Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Linguistically Lost Again

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2012

For the past couple of months, the Netflix traffic in our house has ground to a halt, with The Bourne Supremacy and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog languishing on our mantel. During that time, our family movie nights have been spent pushing our way through seasons 1 and 2 of Lost on DVD, now that Doug and Adam are old enough to follow it. I wonder if we’re engaging in binge-viewing, a term I just heard in the past couple of weeks, but which seems to have been around since at least 2001. Maybe not; maybe you have to watch all the episodes without stopping to do other things like work or go to school before you can claim to have binge-viewed a set of episodes. (Did you catch my backformed compound verb there?)

I blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character connections that I missed the first time; I’m picking up linguistically interesting utterances that I missed, too.

First is essentially the same phrase, spoken by two characters in two episodes:

The button we have to push every 108 minutes or the island’s gonna explode [Charlie]

The button you gotta push every 108 minutes or the world ends. [Dave]

This is one of those coordinated relative clauses in which one of the clauses contains a gap and the other doesn’t. The one with the gap is we gotta push __ every 108 minutes; the one without the gap is the island’s gonna explode. Together, they sound fine, but try to make the one without a gap stand alone, and it’s no good:

[*]The button the island’s gonna explode. (only grammatical if the island will cause the button to explode)

[*]The button the world ends. (only grammatical if the world will end the button)

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”.

The other phrase I noted during these second viewings was one from Hurley, who was asked if he knew were Ana Lucia had gone, and answered sardonically:

That would assume that anyone actually tells me anything.

Anyone and anything are negative polarity items (click on the category label for all the relevant posts, or here for a short one that will give you the idea). They are most at home in negated sentences (I don’t want anything), questions (Do you want anything?), or sentences that express some kind of limitation (Only a few people know anything about this). But none of those is the case in Hurley’s sentence. The only negation there is an implied one, the unspoken proposition, “No one tells me anything.” I asked negation expert Larry Horn what he thought about NPIs in this sentence, and he observed that NPIs like the ones in Hurley’s sentence sound bad again when you specifically say that the assumption could actually be correct. He offered this comparison:

on the unlikely assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch (here’s some guacamole that would go nicely on the side)

#on the plausible assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch,…

So tell me, how does this sound?

That would assume, correctly, that anyone tells me anything.

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8 Responses to “Linguistically Lost Again”

  1. Lane said

    Your last example does indeed sound wrong. I want “That would assume, correctly, that people tell me things.”

  2. Dialogue and grammar dance poorly together, but boy, what fun they have trying!

    Can I say, though, that your grammatical parsing of “Lost” has me riveted?

    Breaking down the subjects, objects, verbs, and double-negatives displayed in this one-of-a-kind narrative is a stunning idea. I am so excited. I’m really hoping you write more in this series.

    Here’s my question: Is there a way to make grammar and dialogue step together (without causing one or the other to follow or lead)?

  3. The Ridger said

    Your last sounds okay to me, but it also sounds pretty marked. Of course, I can’t imagine saying except bitterly, with heavy stress on both “anys” and probably an “ever” thrown in.

  4. Ellen K. said

    The last quote comes across to me as grammatical but meaningless. That is, it doesn’t feel ungrammatical, yet, when I try to parse it, it doesn’t have anything it can mean.

    • Ellen K. said

      P.S. I suppose in that it’s like “colorless green ideas”. The words just don’t fit together semantically.

  5. Eugene said

    Language consists of form, meaning, and use. If you could imagine a situation in which the statement makes sense, you might judge it to be grammatical. This one is tough, but here goes.
    I’m an advice columnist or a counselor. I have to assume, correctly, that anyone might tell me anything. Close, but not quite. The addition of the modal is cheating, but is it a negation?
    Could you read it to mean that everybody tells me everything?
    Normally, “That assumes that anybody tells me anything” means that nobody tells me anything.

  6. EP said

    The more I read those sentences, the more “Lost” I get. Which reminds me of a Conan O’Brian joke: He slipped and fell once (that time during the show) and banged his head, joking about it later saying how for a second or two he finally understood the plot to Lost.

  7. Tree said

    probably that’s because there’s actually no power to the linguistic .. so finally we lost too .

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