Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Why Can’t You Call Him and He Picks Up?

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2010

On one of the news channels this morning, they were talking about the “Tiger Woods syndrome”: thinking that, if even seemingly steadfast and true Tiger Woods could have cheated (and cheated so much) on his wife, your significant other could be cheating on you, too. They had some marriage counselors talk about their increased business since the Tiger Woods scandal broke, and then they brought on a private investigator who specialized in infidelity and had written a book on the top signs your SO is cheating on you. After an increased attention to personal fitness, and heightened possessiveness of cell phone and/or computer, the PI mentioned an increase in overtime hours at work. He asked,

If he’s at work, why can’t you call him at the office and he picks up?

Hey! I thought. That one’ll go right onto the examples page of my handout!

This is precisely the kind of coordination that I’ll be talking about at LSA this Thursday, and which longtime readers know I’ve blogged about on numerous occasions. Syntactically, it looks like a question (Why can’t you call him at the office?) coordinated with a declarative (he picks up), but of course it’s really one big question, asking why a particular set of events cannot occur; specifically, you calling him at the office, and him answering the phone when you do.

This coordination is a triple threat: It’s not just a wide-scoping modal (as in They must have escaped and no one noticed), or negation (as in A player should learn how salaries aren’t as great as they seem or last as long as expected), or question (as in Why am I working and you’re just sitting there?). Nor is it just a modal plus a negation (as in You can move this and these’ll move, but you can’t move these and this’ll move), or a negation and a question (as in Didn’t he get the job but they fired him a month later?), or even a question and a modal (as in Can you feed the cats and I’ll take out the trash?). No, indeed: It’s all three at once!

This reminds me that I really need to finish up my slides tonight. I’ll put a link to them here when they’re done.

6 Responses to “Why Can’t You Call Him and He Picks Up?”

  1. That quote just makes my head hurt. I’ve stared at it a while and I still don’t get from it what you say it means. I believe you, though… It’s just the way my brain works (or refuses to).

  2. Ran said

    Maybe this is an obvious point, but I find it really interesting how some of the weird syntax you post about is easy to “fix” so it uses normal syntax (e.g., “where the whiskey drowns my blues and the beer chases them away”; “she’s tall and blond and has blue eyes”; etc.), and some is really difficult (such as most of the wide-scoping operator examples). Logically, in the abstract, it might seem that one of these types would be vanishingly rare (say, that almost-normal examples would be rare because we can readily fix them during production, or conversely that far-from-normal examples would be rare because no small-scale production errors, applied to normal syntax, could generate them), but in practice the fixability doesn’t even seem to be a factor.

    (For the current example, by the way, the best I can do is this:

    > If he’s at work, why can’t you call him at the office and have him pick up?

    Is there a better way?)

  3. Zan said

    Language always fascinated me, and I really do love the way we humans manage to find science in everything. However, I cannot see how this sentence will not convey what the person meant to say. We all make similarly awkward sentences every day, because we are lazy, careless, casual, and most of all because we’ve become less and less socially deferential. “If you don’t understand me, that’s your problem.” 😉

    Anyhow, this is not to deter you from your outstanding work; I enjoy reading, I really enjoy reading you, mate.
Cheers, Z.

  4. Ok, I get it now that a couple of people have provided translations. And along the lines of what Zan is saying, I probably would have understood had I been talking to the speaker instead of reading this in print without the benefit of the suprasegmentals.

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