Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

In Line at the Videogame Store

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2008

Two days after Christmas, I was standing in line at the video game store. I had taken Doug and Adam there to use a couple of gift cards they’d gotten for Christmas. So many other people were doing the same thing (except with their own kids and their own kids’ gift cards, of course) that the checkout line stretched away from the checkout counter to the opposite wall, turned and continued to the back wall, turned again and continued until it reached the wall that ran behind the checkout counter, and finally stopped about five feet away from the counter itself. Within five minutes of entering the store, I turned Doug and Adam loose to browse on their own while I took my place in the line. I wanted to serve my waiting-to-check-out-time and my waiting-for-the-kids-to-make-up-their-minds time as concurrent sentences.

I was pleased when a father and his teenage son joined the line behind me. (I’m always pleased when other people join a long line after me, and I always feel like a fool when I join a long line and remain the last person in it for the duration.) The father asked, “Does the line start here?” and I had a brief “I don’t know which end is front!” moment. I guess from the father’s point of view, the beginning of the line corresponds to the beginning of your waiting time, and ends where your wait ends. Under this view, a line is like a digestive tract, which starts where the food goes in and ends at the other end. The way I look at it is that if you tell someone who cuts in to go to the back of the line, then the other end of the line is the front, and like a book, the line’s beginning is its front. Also under my view, the people who have been standing in line longer are nearer its beginning.

Anyway, whichever way you look at it, I was somewhere near the middle of the line when I gradually became aware of a woman making her way along the line behind me, stopping every few feet to ask the people in line something. When she got to the my section of the line, she stopped again.

nintendo-ds_476x357“Does anybody here want a DS?” she asked.

The teenager behind me couldn’t believe his luck. Some woman was looking to get rid of a Nintendo Dual Screen handheld game player! I was thinking maybe her kids had received one too many for Christmas, but still, I thought, it took a certain amount of moxie to walk into a place of business where video game systems were sold, approach its customers, and offer to cut them a deal on a used (or perhaps merely “pre-owned”) DS. Maybe she was even offering it for free. The teenager, however, didn’t ask questions. He just gave the woman an enthusiastic “Yeah!”

“Oh!” The woman gave an embarrassed smile. “Uh, I didn’t mean for free.” She went on to explain that there was only one DS left in stock, and before she stood in line to get it, she wanted to make sure she wasn’t wasting her time.

What she said wasn’t really ambiguous. The teenager and I both thought the woman wished to find out whether anyone in the line wanted a DS, and we were right. The communication breakdown came with our interpretation of the purpose behind her question. We took her question as a speech act of offering. The conditions were right: The woman presumably was not just asking out of idle curiosity, and it was shared knowledge that most people in the line wanted to acquire videogame-related items. The only condition that wasn’t common knowledge was that the woman possessed and was willing to give away (or sell cheaply) a DS, but that could be accommodated. After all, it’s often the case that when someone offers to do something, their willingness to do so has not been previously known. It was a little surprising, but not as surprising as some acts of kindness that have actually happened, like a customer at a diner leaving a million-dollar tip for their server, or someone donating a kidney to a stranger. And, as became apparent, the common speech act of an offer was a lot easier to imagine than the somewhat less common speech act of finding out whether anyone else is planning to buy something that you want and of which there is only one.

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4 Responses to “In Line at the Videogame Store”

  1. viola said

    So really, the speech act is an indirect way of communicating? As a result, couldn’t it be interpreted indirectly or easily misinterpreted, resulting in ambiguity? I would think that purpose or intent could be easily misconstrued when speech acts are used, and would prefer a more direct way of communication. This is an interesting example. It’s nice the lady defined her purpose after realizing she disappointed the teenager. It’s also interesting how she decided to use the process of elimination in order to manage her time.

  2. The Ridger said

    “Is anyone in line for a DS?” would have been less ambiguous, but context is king. In the woman’s mind, possessing all the context, her question was not ambiguous at all. Much of life’s cross-purpose derives from that: insufficiently-common background knowledge. But you always have to weigh that against the Gricean violation of saying too much.

  3. parvomagnus said

    For me, at least, a line begins at the back and ends at the front.

  4. hjælmer said

    This brings to mind two of my early language-learning experiences: When I was 10 and spoke no German I was taken to visit relatives in Germany. My slightly older cousin was showing me some age-appropriate geegaws, which I wanted to examine more closely. I was able to stammer out, “Kann ich…?” which in my mind I complete with the then unknown “sehen,” but which he completed with “haben.” He became very possessive, and to this day I’m always very careful when I write or speak to him.

    A few years later I returned to college from Christmas break, and learned from a classmate that his grandfather had died. We were in a second year French class together, and the morning after he’d told me the news the teacher asked us about our holidays. My friend said, “J’ai vu la mort de mon grandpère.” The teacher (and probably the class) sorted through the strange sentence to get to the point of seeing that condolences were appropriate. But since I already knew the information he was trying to convey, I was able to focus on his helplessly clever way of expressing it, and giggled, thereby branding myself as a horribly insensitive person. (I apologized to my friend, who said he understood what I was reacting to.)

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