Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Poisonous Syntax

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2008

Doug has recently been reading every book in Brian Jacques’s Redwall series that he can get his hands on. Earlier this week, he was telling me about scenes in several of the books in which one character is trying to poison another. In one, the poisoner pours the drink out of the same bottle for himself and the character to be poisoned, having wiped poison on the rim of the other’s glass. I told him of a similar scene in this book, where two characters each eat half of a single, freshly cut peach, and one dies of poisoning because the knife that sliced the peach was poisoned on one side of the blade. Doug told me of another scene, in which the ultimately poisoned character reaches not for the glass in front of him, but the one in front of his poisoner — a move that his poisoner anticipated. That, of course, reminded me of this now-classic scene (in a movie I’ve written about before), in which this kind of second-guessing was taken to its logically absurd conclusion.

So I popped the DVD in the DVD and pulled up the scene for Doug, and as I watched it, I suddenly picked up on … (answer after the jump)

It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadly poisons known to man.

That’s right, another first-order multiple-level coordination, with predicate adjectives (odorless, tasteless) conjoined with not one, but two entire verb phrases (dissolves instantly in liquid, is among the more deadly poisons known to man). And that reminds me of yet another multiple-level coordination I found just today, one that’s different from any others I’ve found. But that’s a different post.

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6 Responses to “Poisonous Syntax”

  1. The Ridger said


    That’s odd – I’d never picked up on that either.

  2. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    Oops! Someone didn’t link to the post they meant to link to!

  3. Neal said

    Thanks, Gordon. All fixed now.

  4. James Schumann said

    Hi. I am not a linguist, so please excuse my ignorance!

    In this example, is it possible “dissolves” functions in a similar way to “is”? So “is, [is], dissolves, is” all have the same role? Is this possible without making “is” an intransitive verb?

    I am interested in what your thoughts are. Thanks!

  5. Neal said

    If the man in black had put in another is, to say is odorless, is tasteless, dissolves…, and is among…, then we would just have a string of four verb phrases (three headed by is, and one headed by dissolves), and there wouldn’t be anything unusual to remark upon. But since he didn’t say that second is, we have something that’s a little hard to parse. Semantically, it seems to be four predicates, but syntactically, the second of them isn’t a verb phrase; it’s just the predicate adjective tasteless.

  6. […] a post from November, I wrote, “And that reminds me of yet another multiple-level coordination I found just today, […]

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