Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Snake(-)Eating Cake

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2005

And while I’m on the subject of kids’ books…

One that Adam has been enjoying recently is A Giraffe and a Half, by Shel Silverstein. It’s one of those poems that gets longer and longer, with a new verse appended to the end each time. At one point, Silverstein introduces a snake that’s eating a piece of cake, and adds the phrase “a snake eating cake” to the end of the lengthening poem.

With every turn of the page, each time I read “a snake eating cake”, I kept thinking, “A snake eating cake. Not a snake-eating cake, but a snake, eating cake. Whoa…”

On the printed page, it’s not ambiguous. For the adults, there’s the absence of a hyphen between snake and eating, and for the kids, there’s Silverstein’s picture of a snake with its mouth wrapped around a tall slice of cake. But spoken, it’s ambiguous. You could disambiguate it by putting a pause between snake and eating. Or you could give a little bit of extra stress to the eating, to distinguish it from the destressed eating in participial compounds like man-eating or kite-eating. I couldn’t rest until I had nailed down the precise source of this ambiguity between a snake that eats cake and a cake that eats snakes. It all came down to the fact that cake is a mass noun. Here’s how:

The phrase a guy reading a book is unambiguous with respect to who’s doing the reading and what’s getting read. But *a guy reading book is just plain wrong. As a countable noun, book has to have a determiner before it, such as a in the previous example. The only way *a guy reading book could be grammatical would be to let book grab the a way at the beginning of the phrase, and interpret the phrase to mean a book that habitually reads guys (i.e., a guy-reading book).

So if *a guy reading book is no good, why is a snake eating cake OK? It’s that cake (like water, information, and snot) is a mass noun, and mass nouns in English don’t have to have a determiner. On the other hand, cake doesn’t have to go without a determiner, and if it latches on to the a at the beginning of the phrase, then you get the meaning of a cake of the snake-eating variety.

There, that’s all sorted out. Now I can sleep.

[later]

Oh, no! After all this thinking about snakes and cakes, I can’t get these song lyrics to stop running through my head!

Did you ever see a snake
Eating a cake
Down by the bay?

4 Responses to “A Snake(-)Eating Cake”

  1. Uly said

    I’m going through the past entries. Don’t ask me why, I doubt I even know.

    A poem or song that just keeps getting longer because of new additions, like “I Knew an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” is called a cumulative rhyme (or song).

  2. […] The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”. […]

  3. Kevin Beavers said

    There’s another way to read “a snake eating cake”. You could consider different types of cakes that are designed for different species to eat. There are cakes for dogs, cats, humans, snakes, and others to eat. So if it’s a cake for a human to eat, it’s a human eating type of cake. If it’s a cake meant for snakes to eat, it’s a snake eating cake. 🙂

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