s your brother! And you’re both boys!” (OK, so that last part might not be a problem in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., or who knows where else in a dozen years.)

“Adam, these guys are really literal!” my wife said.

Yes, to interpret Doug and Adam get married to mean that they’re marrying each other is a literal interpretation. But it’s also a literal interpretation to interpret it the way Adam meant it: that Doug is getting married to some woman (or man, I suppose), and Adam is getting married to some other woman (or man, yes, OK). The ambiguity isn’t a matter of literal vs. figurative; it’s just that marry (or more commonly, get married) participates in the understood reciprocal object alternation. So do the verbs kiss and fight, but not hit or kick,. (I realize I’ve written enough posts about these kinds of verbal diathesis alternations to give them their own category, which I have now done.)

As I wrote in 2007 about Amelia Bedelia, it’s not about going for the unintended literal meaning of something; it’s about choosing, in the face of ambiguity, the maximally funny reading, be it literal or not. I remember a time about sixteen years ago when the “married to someone else” interpretation was the funnier one. It was around the time of my wife’s and my negative-first anniversary. I was introducing her to Mom and Dad, and telling them that we were going to get married. Then I added, “To each other!”

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6 Responses to “When We Get Married”

  1. Stan said

    Headline in a local newspaper a few months ago: “Priest marries his own son”

    You can bet I chose to read it the maximally funny way.

  2. Glen said

    Do you remember this post? http://agoraphilia.blogspot.com/2004/11/theres-something-about-marry.html

    • Neal said

      I’d forgotten about that, but thanks for reminding me. The transitive use, “X married Y and Z”, didn’t figure into this conversation, but as Stan showed, it’s a good source of humor, too.

  3. The Ridger said

    Okay, you’ve forced me to your RSS feed. I kept browsing onto the page and thinking you hadn’t posted since the Grammar Girl Giveaway, till somebody mentioned this one at work…

    Also, for some reason, I am now remembering the scene in “The Hellfighters” where Katherine Ross announced to the soldiers that her father was going to marry her mother! They, not realizing it would be a remarriage after a divorce, were at a loss; the colonel finally said “That’s very nice.”

    I know it’s not the same thing, but it’s always made me laugh.

  4. malkie said

    I like to tell people (and here I am telling some more people) that I have married 3 women and a man. Of course, there are multiple combinations of relationships for which this could be true, and, with same-sex marriage now accepted in many places, there is less shock value in the statement than there used to be.

    Still, it’s interesting to make the statement and watch the audience try to determine what set(s) of relationships I might be referring to.

    The solution: I have a wife and an ex-wife. In addition, I was the officiator at the wedding of a man and a woman.

    btw, before clicking “Post” I edited what I had written to change “pairings” to “relationships”, since the former is too limiting, especially since I was a Mormon when each of these events took place.

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