Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Let’s Get Literal

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2004

Welcome to Literal-Minded. I’ve started this blog after a few months of guest-blogging on my brother Glen’s blog, Agoraphilia, and a few days of it at The Volokh Conspiracy. A while back, I thought it might be fun idea to do a linguistics-related blog, good for just writing about the kind of ideas that would ordinarily go into an observation journal and not be publication-worthy for a long time (if ever). I’ve since learned that this is, in fact, such a good idea that more linguistics blogs are appearing every month (see Language Log, and its list of other linguistics blogs). So now I have a new reason: If all these other people are doing linguistics blogs, then I can, too!

So, do I really take things too literally? Though I can certainly recognize figurative speech, I’ve come to realize that I do tend to take things much more literally than most people, and get snagged on the syntax, pronunciation or ambiguities of someone’s utterance if something strikes me as odd. It’s happened since I was a kid. I remember singing the first line of the song “Bingo” in kindergarten:

There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-O.

It wasn’t the name-O that got to me so much (I could see that the O was just a syllable to fill out the meter), but the There was a farmer had a dog. While everyone else was singing with no apparent confusion at all, I was thinking, “There was a farmer … had a dog? Which is it: There was a farmer, or A farmer had a dog?” I just couldn’t get past the squishing together of the two thoughts. For me, there had to be a who between farmer and had, and with every repetition of the verse, from I-N-G-O to N-G-O to G-O to O to just the 5 claps, the strangeness hit me again.

And it stayed with me. Flash forward 20 years to my syntax II class in the Ohio State graduate linguistics program. The professor was talking about relative clauses with omitted relative pronouns. In standard English, he noted, they could only be omitted when the modified noun was acting as an object in the relative clause (for example, the book (that) I wrote, with the book acting as the missing direct object of wrote), but in some dialects it could happen when the modified noun acted as a subject. He had hardly finished the sentence when I said, “Oh! Like, There was a farmer had a dog!”

My first publication in a refereed journal was due to my literal-mindedness. The idea for the paper came when I was walking down High Street in Columbus and noticed the sign in the window of a bar and restaurant called Street Scene. The sign said, “A special place to eat and drink.” I laughed, because if “a book to read” is something which can be read, then “a place to eat” must be something which can be eaten. I pictured a towering, B-movie monster crashing down the street, lifting up the whole restaurant and eating it, bricks, diners, and all. But after the initial laugh, the question became why a place to eat was ambiguous in this way, while a book to read wasn’t.

Though many of my posts relate to literal interpretations of things, not all do. In particular, my sons Doug and Adam are a good source of linguistic data from people who are still learning the language. And anything that strikes me as linguistically interesting is fair game for an entry here. My wife will thank me: The more thoughts that get written up here, the fewer she’ll have to listen to!

9 Responses to “Let’s Get Literal”

  1. I wonder whether your journal article included the example of the phrase “ready to eat”. This was featured in a fictional advertising slogan in the 1969 movie “Putney Swope”: The ready-to-eat cereal for ready-to-eat people.

  2. Anonymous said

    Congratulations on your new blog! You’re a bright light in a dim universe. Thanks Neil!


  3. Neal said

    The “ready to eat” ambiguity wasn’t the direction I took in the paper, but I did get plenty of laughs out of it when I discovered it in high school. I even thought about writing a Twilight Zone-style short story that hinged on this ambiguity (along the lines of “To Serve Man”), but it looks like the writers of this “Putney Swope” got there first.

  4. Anonymous said

    Hope this isn’t taken as rude, but it seems pretty clear you’re Asperger’s, or somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I got the same impression when you were posting on Glen’s blog. There is obviously a huge connection between this disorder and the use of language. The whole time you were posting on Glen’s blog, I was wondering if you were ever going to write an article about it.

  5. codeman38 said

    Hah. I always wondered the same thing about “there was a farmer had a dog” back in elementary school. Of course, I’m also an Aspie… ::grin::–>

  6. Good Morning just thought i would let you know i had a issue with this blog coming up blank as well. Must be chimpanzees in the system.

  7. […] delete relative pronouns that connect to a subject gap. (The exceptions are in sentences such as There was a farmer had a dog.) But if you never thought of comparative clauses as a kind of relative clause — in other […]

  8. Michael L. Hoenig said

    I don’t know if you’re watching the comments on this post; if you are, that’s great!

    Like you, I’ve been having fun with Bingo for a few years, due to its grammatical structure.

    We differ, however, regarding the specific issue that we found amusing. For me, the sentence is about the farmer, not the dog; therefore, it’s not the dog whose name is Bingo, it’s the farmer!

    There was a farmer [who] (in this song, happened to have owned a dog), and Bingo was his name-o!



    • Neal said

      You’re right! Usually, the most recently mentioned entity of the appropriate number and gender is what the pronoun refers to, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. So although the dog is most likely referent for “his,” the farmer is a more humorous possibility. And if dogs are “it”s in your grammar, then the farmer is the *only* possibility!

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