Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Take and Put the Desk Away

Posted by Neal on November 12, 2007

If I’d known how many “Friends in Low Places” coordinations (right-node wrappings) would cross my path this month, I’d’ve saved them all for one post, instead of writing about one of them here and another one here. Oh, well, too late now. I’ll just put the last couple I found in this post.

First of all, here’s one from a mother of a kid at Doug’s school, on what the teachers did to help this boy pay attention better:

They ended up taking and putting his desk away from the other kids.

Read as strictly parallel, this one would mean, “They took his desk away from the other kids, and put his desk away from the other kids.” That would be saying pretty much the same thing twice, though. The more sensible reading is the one in which take just means “seize, lay hands upon”; the desk is the direct object of both took and put, and the end location is associated only with put — in other words, the RNW reading.

The other one I got from the instructions for a game that one of the boys got in his stocking for Christmas last year, which we never got around to playing until last week. Here’s what they said:

The number of L’s indicates the amount of chips to be passed to the player on the left.
The number of R’s indicates the amount of chips to be passed to the player on your right.
The number of C’s indicates the amount of chips to be placed in the center pot.
The DOTS are neutral and players neither pass nor place chips in the pot for any DOTS rolled. (link)

There are a couple of ways to parse the last sentence in a strictly parallel manner. One is to take pass as an entire verb phrase, coordinated with the other entire VP place chips in the pot, like this: syntax_tree1.png
Thus, players don’t pass, and they don’t place chips in the pot. However, the preceding instructions show that pass does not have its intransitive game-playing sense of “forfeit a turn” here; it’s intended as a transitive, with chips being the items passed. The second parallel parse is to take pass and place as coordinated verbs, with chips in the pot to be dealt with shortly:

syntax_tree2.png

But in the pot is a problem: First of all, it should be into the pot to be syntactically well-formed as a directional prepositional phrase. Since we have in instead of into, the phrase has to be either an adjectival prepositional phrase modifying chips (“chips that are in the pot”) or an adverbial PP modifying pass chips (“pass chips while you’re in a pot”). Now that’s all just when we consider the pass. Whichever meaning you choose, it will be different from what you get with place: The meaning of place chips in the pot is “place chips so that they end up in the pot.” I won’t try to put all the syntax trees here; suffice it to say that using a single prepositional phrase in both these ways is borderline ungrammatical, at least for me. In any case, it wouldn’t make sense even if it were perfectly grammatical: The rules make it clear that in this sentence, to pass chips means to pass them to the right or the left, not either of the meanings we get when we insist on attaching in the pot to it. The intended meaning is for chips to be a direct object of both pass and place, but for in the pot to go only with place: neither pass chips (to the right or left), nor place chips in the pot.

3 Responses to “Take and Put the Desk Away”

  1. I don’t see why the last example is difficult, so long as you’re willing to accept FLOP coordinations. It seems to follow the FLOP model precisely. The intended coordination is, as you say, “neither (pass chips) nor (place chips in the pot).” So we have the standard FLOP form of verb, verb, single direct object for both verbs, adverbial phrase that modifies only the second verb. What’s the problem?

    It sounds like you have a problem with ‘in’ being used where ‘into’ would be more precise. But I can’t imagine you object to “I placed the gumdrop in my mouth.” If you don’t object to that, then I don’t see why the present example is any more problematic than “wash and put the dishes away.” Would “wash and put the dishes in the cupboard” raise any flags for you, aside from being a FLOP coordination?

  2. Neal said

    The last example is fine, and is a perfect specimen of a FLoP/RNW. The readings I can’t get for it are the non-RNW ones. Looking back at my posting, I see that I failed to put something to this effect as a concluding sentence. Sorry.

  3. Gary Essary said

    Frankly I know only how to place a gumdrop “into” my mouth. “Placing” requires movement from one place to another. “in” expresses only the immediate location (Sanskrit locative case); “into” expresses movement from one location to another (Sanskrit ablative case). Same applies to English on/onto.

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