Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

All for Me!

Posted by Neal on November 22, 2005

I bought a few things at an office supply store a few weeks ago. As the cashier finished scanning the last of my items, she asked if I was interested in a rewards card. I decided to get one, so she handed me a temporary one and explained the benefits. Then she looked at the items I’d bought, and asked, “Is this all for you?”

I said, “Ahh…” while I wondered, “Why is it any of their business which of these things I’m getting for myself and which I’m getting for someone else? I’m the one paying for them, right? They’ll all get credited to my rewards card, right? Who the heck do these people think they are?”

I was still trying to figure out how to answer when the cashier rephrased the question: “Are you getting anything else?”

Oh, right! “No, that’s all,” I said.

Darn that pesky floating quantifier all, anyway! If it weren’t able to move from in front of the this where it belongs, the question I thought I’d heard would have been phrased like this:

Is all this for you?

and Is this all for you? could only have meant the question she actually intended:

Is this everything for you?

Well, that’s all everything for now.

3 Responses to “All for Me!”

  1. Eric said

    Was there really no difference in intonation, even? For me, anyway, your initial interpretation requires rising pitch on “you”, whereas the cashier’s intended interpretation requires rising pitch on “all”.

  2. Neal said

    As I thought about it after the fact, I was puzzled for the same reason as you mention. For me to get my interpretation, it should have been “Is that all for YOU?” whereas her intended question would have been “Is that ALL for you?” All I know is that I was truly confused for a few seconds. I think there are two possibilities:
    1. She, for whatever reason, used an intonation that could be interpreted either way–kind of like the very careful, measured intonation you have to have for the punchline in the following joke to work:
    Q: What did the Zen Buddhist tell the hot dog vendor?
    A: Make me one with everything.

    2. She had the proper rising pitch on all, but since she moved without transition from the topic of reward points to concluding the transaction, I forced the question to have the unnatural interpretation, and took the focus on all to indicate mild surprise on her part that all of it, not just some of it, really was for me.–>

  3. […] now greatly reduces risks to your health. It also reminds me of the time a cashier asked me, “Is that all for you?” and I was like, “That’s none of your […]

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