Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Adam’s Pragmatics Lesson

Posted by Neal on September 28, 2006

“I’m stopping at the drugstore on the way home to get some more eyeliner,” my wife announced as the four of us got ready to leave the place where we’d met her for dinner. “Does anyone need anything from there?”

Adam thought for a second, and then asked, “Will you look for anything I might like at the drugstore?”

“Sure, I’d be happy to do that, Adam!”

As we walked to the car, Adam did a few excited hops, while I was thinking about the exchange between him and his mom. That’s pretty neat, I thought. Asking her to look for something he might like when he couldn’t think of anything was a nice example of the kind of flexible thinking that Adam just didn’t do a couple of years ago. Ask him an open-ended question like that, and all you’d get was silence or an “I don’t know.” And just listen to how he naturally employed the Maxim of Relevance in his request: He just asked her to look for stuff he’d like, not actually asking her to buy it, knowing that part was understood. This is the kind of stuff that’s notoriously hard for kids on the autism spectrum to get.

So I guess I should have restrained myself when we were all buckled in and Adam said, “I’m excited that Mom’s going to look for something I like!” I shouldn’t have said, “Yeah, maybe she’ll find something, say, ‘Hey, Adam would really like that!’ and then walk right past to go buy her makeup.”

But I did, and Doug thought it was really funny. Adam was saying, “No, she won’t do that,” and Doug was gleefully clarifying it for him, saying, “Yeah, Adam! You just told her to look for something!”

“You didn’t say to actually buy it!” I continued.

Adam was silent, while Doug and I laughed. Then he spoke, interrupting our laughter with urgency in his voice:

“Dad! When we get home… I need to call Mom!”

Oops. I had to explain that Mommy was smart, and knew what Adam meant. In fact, just about everyone was smart enough to know what he meant, and he was smart enough to know they’d know what he meant. It was just ornery people like Doug and Daddy who’d take it literally. He was reassured, but my wife still hasn’t quite forgiven me. “You’ve probably set him back several months!” is what she told me when she heard the story.

One Response to “Adam’s Pragmatics Lesson”

  1. […] If you have encountered this pronunciation or use it yourself, leave a comment! (And not just any comment; a comment on the pronunciation. But of course, you knew that from the Maxim of Relevance.) […]

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