Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Family Owned and Imitated

Posted by Neal on July 21, 2009

A tire shop that opened a year or two ago puts funny messages on its marquee. They’re so funny that I can’t seem to recall any of them right now, except of course for the one I’m going to tell you about now. It said:

Family Owned and Imitated

Family owned: So a family, let’s call them the Smiths, owns this business. Family imitated: A family (presumably the Smiths again) also imitates this business. The Smiths imitate their own business? How is that possible? Maybe it’s like that that Greek family I read about. They ran a chocolate shop in nearby Granville for years, but then had a falling out, so that there are now two chocolate shops, run by two branches of the same family, located within two blocks of each other in downtown Granville, each claiming to possess the truest version of the family’s recipes for chocolate confections.

Family-owned, and competitors imitate us!A family owns and imitates this business...?But never mind that. I’m pretty sure all they’re saying is that this business is family-owned, and that it’s imitated. This reading makes sense: Lots of businesses say that they’re imitated, usually before a warning that they’re never equalled or duplicated. In this reading, the coordinated elements are family-owned and imitated, as illustrated on the left.

To get the reading that leads you to imagine a rift in the family, you have to parse it with just owned and imitated as the coordinated elements, with family applying to both, as illustrated on the right. So why did I want to parse it this way, anyway, since it gives the weird and unlikely reading?

It’s at least partly because of the common collocation that the sign is harking to: Family Owned and Operated (or sometimes, family owned and run). In those phrases, family is clearly intended to form a compound with both owned and operated, as in the diagram. After all, who’d want to say that a family owns some particular place of business, and that (get this) someone operates it? If it’s open at all, the latter claim is obvious, and stating it violates the principle of Relevance. Only if it’s taken to mean “family-operated” does the statement say something useful: The fact that some place is run by the family that owns it might not be obvious to the casual observer. A family owns and operates this business.

By using this recognizable phrase as their point of departure, they primed me to parse Family Owned and Imitated in the stupid way. Now that I think about it, though, family owned and operated could be useful as a deceptively ambiguous phrase, for a family that has recently contracted out the operation of its family business but doesn’t want to change the wording in their advertisements. I wonder if that’s been done. Do any of you know of businesses that advertise that they’re “family owned and operated”, and are operated by someone other than the family?

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4 Responses to “Family Owned and Imitated”

  1. Viola said

    Isn’t that Sunoco on Main Street by Kroger advertised as family owned and operated? The mechanic and his son (who are not related to the owner) operate the auto repair and maintenance portion. If I recall correctly, one of the gals who runs the counter is related to the mechanic and his son, but the rest who work there are not related.

  2. In a phrase like “family owned and oparated”, I wonder if you could ever read “family” as referring to two different families: one that owns the place and another that operates it. As in: “family-1 owned and family-2 operated”. Is that reading possible at all, or is it too crazy? What would the syntax tree look like?

  3. Neal said

    Viola: This sounds more like an “owned and family-operated” situation, which would probably be better expressed as just “family operated”, leaving the hearer to infer that it’s not family-owned. To refer to the situation you describe as “family owned and operated” just strikes me as untruthful. Is that really how they present themselves?

    Michal: After reading Viola’s comment, I started thinking about just this situation. The syntax tree would look just the same; I take it to be a matter of pragmatics whether one interprets it to means the same family does the owning and the operating.

  4. Viola said

    Neal: I remember reading an article about the station in the small quarterly city magazine and they emphasized family owned and operated. Taking it literally, I read the article again, because it seemed a little hinky…
    They’re damn good at what they do and they have a mom & pop shop feel. I didn’t let the advertisement thingy get the best of me. ;0)

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