Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Unable and Unwilling

Posted by Neal on January 3, 2005

As I was getting Doug and myself settled into our seats for the flight back to Ohio a few days ago, I listened to the pre-flight instructions and heard this request for passengers who found themselves sitting next to an emergency exit:

Please move from the exit rows if you are unwilling or unable to perform the necessary actions without injury.

So in order to sit in an exit row, you must be (1) able to perform the necessary actions without injury, and (2) willing to perform the necessary actions without injury. The first condition seems reasonable. As for the second one, I can just picture it now; a passenger sitting in the exit row tells the flight attendant, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but only if you’ll smack me around some first.” Or, “I’ll do it, but only if I get to smack some of the other passengers around.”

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I suspect that the “without injury” part probably just applied to the unable. In that case, it’s yet another FLoP coordination!

Something I’ve been wondering about FLoP coordinations: What do you do when the coordinate with the discontinuous elements isn’t the last one? That is, how would you coordinate the beer chases…away and the whiskey drowns in that order? The beer chases away and the whiskey drowns my blues? The beer chases and the whiskey drowns my blues away? Based on this latest example, my suspicion is that you don’t; you arrange things to that the discontinuous conjunct is last. I suspect this because it’s stylistically more common to put unable before unwilling (238K hits for “unwilling or unable“, vs. 383K hits for “unable or unwilling“), but here the order has been reversed so that unable…without injury comes last.

I’ve been doing some scratch work with these coordinations, and have made an interesting discovery: You don’t have to stipulate any new rules or constructions to let a grammar license them. As long as your grammar has a Wrap operation (needed to allow phrasal verbs like tear up to put a direct object before the particle, as in tear it up), it will automatically license FLoP coordinations. It’s speakers for whom FLoP coordinations are ungrammatical that need an extra rule in their grammar to rule them out. At least, that’s how it worked out in a Categorial Grammar analysis I did with the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away; I’ll try it out with some of my more recent examples, and may post a link to the derivations when I get them nicely formatted.

2 Responses to “Unable and Unwilling”

  1. Anonymous said

    I rather suspect that those for whom FLoP coordinations are ungrammatical would readily recognize them without the aid of a grammar rule much as split infinitives bound off the page at some of us.

    It’s also interesting that, while “unable and unwilling” may be more prevalent, “willing and able” is much more prevalent than “able and willing” (800k vs 200k Google hits).

  2. […] years ago, I was inspired to write a post after hearing a flight attendant give the pre-flight safety presentation, and say, “Please […]

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