Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Cute as a Button in the Eye

Posted by Neal on February 20, 2009

We went to see Coraline last week. It’s an OK movie; it does a good job at setting a creepy mood, but even by its own internal logic, it doesn’t quite make sense (unlike, for example, Monsters, Inc. or the Toy Story movies). One of the best scenes has Coraline’s “Other Father” in a parallel world improvising a song in her honor. It’s an upbeat, catchy melody, which I learned in the end credits was written and performed by They Might Be Giants (you know, the guys who did “(You’re Not the) Boss of Me“). Here, see for yourself:

If you’ve seen the movie, or even just the previews (or read the graphic novel the movie is based on), you know that one of the unsettling details of the parallel world that Coraline visits is that all its inhabitants have buttons instead of eyes. They Might Be Giants have cleverly alluded to this fact in the line that goes:

She’s cute as a button in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline.

cute-as-a-buttonI love the syntactic ambiguity here. More specifically, it’s an attachment ambiguity. In the normal reading, the prepositional phrase in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline functions as a sentential adverb, modifying the sentence She’s as cute as a button, as shown in the diagram on the right.

cute-as-a-button2However, anyone who has been watching the movie up to this point is well primed to parse the prepositional phrase as modifying the noun button, as illustrated in the diagram on the left. Ordinarily this parse would be unconsciously discarded, in the same way as we’d never even think about parsing Kim disassembled the TV with a flat screen to mean that Kim used a flat screen to disassemble the TV. But in the context of the movie, both parses are salient, and both make sense (as long as you’re willing to stretch the meaning of in to include in place of, or on if you imagine the buttons to be placed on top of the eyes).

The only flaw in the exploited ambiguity is the clash between the singular a button and the plural the eyes. It’s hard, even impossible I’d say, to get a wide-scope reading of the eyes, so that we’re talking about one button for each eye. I keep thinking about a single button that is somehow in (place of) both eyes at once. That’s an extragrammatical correction you just have to grant in the name of artistic license.

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13 Responses to “Cute as a Button in the Eye”

  1. This is completely off-topic, but I just realized that I chose the same template (albeit a different color) for my blog as you have had here on Literal Minded for as long as I’ve been reading (which, granted, hasn’t been an especially long time). I just found that interesting.

    Carry on with your discussion about button eyes….

  2. Kimberly said

    I love this post for its clever combination of two of my favorite things: linguistics and They Might Be Giants songs. Thanks so much for this.

  3. The Ridger said

    TMBG are great – not just to listen to, but for parsing their lyrics.

    • Neal said

      Speaking of parsing their lyrics, here’s a couple of lines that I spent too much time thinking about from the first TMBG album I listened to (Flood):

      I returned a bag of groceries accidentally taken from the shelf before the expiration date.
      I came back as a bag of groceries accidentally taken from the shelf before the date stamped on myself.

      In other words, in the first sentence, a bag of groceries… is not a direct object, the thing that got returned. As the second sentence makes clear (assuming the sentences are supposed to mean the same thing), a bag of groceries… is a predicate nominative, like a boy and a man in I left home a boy, and returned a man. Now why it should be a bag of groceries that the speaker turned into, much less a bag of groceries all of whose contents had the same expiration date, I just had to write off as part of the absurdism of the song. And why should this particular syntactic ambiguity be worthy of including in a song? I have no idea. One line in that song did make sense, and has been food for thought for me at times: “Now it’s over, I’m dead and I haven’t done anything that I want. Or I’m still alive, and there’s nothing I want to do.”

  4. The Ridger said

    Then there’s “Turn Around” which begins

    I was working one night in my office
    When a man I had recently killed
    Called up from a phone on the corner
    So I stared out the window at him.

    Although the song does deal with ghosts and skulls, the next line reveals an ambiguity in the first one:

    He had the same obsequious manner
    That was the reason I had him killed…

    I’ve spend way too much time thinking about that one.

  5. The Ridger said

    I mean that “a man I had recently killed” could mean either that I personally killed him, or that I got someone else to kill him. That ambiguity is resolved by “the reason I had him killed” which cannot mean that I personally killed him. And tells us that maybe the man on the phone isn’t really dead, though he’s supposed to be.

    • Neal said

      OK, I get it. Simple past tense of have (s.o.) killed vs. past perfect tense of kill (s.o.). The first parse is so difficult to get because of the unusual placement of the adverb between the had and the killed.

  6. The Ridger said

    And the ambiguity comes since the first use is in a relative, and you don’t know where the gap is: a man [that] I had recently killed ____ vs a man [that] I had _____ recently killed

  7. AJD said

    Another interesting linguistic note about Coraline is that Coraline herself has the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which makes sense because she’s from Michigan. But Dakota Fanning, who plays Coraline, is from Georgia and had to learn to do the accent specifically for the role.

  8. I hadn’t even heard of this movie. Was this a main stream film?

  9. You may have missed that in the next part of the song he said “Pretty soon our eyes will be on Coraline”

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