Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Make Like a Tree!

Posted by Neal on May 24, 2007

There’s a Monty Python sketch where John Cleese plays a detective with some kind of aphasia. He enters a room and tells the occupants:

I’m afraid I must not ask anyone to leave the room. No, I must ask nobody … no, I must ask everybody to… I must not ask anyone to leave the room. No one must be asked by me to leave the room.

After a few more sentences that get less and less coherent, he finally manages to produce a string that conveys the desired meaning, or at least something sufficiently close:

Everyone must leave the room… as it is… with them in it.

I still laugh at how Cleese starts off with a sentence that means the opposite of what he wants — Everyone must leave the room — and, stubbornly refusing to start it over, clankingly and grindingly forces its meaning to come around. What allows him to do it is the ambiguity of leave. On the one hand, you can use it as an ordinary transitive verb, as in Everyone must leave the room. In this situation, the noun phrase (NP) the room indicates the thing from which you remove yourself. On the other hand, you can use it as a transitive verb that takes an NP plus an additional complement, describing what condition the thing you’re leaving is in. Furthermore, when used this way, leave does not have to mean actually going away. It can just mean to cease acting upon something. In the Monty Python example, the NP is the room, and the additional complement is as it is (with the clarifying qualification with them in it).

I was reminded of the leave the room sentence as my wife and I watched the season finale of Lost that we recorded last night. I remembered something that cast member Evangeline Lilly had said during an interview with David Letterman a few months ago (February 27, to be precise). I’d written it down, but never got around to commenting on it. She was talking about when she used to work as a flight attendant, and had this complaint:

You had to leave the plane looking better than when you got on the plane.

So what has to look better? I wondered. You, or the plane? If she was using the leave that took an NP and an additional complement, then we’d parse it like this, with leave, the plane, and looking better all packed into one verb phrase (VP):

[VP leave [the plane] [looking better…] ]

And it would be the plane that had to look better. But if she was using the ordinary transitive leave, then we’d parse it this way, with just leave and the plane in the VP:

[VP leave [the plane] ]

What about the looking better? All we can do with that now is to take it as an adverbial phrase that modifies the entire VP leave the plane:

[VP [VP leave [the plane] ] [Adverbial looking better] ]

In this case, it would be Lilly that had to look better.

If I were a writer for, say, Maxim, I would have to make a joke here about the difficulty of making Evangeline Lilly look better. But I’m not, so I won’t.

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