Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Can’t Pick Apples, But You Can Pick an Apple

Posted by Neal on January 20, 2006

I was telling my wife about what happened when I picked Doug and Adam up from their Sunday school class last… oh, what was it? Friday? Tuesday? Oh, wait, it was Sunday! Anyway, when I came to get them, they showed me the pictures they’d been coloring. On the page there was an apple tree, a sign saying, “Please don’t pick apples,” and a kid with an apple in his hand and an ashamed look on his face. The caption said something about how we all sometimes do things we know we shouldn’t.

Adam was holding his paper up to me and saying, “Look how I colored mine!”

Doug was holding his paper up to me and saying, “This guy is not guilty! He picked one apple, but the sign says, ‘Don’t pick ap-PLES!'”

“Doug,” I said, “When a sentence has a negation in it, like don’t or not, a word like apples means any number of apples. It doesn’t have to be more than one.”*

I didn’t go into detail about the semantic rules, but I gave him enough that he couldn’t come back and say, “But Dad, look! Ap-PLES means more than one!” (Indeed, all he said was, “Oh.”) But did my wife appreciate the instruction I’d provided our son on this point? Noooooooooo. When I told her about the incident, she said, “Speaking of apples, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!”

Wha–? Now I may be literal-minded, but interpreting a plural noun in the scope of a negation as referring strictly to a set of cardinality greater than one is not being literal. To the contrary, it’s ignoring a rule that you need in order to get the semantically compositional, non-figurative, intended meaning of the phrase! I was going to say something to this effect, but my wife was now telling me what I should have said.

“I would have just told him, ‘You know what they meant!'”

Hmph. Well, all I can say is, any parent can tell a kid that, but not just any parent can give a satisfying, just-specific-enough, linguistically sound answer like the one I gave.

*Note to self: When he’s old enough to appreciate the rest of the humor, make sure to show him the “Stonecutters” episode of The Simpsons, where the “No Homers Allowed” club shuts out Homer Simpson but admits another guy named Homer because “we’re allowed to have one!”

One Response to “You Can’t Pick Apples, But You Can Pick an Apple”

  1. Anonymous said

    I got a laugh out of your post, or should I say a few laughs. If I say that I’m laughing, Just how many laughs is that? Is a 2 minute guffaw equal to a fixed number of laughs? Ha, ha: are two laughs? Same goes for chuckles. Why do we say “Chuckles the Clown” and “not Chuckle the Clown?” Can you have half a laugh, if you catch yourself in mid-laugh?

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