Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

First Time

Posted by Neal on September 4, 2004

Sometime last fall, Doug was watching an episode of Pokémon. Protagonist Ash Ketchum was participating in a tournament, and he won. The announcer said,

Ash Ketchum has won his first Pokémon tournament!

Now believe it or not, this was not the first episode of Pokémon that Doug had watched. Ever since I’d relented and let him check out one Pokémon video from the library, he’d made a point of getting another one or two every time we went there. And when there wasn’t one he hadn’t already seen, he’d check out one that he had. So I had gained a certain amount of familiarity with the show, enough to ask questions like, “Howcome the only creatures Ash and his friends ever meet are Pokémon, and never regular animals?” and, “Why do they say Pokémon evolve? Since evolution can’t occur within a single individual, and you can’t predict what something can evolve into, shouldn’t they say instead that Pokémon undergo metamorphosis?” Enough familiarity that I immediately saw something wrong with the announcer’s statement.

“That’s not right,” I said to myself. “I’ve seen the episode with Ash’s first tournament, and I distinctly recall that Ash lost his first tournament.” In other words, Ash won his first tournament is ambiguous between these two readings:

  1. Ash won a tournament for the first time. (intended reading)
  2. Ash won the first tournament that he participated in. (my reading)

This ambiguity was on my mind a few weeks later when Doug lost a tooth. It was, in fact, the first tooth he lost, so when we called the grandparents, we said, “Doug lost his first tooth!” But even as I was saying that, I was thinking, “Hmm. Was this really Doug’s first tooth? I’d have to pull out his baby book to see if the first tooth he cut was the one he lost today.” The ambiguity again:

  1. Doug lost a tooth for the first time. (intended reading)
  2. Doug lost the first tooth that he cut. (my reading)

The intended readings of the above examples are what I will call the “constructional meaning”: There appears to be a template, or construction, of the form “X VERB X’s first NOUN,” with the meaning, “X VERBed a NOUN for the first time.” The unintended readings are what I will call the “relational possessive meaning,” since in these readings, the “X’s first NOUN” part is a relational possessive.

To get an idea of what a relational possessive is, consider this quotation from Blargh Blog:

Did I contradict myself in my last post? I came out against slavery, and yet I spoke of “my readers”. These readers are presumably people, and wasn’t I claiming that I owned them? Because “my” means ownership, right? And owning people means slavery, right?

Blargh goes on to give an accurate description of relational possessives, observing that the my just indicates that there is some salient relationship between the speaker and the referent of the noun that follows it. Another good illustration is this syllogism:

  1. That’s my dog.
  2. That dog is a mother.
  3. Therefore, that dog is my mother.

Only a real son of a bitch could say something like this. For everyone else, it’s a joke playing on the possessive my in my dog, and the relational my in my mother. For even more on relational possessives, check out Chris Barker‘s dissertation.

The salient relationship is supplied by convention or context. Often it’s just “have,” or something very close. That’s what it is with first car, job, zit, girl/boyfriend, and sexual encounter. Or it might be “say” (as in first word), “write” (first book), or something else. Sometimes there’s more than one salient relationship that could be understood, which allows us to make jokes like this one: “George W. Bush has finished his first book. He plans to start reading another one soon.”

So coming back to Ash’s first tournament and Doug’s first tooth, the phrases first tournament and first tooth are relational nouns, such that when they combine with a possessive, one interpretation is that it’s a relational possessive. For X’s first tournament, the salient relationship is the “first tournament that X participated in” relationship. For X’s first tooth, it is the “first tooth that X cut” relationship. And if you stubbornly hold these meanings constant while you assemble the rest of the semantics of Ash won his first tournament and Doug lost his first tooth, you get the unintended readings listed above.

So, you ask, the next time you hear, “Someone VERB his/her first NOUN,” how will you know whether you’re dealing with the constructional meaning or the relational-possessive one? Well, there’s context, of course, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, you can follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Assume “his/her” is a relational possessive, and identify the salient relationship. For example, “first tournament that X participates in” for first tournament.
  2. Consider the verb in the phrase. Does it mean approximately the same thing as the salient relationship? For example, win does not mean the same thing as “participate in”.
  3. If yes, it’s probably the constructional meaning, since the R-P one will be tautologous. For example, if I said, “Ash participated in his first tournament,” the constructional meaning would be “Ash participated in a tournament for the first time,” but the relational-possessive one would be “Ash participated in the first tournament that he participated in.”
  4. If no, it could still be either reading, as demonstrated with the two readings for Ash won his first tournament.
  5. However, the more out of the ordinary the verb, the more probable the R-P meaning. For example, Lenny declined his first promotion could plausibly mean either “Lenny declined a promotion for the first time (in his long history of promotions)” or “Lenny declined the first promotion that he was offered.” But Lenny told everyone about his first promotion most likely has the R-P meaning: “Lenny told everyone about the first promotion he was offered.” What’s out of the ordinary can vary, and here you’ll have to consider context after all.

Once you get the readings straightened out in your own head, you can have even more fun with them. For instance, you can crack up your friends with jokes like this one that I’ll leave you with.

  1. Doug’s first word was uh-oh.
  2. Today, Doug said, “Uh-oh, look Daddy, Barney vomited on the carpet.”
  3. Therefore, Doug said his first word today!

4 Responses to “First Time”

  1. Brock said

    Another good illustration is this syllogism:

    1. That’s my dog.
    2. That dog is a mother.
    3. Therefore, that dog is my mother.

    Only a real son of a bitch could say something like this.This syllogism worked in Ancient Greek as well, and can be found in Plato’s Euthydemus (298d):

    If you will answer my questions, said Dionysodorus, I will soon extract the same admissions from you, Ctesippus. You say that you have a dog.

    Yes, a villain of a one, said Ctesippus.
    And he has puppies?
    Yes, and they are very like himself.
    And the dog is the father of them?
    Yes, he said, I certainly saw him and the mother of the puppies come together.

    And is he not yours?
    To be sure he is.
    Then he is a father, and he is yours; ergo, he is your father, and the puppies are your brothers.

  2. Blar said

    Neal,
    Thanks for stopping by Blargh Blog, and congratulations on being the first person to comment on & [the first person to] link to my blog. I post to “ask a linguist”, and a linguist happens to wander in. And not just any linguist, but one whose blog I already read and respect and who is about to post on that very topic. The internet sure is amazing.

  3. […] if you liked this post from a few years ago about [Verb] one’s first [Noun], check out this one from David Beaver on Language Log. He’s found the same kind of ambiguity […]

  4. […] noticed the same ambiguity here that I noticed in sentences like Doug lost his first tooth. If you look just at first tooth or 20th child, you have to figure out what sequence you’re […]

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