Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

What Part of If Don’t You Understand?

Posted by Neal on October 11, 2007

A few weeks ago I checked out a joke-and-riddle book from the library for Adam, and he read it cover to cover, learning classics like the original “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “What’s black and white and re(a)d all over?” For several nights, he was reading me one riddle after another, and have me explain the answers when necessary. During one of these sessions, he arrived at:

If a rooster lays an egg, what kind of chick will hatch from it?

“‘If a rooster lays an egg, what kind of chick will hatch?'” I repeated. “If a rooster lays an egg. Well, of course we know roosters can’t lay eggs, but you’re asking me what would kind of chicks would hatch if they could. Wow, well, I guess it could be anything, huh? OK, I’ll say … black and white chicks.”

Did my carefully considered answer impress Adam? No. He just read right out of the book, “Wrong! Roosters don’t lay eggs!”

Hmp. I’ll have to see how Adam likes it when I ask him, “Adam, if I give you $10, what will you do with it?”, wait for his answer, and then say, “Wrong! I’m not going to give you $10, so that answer is incorrect!”

4 Responses to “What Part of If Don’t You Understand?”

  1. Graeme said

    Is there perhaps a difference because of the tense? Is “If a rooster lays an egg …” different from “If a rooster laid an egg…”? It’s certainly different from “If a rooster could lay an egg…”.

  2. Ran said

    I like the thought of a riddle-book trying to teach concepts in logic. It would probably take more than one riddle to successfully convey Curry’s paradox, though.

  3. michael said

    This reminds me of the riddle:
    “How many legs does an elephant have if you call its trunk a leg?”

    One answer:
    “Four: calling a trunk a leg does not make it a leg!”

    First–I don’t like the exclamation point. Why do riddles use them so wantonly?
    Second–Calling it a leg does make it a leg IF we accept that agreeing to call something “X” effects a new intention of X.

  4. Neal said

    Michael: You know, I forgot both the rooster joke and the tail/leg joke had been discussed before, in the comments here.

    Graeme: Good question. Someone’s probably written about semantics for ordinary conditionals and contrafactuals, but I haven’t read about it. I’d say the difference is probably not in the semantics itself, but in the presuppositions that have to be satisfied.

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