Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Grocery FLoP

Posted by Neal on July 10, 2006

The lines at the grocery store were long enough the other day that I decided to go through the self-checkout line. Usually I avoid these, because the convenience of a shorter wait is outweighed by the hassles like this one: I had three one-pound packages of ground beef, all in one of those clear plastic bags, so if any of them sprang a leak it wouldn’t bleed on the rest of my groceries. I didn’t want to take them out of the bag to scan them and then put them all back in; I wanted to scan each one through the plastic without taking it out out of the bag–or better yet, scan the same one three times, since they were all the same price–and then put the whole bag into the larger grocery bag waiting for me. I scanned the first one.

“Please place the item in the bag,” the computer told me. I ignored it, and tried to give the package of meat its second scan. It wouldn’t scan.

“Please place the item in the bag,” the computer insisted. I put my hand in the waiting bag and tried to press down with exactly one pound of force, thinking of Indiana Jones in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as he replaced the golden idol on the boobytrapped pedestal with the carefully measured bag of sand. With my right hand, I again ran the package of ground beef over the scanner.

“Please place the item in the bag.”

See what I’m talking about? They can’t even make these self-checkout computers smart enough to be fooled by my clever subterfuges. Anyway, after I’d unbagged, scanned, and rebagged the packages of beef, I looked at the credit card machine. I saw that in addition to the slot to run my card through, there was now some kind of pad that you could just tap the card on in order to pay. When I pushed the “Credit” button, I received this message on the display above the keypad:

Tap or slide your card through the cardreader.

Tap my card through the cardreader? Is that what I’m supposed to do if I’m too weak to slide the card through in one smooth motion? They must mean to tap my card (on the pad) or slide it through the reader. Time for another addition to the list of “Friends in Low Places” coordinations.

And while I’m at it, here’s one I heard last week when Michele Norris interviewed author Marita Golden on NPR. Norris summarized an incident that had inspired Golden’s latest novel:

Several years ago, in a Washington, D.C. suburb, an undercover police officer followed and then shot a young motorist eight times. (link)

I don’t remember following that story at the time, but I’m assuming that even though the officer shot the motorist eight times, he followed him only once.

3 Responses to “Grocery FLoP”

  1. Do you think we’re seeing a side effect of the infamous “English avoids separating a verb from its direct object whenever possible” rule that trips up so many non-native speakers? The reasonable way to write those would be “Tap or slide through the cardreader your card” and “followed and shot eight times a young motorist”, but both strike me as on the borderline between ill-formed and affected. I might as a linguist consciously prefer them to the alternative, but most people, reacting subconsciously, wouldn’t. The best compromise would be “Tap your card or slide it through the cardreader”, but I suspect that gets rejected for using an extra word.

  2. Neal said

    I’d say that’s the primary motivation for this kind of coordination. What’s interesting is that once people construct it, it often survives without them stopping to correct themselves and generate the [Verb]+[Noun]+and+[Verb]+it+[Particle, PP, Adv, etc.]

  3. Ludwig1251 said

    Re: “I put my hand in the waiting bag and tried to press down with exactly one pound of force, thinking of Indiana Jones in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as he replaced the golden idol on the boobytrapped pedestal with the carefully measured bag of sand.” –NO WAY is a bag of sand the size of a golden idol going to weigh as much as the golden idol that Indiana Jones was trying to replace…. No, wait: Maybe the idol was HOLLOW….

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