Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Hard-Working, Reliable, Professional, and Friendly People: One Set, or Four?

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2007

My wife’s favorite ice cream shop is the unique-to-Columbus Jeni’s Ice Creams. (Not Jeni’s Ice Cream, but Jeni’s Ice Creams. There’s probably a reason for the plural, but I’ve never bothered to find it out.) My wife usually gets the salty caramel flavor, while I favor the lime cardamom and the chocolate gelato, together on one cone. One time I tried the signature flavor of Queen City cayenne, but gave up before I even reached the rim of the cone. My mouth would be burning, so I’d take another lick of ice cream to soothe it, and start the cycle over again. Anyway, as I was working my way through the lime down to the chocolate during one of our visits, I noticed an announcement on a chalkboard on the sidewalk. It said:

Now hiring hard-working, reliable, professional, and friendly people!

That’s interesting, I thought. Jeni seems to be implying that of these four desirable qualities, it will suffice to have just one, though I would imagine having two, three, or even all four of them would not disqualify an applicant. It’s the same kind of meaning you get when you say Santa keeps tabs on the naughty and nice children. A kid doesn’t have to be both naughty and nice for Santa to have a file on them. Santa keeps track of both sets (with the kids who are both naughty and nice being members of each).

You’re being too literal, I hear you saying. In this context, it’s clear that the people who are hired are supposed to have all these properties, not just at least one. Well, I agree with you on that point, although I’ll note that both readings are literal here, not just the strange one. But on the other hand, the wording of the announcement gives at least some reason to consider the “at least one” reading. Suppose we’re talking about cool, delicious ice cream. Why not say cool and delicious ice cream? The semantics of the adjectives work out such that both phrases have the same meaning, so the and is expendable. For that reason, at least in English, where you’re allowed to string adjectives together like this, the and tends not to be used unless there’s some special reason to do so. For example, it might be in a fixed, idiomatic phrase such as hot and spicy. Or the properties the adjectives denote might be mutually exclusive, as in dairy and non-dairy products, or canine and feline companions, so that leaving out the and would result in a contradiction. And finally, even if the properties aren’t mutually exclusive, you could still be referring to items that might have just one or the other. I tend to like chunky and fruit-flavored ice creams allows for ice creams that are just chunky and not fruit-flavored and vice versa (though ice creams that are both wouldn’t be ruled out).

This last possibility was what came to mind when I read the help-wanted sign. If Jeni was looking for people with all four properties, why the and? Why not just say:

Now hiring hard-working, reliable, professional, friendly people!

I don’t know, but here are two speculations. One is that professional and friendly people doesn’t mean the same thing as professional friendly people. The latter brings to mind images of people who get paid to be friendly. Of course, putting in the comma (professional, friendly people) would solve that problem, but maybe the sign writer wasn’t clear on this point, or didn’t know if the readers would be. The other speculation is that the pre-noun (aka “attributive”) adjective phrase hard-working, reliable, professional, and friendly was lifted from a sentence where it did not occur before a noun, but after a linking verb such as be (aka a “predicative” adjective phrase). In predicative adjective phrases, you can’t leave out the conjunction if you have a string of adjectives. You can say, “The ice cream is cool and delicous,” but not “*The ice cream is cool delicious.” So if Jeni said something like, “The people we hire should be hard-working, reliable, professional, and friendly, so make sure you put that in the announcement,” maybe the entire predicative adjective phrase was taken, and and all, and used on the chalkboard.

3 Responses to “Hard-Working, Reliable, Professional, and Friendly People: One Set, or Four?”

  1. Glen said

    If just one of those qualities were sufficient for my employees, I would use ‘or’ instead of ‘and.’

  2. Neal said

    Good point, but this gives the impression that the employer wants a set of hard-working employees, or a set of reliable employees, etc. The phrasing they actually used would be the simplest way of talking about one set of employees, the members of which each have (at least) one of the four properties.

  3. […] I had to give up that hypothesis. Even though I’ve been similarly confused by phrases such as hard-working, reliable, professional, and friendly people, I also noted that coordinated adjectives didn’t have to mean nonintersecting sets. Chunky […]

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