Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Wet Hornets

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2013

Recycle Bin

Last Saturday morning, I drove out to pick up Adam from a sleepover at his friend R.J.’s house. It’s just inside the Columbus city limits, at the end of a dead-end street. I parked on the street, and as I got out of the van, there it was. Among the honeysuckle and poison ivy, tipped on its side with a ripped-off tree branch thrown on top of it, a few feet away from a No Dumping sign, I saw a blue, 30-gallon, wheeled recycle bin.

As it happens, I’ve been wanting a new 30-gallon wheeled recycle bin for quite some time. We’ve been using ours for at least ten years, and it has huge cracks down the back, which we have mended several times with duct tape. Even now, the cracks have ripped right through the third or fourth layer of tape. We could call for a new 30-gallon bin, but we’d have to rent it, because our city doesn’t issue those bins to residents anymore. They’re back to using the dinky red 10-gallon bins. But apparently, in Columbus, they’re still using them, and someone hadn’t wanted this one. I thought about these things as I walked up the driveway to ring the doorbell.

Ten minutes later, as Adam was buckling into his seat, I tried to get a closer look at the bin. No cracks in the side; both wheels in place as far as I could see. I picked my way through the weeds, placing my feet in the patches of ground where the poison ivy wasn’t, until I was close enough to open the lid. No dead bodies inside. No maggots. Not even a few random pieces of paper that had gotten stuck to the bottom of the bin. Just one still-bagged copy of the suburban newspaper. And what luck! I had driven the van that morning, because my wife had taken the car to run some errands.

I lifted up the bin and backed out of the weeds with it. I opened up the back of the van, collapsed the seats, and tried to fit the bin in the cargo area. It was too tall, so I turned it sideways and laid it on top of the collapsed seat backs. A clump of mud fell off one of the wheels onto the seat back.

“What are you doing, Dad?” Adam was asking me.

“I’m rescuing a recycle bin,” I said. I told him we didn’t need to let his mother know about it if she called. She’d want to know the details, and she’d be worried about what was in it and where it had been, and who it belonged to. She’d probably be remembering my story about when my friend Jason and I shared an apartment, and had furnished it with a couch we carried in from the curb. We sat on it that night while we watched a rented video. I kept feeling a stinging on my thigh, until I finally got up, removed the couch cushion, and saw a few dozen black ants crawling around on the base of the couch. My wife has always been disgusted by this story, even though I’ve told her that once Jason and I sprayed the couch with bug killer, everything was fine for the rest of the time we lived in that apartment. No, it would be better for her just to see the recycle bin, bright and almost-new, all cleaned up, sitting in our garage when she got home.

“There’s a bug flying around in here,” Adam said.

“No problem, when we get home and take the recycle bin out, it’ll fly away.”

At home, I wheeled the bin around to the side of the house and set to hosing it down. As I removed the newspaper from inside the bin, I noticed that there were also a few wasps in there that I hadn’t seen earlier. Should I get them to fly away by kicking the bin? Or should I just take the nozzle and start spraying the leaves and dirt at the bottom of the bin? Would spraying them with water make them more likely to attack? Probably so, I thought. After all, people probably didn’t say “Mad as a wet hornet” for nothing.

He's mad, but not particularly so.Wait a minute! People don’t say that! They say “Mad as a hornet” or “Mad as a wet hen“! If there had been live chickens in that recycle bin, maybe I’d have had a problem, but since it was just wasps, who cared? I turned on the nozzle.

I figured I couldn’t be the only one who had combined those two expressions, and it turns out I wasn’t.

Anyway, garbage day is tomorrow! Once that old recycle bin gets emptied, it’s time is done! Now I just have to figure out how to recycle the recycle bin. Maybe I can go the re-use route instead, and push it onto one of our neighbors who are still stuck using those crummy red bins…

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14 Responses to “Wet Hornets”

  1. One of our neighbors who are? Shouldn’t it read One of our neighbors who is?

    • Ellen K. said

      I understood it as multiple neighbors who are stuck with red bins, one of whom he will “push it on to”. Thus “are” is correct. Is would be only one neighbor is stuck with red bins.

      • “one” is the subject. “of our neighbors” is a prepositional phrase. One is, not one are.

      • Ran said

        @Palavering2u: would you also say “He’s a big supporter of books that broadens the mind”, because “supporter” is the subject and “of books” is just a prepositional phrase?

        (For the record, you’re not alone in your preference for the singular in sentences like this one. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a whole article about the controversy. But the use of the plural has been around for much longer, is still more common today, and makes better logical sense, so I don’t think you’re likely to win any new converts by arguing about it.)

      • It was never my intent to argue the point. I wanted only to express an opinion.

      • P.S. In the sentence you provide, “He” is the subject, not supporter, is how I see it. And the noun “books” requires a plural, thus broaden. I am not an expert, so tell me if I am wrong and why. Thank you.

      • Ran said

        Yes, your analysis is correct. My point was that the same is true in Neal’s sentence: the subject of the sentence is “I”, but the noun “neighbors” requires a plural, thus “are” rather than “is” or “am”.

        (To be sure, I’m not saying that “is” would actually be wrong; it would just have a slightly different parse from that of the sentence that Neal wrote.)

      • Neal said

        As the writer, I can clear this one up. Ellen and Ran are correct. I was referring to one out of a group. That group could have consisted of “neighbors I like to talk to,” or “neighbors I’m on good terms with,” and the issue of what the verb like or am wouldn’t have come up, because clearly it agrees with the subject I. However, the subject of the relative clause I actually modified neighbors with is who: “neighbors who are still stuck”. To say “one of our neighbors who is still stuck” would have implied that only one of our neighbors is still stuck with a small bin, which isn’t true. And if it were true, then I would have punctuated this as a nonrestrictive clause: “one of our neighbors, who is still stuck”. Actually, if that had been what I wanted to say, I would have just said “a neighbor (of ours) who’s still stuck”. Ran chose a nice example, in which the verb broaden clearly belongs with the noun books and not supporter.

        However, I will admit that in everyday, unedited speech, I would probably have said “one of our neighbors who is still stuck”. To me, that’s not because the subject is (or is supposed to be) one; it’s because it’s an illogical corner of English grammar, and you just have to allow an exception for your usual rules here. I don’t know why the singular sounds better, but it does, and COCA bears me out.

      • palavering2u said

        I agree, at last.

  2. You inspired me to look up the volume of our local recycle/garbage bins. According to the Council website, our recycle bins are about 63.4 US gallons, and our garbage bins are about 37 US gallons (converted from 240 and 140 litres respectively). I don’t know why the garbage bins are smaller.

    A 30 gallon bin would be small. A 10 gallon bin is positively miniscule.

    I don’t think our garbage collectors would collect from bins other than the officially supplied ones.

    • Neal said

      You inspired me to actually go to our bulletin board and look at the recycling guidelines and schedule, and see that the bin I have is actually 64 gallons, not 30! I don’t know where I got the number 30 from now.

  3. the ridger said

    His might not either, but if this is the older kind – it must be, since he has one – they probably grandfathered them.

  4. dw said

    So you massacred the wasps?

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