Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

From a Go-Getter to a Go-Througher

Posted by Neal on September 3, 2004

A couple of years ago, Doug got an elaborate toy castle set for Christmas, along with several sold-separately modules and figures. The commercials had worked only too well. One would come on, and while I’d be thinking to myself, “Oh, please! No one could possibly have that much fun with those things!” Doug would be saying, “I want that!” And got it. You know how kids are famous for asking for stuff like this, playing with it for one day and then ignoring it? I think Doug played with it for maybe an hour. For most of the past two years, it has sat in a box in a corner of his room, hemmed in by a box of coloring books on one side and a pillow chair on another, with a lamp set on top.

Last weekend, though, we freed it from its captivity. We took it downstairs so that Adam could play with it, as part of our goal of increasing his pretend play. What a difference. Adam played with the castle for two-and-a-half hours straight, more play in one afternoon than it had seen during its entire time in our house. And he’s been playing with it every day this week, which brings me to the linguistic side of the story.

He was marching the various figurines into and out of the castle, and at one point commented to me:

That’s the door that the goblin go throughs, and that’s the door that the griffin go throughs.

Just as he did with phrases like go get, Adam seems to have parsed go through as an indivisible chunk, so that any suffixes, such as –s, get stuck on the end of through. An anonymous commentator on that previous post put this as Adam hearing go get as a single word, and I agreed. But later I remembered why I’d gone with “indivisible chunk” instead of “single word.” I think that Adam is well aware that go is a word in its own right, so although it’s possible that Adam is hearing go get and go through as single words (albeit compound ones), I also he could be interpreting them as syntactically generated phrases, and still choosing to put suffixes on the end instead of on the go.

Putting the suffix on the go to make goes through would be an example of head-inflection, that is, performing the morphological operation on the head of the phrase (i.e., go). Putting the suffix on the end to get go throughs is an example of edge-inflection–performing the morphological operation on the first or last word of the phrase. It’s not so common in English, but it does exist. It’s most easily seen in coordinated possessive phrases, such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where the possessive suffix ‘s is attached to edge of the phrase Bill and Ted, which we can all agree comprises three words and not one.

I guess I must have been feeling a bit tired today, since I didn’t conduct any experiments on Adam like I did when he was “go-getting” things. I’d’ve been marching the goblin through the door and asking what he was doing, to see if Adam would say, “He’s go throughing the door,” or “He’s going through the door.” But there’s always tomorrow!

5 Responses to “From a Go-Getter to a Go-Througher”

  1. Anonymous said

    My favorite example of head inflection vs. edge inflection: what is the proper plural of “mother-in-law”? Is it “mothers-in-law” or “mother-in-laws”?

  2. Neal said

    Right. And of course, there’s the question of more than one son of a bitch. Even if you reject the edge-inflecting “son of a bitches,” you still have to decide whether to inflect both nouns or just the head one: “sons of a bitch,” or “sons of bitches”? I guess if you’re talking about brothers it’d be the former, but who has time to think about that? I guess the avoidance strategy of just calling them “SOB’s” is the preferred solution.

  3. This reminds me of some of the odd things I thought when I was younger.

    I remember when I was very little, I didn’t realize there was a comma in the phrase, “No, thank you” and thus, it meant “No, but thank you for making the offer.” I thought instead that it meant that if the other party didn’t heed your wishes in the matter, no thankyous would be forthcoming—so they could proceed at peril of not being thanked.🙂 I still get a chuckle over that now and again.

  4. Neal said

    And that reminds *me* of a mid-90s movie starring John Hurt and Jason Priestly, whose name I’ve forgotten and don’t care to look up. Hurt’s character lights up a cigarette in a taxi, and the cabbie says, “Do you see the sign? It says, ‘Thank you for not smoking.'” Hurt replies, “Yes, and as I *am* smoking, I do not expect to be thanked.”

  5. The movie was “Love and Death on Long Island.”–>

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