Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Being or Resembling

Posted by Neal on October 3, 2011

An elementary school in Westerville (a Columbus suburb) was evacuated last Friday when a kid brought in a WWII grenade. I was delighted with this sentence from the final paragraph in the newspaper story the next day:

After the incident, the … principal reminded students about the importance of, one, telling an adult if they see or hear of anything like this, and, two, not bringing anything to school that is or resembles a weapon of any kind” ….

It brought back memories of my dissertation. One of the topics that I explored had to do with the predicational and specificational meanings of be. As I wrote in this post a few months ago,

Predicational be takes its subject and declares it to be in some set of things. For example, in Osama bin Laden is dead, the is declares Osama bin Laden to be in the set of things that are dead. The be in progressive tenses is a kind of predicational be. For example, in Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan, the was declares Osama bin Laden to have been in the set of things that live in Pakistan.

The question I had was: Is it possible for a single token of be to be both predicational and specificational? This was interesting theoretically, because predicational and specificational be don’t merely have different meanings; they have different types of meanings, and some linguists believe that when that’s the case, you can’t have both meanings at once (unless you’re aiming for a humorous effect, as in a pun). So under that assumption, sentences like this one are a problem:

Otis is kind, considerate, and the funniest guy you’ll ever meet.

For kind and considerate, we’re dealing with predicational is: Otis is in the set of entities that are kind and the set of entities that are considerate. But the funniest guy you’ll ever meet is a single entity, so for this coordinate, is has to be specificational, right? Not necessarily. It has been proposed that clauses like Otis is the funniest guy you’ll ever meet can be cases of predicational be after all. The is is still declaring that Otis is a member of a set — the singleton set containing the funniest guy you’ll ever meet.

So let’s go with that for now, and assume that be really does have a single meaning, and that the meaning of its complement will always be a set. In that case, the problem resurfaces when, instead of having coordinated complements to be, you have be coordinated with an ordinary, transitive verb that takes an individual, not a set, for its direct object. For example, there’s the VP is or resembles a weapon. Now it’s the shared complement a weapon that has to have two kinds of meaning. Taken with is, it has to be a set, but taken with resembles, it’s an individual. So whether you’re facing coordinations like is a Republican and proud of it (to use a popular example from the linguistics literature) or like is or resembles a weapon, one way or another your theory has to allow for a single word or phrase to have multiple meanings active simultaneously.

When I was writing my dissertation, I looked for examples of be coordinated with a transitive verb, but had to settle for a made-up example of be or meet (followed by a celebrity’s name). To find out which now-disgraced celebrity I chose, you can check out my handout from LSA 2002, when I did a talk on the subject. Since that time, I’ve come across a few other examples in the wild. There was the sign in Doug’s kindergarten class: “Be and Do Your Best.” I think there was also a do/be coordination spoken by Sam Gamgee at the end of the movie of The Return of the King. I remember noting it at the time, but don’t remember the exact wording. There was a line in a column by (I believe) Ellen Goodman, which said “if you are or have a teenager.” This is or resembles example is a nice addition to the collection.

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9 Responses to “Being or Resembling”

  1. Ellen K. said

    You wrote: For kind and considerate, we’re dealing with specificational is: Otis is in the set of entities that are kind and the set of entities that are considerate.

    Should that be predicational instead of specificational? If so, I follow your post. If not, I’m lost.

  2. Philip Whitman said

    Was the WW II grenade still live?

  3. Philip Whitman said

    There was the sign in Doug’s kindergarten class: “Be and Do Your Best.”

    Don’t forget “Do be do be do”, by Frank Sinatra.

  4. The Ridger said

    “predicational and specificational be don’t merely have different meanings; they have different types of meanings, and some linguists believe that when that’s the case, you can’t have both meanings at once ”

    I guess I’m wondering why they believe that. English seems quite happy with sentences that have deletion (“be your best and do your best” sounds clunky; “don’t bring anything that is a weapon or resembles a weapon” is as bad. (I’m guessing this restriction wouldn’t allow “the same” or “one”, either?)

  5. Ran said

    I think that “be” can always be predicational, no matter how specificational it gets. For example, in the Neil Gaiman novel “American Gods”:

    > “I did not do that.”
    > “[character's name] did. He was you.”
    > “He was me, yes. But I am not him.”

  6. Alan Curry said

    There’s a line in Prelude to a Kiss where the coordination of “be” was so awkward it needed a special conjugation. (It’s a mind-swap movie, and they’re talking about putting yourself in someone else’s body.)
    >But wouldn’t you do better to pick somebody that you knew?
    >So then you could do, or be, or have…
    >the things that they did, or ” beed ” or had?

  7. It’s not often you write a blog post I just don’t get, but this is one. I don’t see what advantage there is in attributing the difference between predicational vs specificational sentences to a distinction between two different meanings of be, as opposed to attributing it to two different categories of predicate.

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