Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Close Contact

Posted by Neal on November 23, 2004

So here I am filling out the donor information sheet at the church blood drive a couple of days ago. It asks if I’ve ever had a corneal transplant, and as always, I misread corneal and for a fraction of a second wonder what kind of procedure a cornmeal transplant could possibly be. Anyway, about three fourths of the way through is this question:

In the past eight weeks, have you had any vaccinations or had close contact with anyone who has had the smallpox vaccination?

I start to check No, like every other time, but then I remember: My wife had the smallpox vaccination when she was a girl. I’ve known this for years, but have never thought of it while answering these questions. I only thought of it this time because the latest scar sighting occurred recently enough for the reminder to still be fresh in my memory. So, have I had close contact with anyone who has had the smallpox vaccination? Well, I guess that would be a Yes. I’ll have to be more careful with that question in the future.

As the nurse goes through the questions with me, he stops at this one and asks for details. I explain. He looks through his blue binder to figure out how to handle this answer. Then he excuses himself to go talk to someone higher up. Finally, he comes back and explains: What they want to know is whether, in the past eight weeks, I’ve had close contact with someone who has had the smallpox vaccination within the past eight weeks. So we’re OK, and the donation proceeds.

There are two problems with the question as worded. First, the writer intended the adverbial phrase In the past eight weeks to take scope over two separate verb phrases: have you, and who has . But that won’t work. It’s like saying, “I saw the man with a telescope” and meaning both that you used a telescope to do the seeing and also that the man you saw had a telescope. Sure, they could both be true, but (unless you’re making a joke) you have to make up your mind where the with a telescope attaches.

Second, even if in the past eight weeks were only supposed to scope over who has, it can’t do it from all the way in the front of the sentence, at the top level, when the has is buried in a relative clause. If it could, then we could also say things like this:

*Tomorrow, I saw someone who is going to get married.

meaning, “I saw someone who is going to get married tomorrow.” I wonder if the question was written accurately at first, and then edited to remove a seemingly redundant repetition of in the past eight weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised.

One Response to “Close Contact”

  1. […] by Neal on October 2, 2008 On Monday I went to give blood. On several occasions, I’ve noticed linguistically interesting phrases while I was participating […]

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