Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Bad Habits

Posted by Neal on April 26, 2013

I saw a magazine cover that had a teaser for an article by Dr. Oz. The list of things I could learn in his “Healthy-Life Handbook” included “Facts You Must Know,” “Tests You Need Most,” and this:

Bad Habits to Break

Let’s see, what would be a bad habit to break? Getting some exercise every day — it would be bad to break that habit, if I had it. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables — breaking that habit would be a bad thing, too. What else? Does not smoking count as a habit? It would be bad to break that habit by quitting not smoking.

When I looked inside the magazine at the article itself, the actual habits in the list consisted of eating fat-free stuff that has added sugar; taking pills to stop pain instead of finding its root cause; sitting too much; and overrelying on technology.

In other words, Oz wasn’t talking about habits it would be bad to break; he was talking about bad habits that you should break. In fact, the wording on the list title inside the magazine made this clear: It called them “Bad Habits You Should Drop.” Probably a lack of space on the magazine cover led to the ambiguous wording I saw there. The reading that the editors intended for bad habits to break corresponds to this parse:

Bad habits -- let's break them!

The adjective bad modifies the noun habits, and that whole chunk is modified by to break. (The label Inf/NP means an infinitive phrase has a noun phrase gap. To break bad habits would be an Inf, but without that direct object, it’s Inf/NP.) I’ll call this the intersective reading, because the meaning is the intersection of two sets: habits that are bad, and habits that you should break. This interpretation implies that there are bad habits that you shouldn’t break, which might have been one factor that pushed me in the direction of the other reading.

That other reading corresponds to a different parse:

It wouldn't be good to break these habits.

Here, the adjective bad and the infinitive phrase to break work together to form a meaning something like “X such that breaking X is bad”. This sort of discontinuous adjective phrase wraps around the noun it modifies, habits, and we end up with “habits such that breaking them is bad”. In a 1983 paper, Michael Jones gives the name “property fusion” to this kind of adjective-infinitive meaning.

So I read “bad habits to break” with the “property fusion” meaning, instead of the intersectional meaning, and the result was a completely different set of habits. But if the phrase had instead been good habits to develop, the ambiguity would have been hardly noticeable. The fusional meaning of “habits that it would be good to develop” and the intersective meaning of “good habits that are also habits you can/should develop” are for all practical purposes the same. Or are they? What would be some good habits to develop that are actually impossible to develop?

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3 Responses to “Bad Habits”

  1. Glen said

    In reading this, I was reminded of the song “Hard Habit to Break” by Chicago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7MwgByxPs8

    In this case, the only plausible reading is the property fusion one, because the phrase “hard habit” has no independent meaning.

    • Neal said

      In writing this, so was I, and I had the tune running through my head for a day or two. Yes, the fusional reading is the only one available with hard, at least when you put it with habit (but a hard piece of dog poo to pick up could be either hard or soft and runny). The technical linguistic term for adjectives like these is “tough adjectives”. When Jones wrote his paper, one of his points was that property fusion didn’t just happen with tough adjectives; it happened with other adjectives, and nouns too (as in, “He’s a bastard to work with”).

      • dcreag said

        On the other hand “bad habit” does have an independent meaning. It seems to me to be more work to understand it the way you did than it is to understand it the way it was meant. In fact, it took me a while to see how you were understanding it. I floundered through your exercise example trying to figure out what you were on about. I started to sink in during the fruits and vegetables example and finally made sense.when you asked if not smoking was a habit. Just another data point.

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