Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Torturous Dialogue on Lost

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2006

I just finished watching tonight’s episode of Lost, with its polyglot of unique characters, and have now seen for myself a kind of TV show episode that Entertainment Weekly drew attention to recently: those in which a protagonist (such as Jack Bauer on 24) uses torture to obtain accurate information. You don’t see too many episodes where the torturer obtains false or otherwise worthless information (though there was one such episode on Lost last season). Moreover, the necessity of the torture was really played up tonight, with one character defending it because “we’re at war,” and the torturer himself asking a fellow castaway the emotionally fraught question, “Have you forgotten?” I could write off the obtaining of accurate information through torture as just something relevant to the plot, if it weren’t accompanied by the all-too-familiar arguments in favor of torture. I could also write off the arguments in favor of torture as viewpoints that the writers chose for their characters to have, if it weren’t for them highlighting the accuracy of information obtained in one instance of torture. But with both in the same episode, I really wondered if tonight’s writers were trying to propagandize a little bit.

What’s the linguistic point of all this? Nothing about the lexical semantics of torture or anything like that. The subject of torture just reminded me of an essay by Senator John McCain that I read in the November 21, 2005 issue of Newsweek, in which he argues against the morality of torture, and the usefulness of information obtained through it. I’d recommend reading the article, but I suspect that most people probably already know and agree with everything in it and don’t need convincing, or know and disagree with everything in it, and cannot be convinced. So let’s leave the arguments aside and focus on the passage I took note of:

What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we allow, confuse, or encourage our soldiers to forget… that which is our greatest strength….
(John R. McCain, “Torture’s terrible toll,” Newsweek, Nov. 21, 2005, p. 36)

Sen. McCain has used a Friends in Low Places” coordination with the verbs allow, confuse, and encourage. Unpacked, the coordination means:

  1. allow our soldiers to forget
  2. confuse our soldiers
  3. encourage our soldiers

The to forget is outside the coordination of verbs, separated from it by our soldiers. We’d expect it to apply to each verb in the coordination, but instead, it only goes with allow and encourage. So in fact, it’s not only a FLoP, it’s a FLoP sandwich! Unless you can actually say, “we confuse our soldiers to forget.” I can’t. Can you?

Oh, by the way, they did have previews for a new episode of Lost at the end of tonight’s episode. But did they say, “Next week on Lost“? No, they did not. They said, “Coming up on Lost“. Coming up is more general than next week, so I am drawing a Q-implicature that those hosers are going to show a rerun next week and are hoping I’ll unsuspectingly tune in. Well, they’re wrong!

One Response to “Torturous Dialogue on Lost

  1. Anonymous said

    Maybe it’s just my poor grammatical skills shining through, but shouldn’t McCain’s statement have a couple of commas in it? Specifically, I would, were I writing it, bracket the phrase “by official policy or official neglect” with a pair of commas.

    Of course I may well have mis-used that dang punctuation mark in the preceeding sentence as well. But that’s why I have friends who are linguists! “A true friend isn’t someone you use once and then throw away. A true friend is someone you use time and time again.”:-)

    Jason B.

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