Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

How Bad Girls Get

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2013

Last night I got to meet Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copy editor and book author, whom I’ve mentioned in several blog posts. He was in town promoting his latest book, Yes, I Could Care Less, and had a reading and Q&A session at the home of his colleague Mark Allen. During the talk, Walsh mentioned the ambiguity in this line from “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police (you can hear it at about 1:17 in the video at the end of this post):

You know how bad girls get.

I knew instantly what he meant. First, there’s the “Girls can become so bad!” reading:

Those girls can get so bad!

Then there’s the “Those bad girls–you know how they can be!” reading:

Bad girls; you know how they are.

I’m surprised I never got around to blogging about this line before, what with ambiguous song lyrics being a recurring theme here. Heck, I’ve even written about another ambiguity in a song by the Police somewhere here. Where is it? … Really, where is it? I know it’s here somewhere? Why isn’t it showing up in my search?

Oh yeah! It was the subject of my very first blog post, back on my brother’s blog, Agoraphilia! Back before I discovered how to put pictures in a blog post. Back before I made nifty syntax diagrams for you to read, and just used nested brackets. Wow.

But back to the current ambiguity. This one reminds me of a joke I read in a joke book back in second or third grade. It went like this:

Do you know how long cows should be milked?

Find the answer below the fold:

The same way short ones are!

I remember laughing at that joke because it took me so completely by surprise. I kept re-reading it to see exactly how I had managed to be taken in by that one. Even then, when I tried to tell it to my mother, I screwed it up by asking, “How should long cows be milked? No, I mean, how long should… No… Let me think a minute.” In that joke, the how phrase is an adverb phrase rather than the adjective phrase that we have in how bad, but it still hinges on a word associating either with how on the left, or a plural noun on its right, which I guess would make it a kind of squinting ambiguity. And it also depends on the question being embedded under the verb know. And also the ambiguity of how, which can be both an adjective-modifying adverb (how bad), and a WH marker showing that an adjective is missing from the body of the question (you know how your father gets ___). So many ambiguities, all coming together to make a great joke, or a frustratingly indeterminate song lyric.


to hurt they try and try

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3 Responses to “How Bad Girls Get”

  1. Karl Narveson said

    I heard on the radio that President Obama has just recommended that Americans should use more natural gas.

    What, isn’t the gas we use now natural enough?

  2. strangeguitars said

    I’m not seeing the “can” in the first interpretation; isn’t it saying that all girls get bad?

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