Your Favorite Covered Dish or Dessert
Posted by Neal on November 4, 2008
“What do you suppose we should bring?” my wife asked me.
“I know,” I said. “We can get rid of those canisters of Cub Scout popcorn.” I couldn’t very well go around the neighborhood with Adam asking people to buy popcorn to help out his Cub Scout pack without buying some myself, but now we had two canisters of caramel popcorn sitting in our pantry. Not to mention the canister of chocolate-covered popcorn left over from the three we bought last year. I didn’t want to open them because if I did, I’d eat it all in one day, and erase days of progress from the gym. We could bring them to my sister-in-law’s party and kill two birds with one stone.
“OK, but we need to bring something else, too,” my wife said. (So much for my clever idea.) “The invitation says to bring your favorite covered dish or dessert, why don’t I make up those brownies? That’ll be easy.”
“Hey wait,” I said. “Are brownies your favorite dessert? She didn’t say to just bring any old dessert or a dessert that was easy to make; she said to bring your favorite.” My wife likes brownies, as do I, but carrot cake is a better candidate for her favorite dessert. Mine is lemon meringue pie, but danged if I wanted to spend my day making a lemon meringue pie that I’d have to share with other people! But my wife found a loophole.
But first, if you’re wondering what exactly constitutes a covered dish, I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s so important that the dish we bring be one that requires covering; all I know is that these potluck affairs never do ask for uncovered dishes, or even cut you some slack by saying “Bring a dish (covered or uncovered).” Anyway, back to the issue of our favorite dessert…
“That’s OK,” she said. “It didn’t say your favorite covered dish or your favorite dessert; it said your favorite covered dish or dessert, so favorite could just have scope over covered dish.’
She was right! So she made the brownies; we took them; I ate about half a dozen of them, along with chili and pineapple upside-down cake, and drank two Cokes, and erased days of progress from the gym.
On the way home, though, I realized there was a flaw in my wife’s brownie defense. The ambiguity she aimed to exploit really does exist, in phrases like your vicious cats and dogs. If you’re talking about vicious cats and vicious dogs, you want the parse on the left. There, cats and dogs are coordinated by and, and the resulting chunk is modified by vicious. This one could be paraphrased as your vicious cats and your vicious dogs. If, on the other hand, you’re talking about vicious cats and about dogs that could be vicious, friendly, or anything else, you want the parse. on the right. Here, vicious modifies cats, and the resulting chunk is coordinated with dogs. It could paraphrased as your vicious cats and your dogs.
Now let’s try that with your favorite covered dish or dessert. One way to parse that is the way I understood it, with favorite applying to both covered dish and dessert. It could be diagrammed as in the parse on the left, with or coordinating covered dish and dessert, and favorite modifying that entire chunk. This parse could be paraphrased as your favorite covered dish or your favorite dessert. The parse my wife proposed, with favorite modifying only covered dish, would be something like the diagram to the right.
However, here’s the problem. Just as the “vicious cats” example in the diagram above it could be paraphrased your vicious cats and your dogs, this reading could be paraphrased as your favorite covered dish or your dessert. My wife’s parsing just stopped making sense. “Bring your dessert”? That sounds like there’s only one dessert that we make, and it’s a dessert uniquely identified with us, and they’re asking us to bring it.
In fact, there is one more parse that would have favorite modifying only covered dish. It’s this one:Here we’ve bundled both your and favorite together with covered dish to form a full noun phrase, and coordinated that with another full noun phrase, dessert. Unlike covered dish, dessert can do this. It can work both as a noun (combining with determiners to form noun phrases such as the dessert or your dessert) and as a noun phrase (as in, It’s time for dessert or Let’s have dessert). But I wouldn’t want to go with this reading. Interpreted this way, the request is for us to either bring our favorite covered dish (to take its place among the other covered dishes that people have brought); or bring not a dessert, or our favorite dessert, but dessert, period. All the dessert. Enough dessert for everyone, and believe me, we didn’t want to do that, because my sister-in-law’s boyfriend has a huge family.
No, the only reasonable way to take your favorite covered dish or dessert was for it to mean “your favorite covered dish or your favorite dessert”, and so I have to admit that my wife and I failed to honor the request on the invitation.
Furthermore, even if we had brought our favorite dessert, we still might not have fulfilled the request: your favorite covered dish or dessert could also mean the one recipe that we like the best out of all our pooled recipes of covered dishes and desserts. If we liked our favorite covered dish better than our favorite dessert, then we’d have to bring in the covered dish, not the dessert. This ambiguity doesn’t correspond to a different tree diagram, and to tell you the truth, I don’t exactly know where it’s coming from. I guess I’d better do a bit more reading on the semantics of or.
This entry was posted on November 4, 2008 at 12:39 am and is filed under Ambiguity, Coordination, Food-related. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.