Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

vicious1vicious2On 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:favorite3Here 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.

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15 Responses to “Your Favorite Covered Dish or Dessert”

  1. The Ridger said

    Of course, that popcorn was already a violation, no matter how you parse it.

  2. The Ridger said

    ps – I’m not at home so I can’t upload it, but is this it?

    [NP your [NP favorite [NP [NP covered dish] or [NP dessert]]]]

  3. Robin said

    Hey Neal,

    In the final parse, where ‘your’ doesn’t scope over ‘dessert’, I’m not sure I see why the ‘all the dessert’ reading is the only possible one. The reason is that I can easily imagine an organized host writing something like:

    (Each guest whose birthday is in May should bring wine, and) each guest whose birthday is in June should bring dessert.

    By your reading of ‘dessert’, every June-born guest should bring enough dessert for everyone. Thoughts on this?

  4. Neal said

    Of course, I naturally would not have suggested the popcorn, not even have considered suggesting it, had I known at the outset the specific request. Now as for your parse, it looks like my first one, except that where I have N, you have NP (with it understood that your and favorite are Det and Adj, respectively). The only problem is that I don’t think covered dish can work as a full NP: *We brought covered dish, *Covered dish is available.

    If I read the note, I would first take it to mean I had to bring dessert for everyone. But then I’d remember that you were sending the same note to multiple people, and then my interpretation would crash. I’d either have to ask for clarification, or mentally insert an a before dessert.

  5. Christine corgi said

    Would you use Reed-Kellogg diagrams in the future?

  6. Neal said

    Once I learned about tree diagrams, I was done with Reed-Kellogg ones. I find tree diagrams much easier to read, and more informative. For example, you can have category labels on them, and tree diagrams distinguish between adjuncts (modifiers) and complements. For a phrase like put the doll in the box, a Red-Kellogg diagram (correct me if I’m wrong) would have in the box under the line for put as a modifier, just as it would for sit in the box, whereas a tree diagram would have both the doll and in the box as complements to put. I’m sure the R-K system could be fixed to allow for newer insights like that one, but tree diagrams already have a means of doing so.

  7. The Ridger said

    I have lots of students who like R-K but I don’t like the way it handles that, or indirect object prepositional phrases either.

    And Neal, oops – I missed that mine is the same as the very first one you posted. I was looking at the last one. I plead distraction.

  8. Jacob said

    I think the bigger question here is why your wife said “what should we bring” instead of “what should we take”? I thought perhaps she does not read your column and was not familiar with the correct use of the verbs “bring and take”, but then I noticed that later in the article you used the phrase “we could bring them to my sister-in-law’s party.” It’s been over forty years since I was in school, but I don’t recall the use of these verbs having changed, or did I miss something?

  9. The Ridger said

    Surely, “correct use” of bring and take depends on only the speaker’s point of view. “What should we bring” would be focusing on what we carry away from our house, “what should we take” on what we have when we arrive, and either is “correct”.

  10. Jacob said

    Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) defines “bring” as “to convey, lead, carry, or cause to come along with one toward the place from which the action is being regarded.” The key part is the last clause: “from which the action is being regarded.” In order to use bring, the speaker/writer must already be at the destination to which the person or object is being conveyed. Obviously, no one is at the sister’s party yet.


    From website
    Bring is used when something is being moved towards the speaker.
    • Bring me that book.
    Take is used when something is being moved away from the area of the speaker.
    • Take that paper with you.
    • I shall take my bother with me when I go.
    • Shall I take her a cup of tea in bed?

  11. Neal said

    Interesting points. I didn’t even notice think about bring vs. take throughout the whole event or the writing about it. I am aware of the distinction, and even try to maintain it, but often I find myself telling the kids things like, “Bring your shoes upstairs when you go up,” and then wondering why I said bring. And usually it is this direction of substitution: bring for take and not the other way around. My suspicion is that I’m thinking ahead to 5 minutes from now, when I’ll be upstairs too to brush their teeth, or in the case of the party, several hours ahead, when we’re there, looking for a place to set the food we brought. (Uh, took. No, brought, because the scene is us at the party now.) In other words, I take it to be a performance error. Or, OTOH, maybe M-W’s definition and the Ridger’s could be closer than they look, if we take “the place from which the action is being regarded” to include not only the actual place from which the action is being regarded, but also the imagined place (as I was describing). Of course, you could dismiss this as a total cop-out: Whenever someone appears to make a bring/take error, it’s because they were thinking ahead to the ultimate destination! In its favor, though, is my observation that my errors usually have bring for take, not vice versa. To apply the same explanation to that kind of error, you’d have to say someone was thinking back to the point of origin. Also, consider if we were on the phone to the sister-in-law. If my wife had said, “We’ll be taking some brownies,” that would’ve been weird, like we were going to come (go?) to her house and take brownies home with us. No, she’d’ve said, “We’ll be bringing some brownies,” because she’s framing things from her sister’s point of view at the moment. [Note to self: This could be a good question to explore in a corpus. What percentage of bring tokens are used in places where you’d expect take, and what percentage of take tokens occur where you’d expect bring? Any patterns?]

    All that said, I think the definition at was written carelessly when it anchored everything to the speaker. Bring could be used when something is moved toward the addressee: I’ve brought you a present! Take could be used when something is being moved away from someone other than the speaker: I took this from my workplace.

    Also, what if the sister-in-law’s party had been BYOB? “It’s bring-your-own-beer, so we have to bring our own beer.” No, for the host, it’s a BYOB party; for the guests, it’s TYOB. (Shoot, I think I’ve just cheated myself out of a good April Fool’s grammar rant.)

  12. viola said

    My better half corrects me on bring/take issues. Your explanation about thinking ahead brings a bit of peace to my mind because I’m still in the habit of interchanging the two–perhaps incorrectly, perhaps correctly. Could this be another way that “proper” grammar evolves?

    As an aside, you must not have blown your workout/eat right routine too badly. You’ve been looking rather dapper lately if I say so myself. It’s an encouragement to the rest of us, so keep up the good work!

  13. Ellen K. said

    Jacob: Seems to me I don’t have to be at a place to be regarding the action from that place. Yes, one can regard the movement of the food from the perspective of the party even before the party, and even when not at the place it will occur.

  14. ron said

    The most common sense interpretation is that “your” is modifying “favorite”. Consider if the phrase had been “bring Joey’s favorite covered dish or dessert.” That doesn’t mean you break into Joey’s house and steal the favorite desert that is there!

    More reasonable interpretation:
    [NP [NP your [NP favorite]] NP[[NP covered dish] or [NP dessert]]]

    ‘favorite’ generally requires some sort of clarification as to whose favorite you’re talking about. Without that clarification, it would be “THE favorite”, the most popular covered dish amongst the entire population (maybe macaroni casserole?) or the most popular dessert (chocolate chip cookies?)

    All of your diagrams would suggest that you could bring the macaroni casserole that belongs to you.

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