Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Ask the Cashier

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2012

I’ve been teaching academic writing at Ohio State University’s ESL Composition Program this quarter (hence the sparse blogging). After class one day last week, I stopped at a coffee shop that was right inside the building to get a Coke to go with my lunch. As I handed my money to the cashier, I noticed the sign on the register:

Ask him if I’d like a receipt? What was I supposed to say, something like “Uh, would I like a receipt?”

What kind of weird question was that? Then, to use a phrase I’ve used before, like a Necker cube flipping inside out, the phrase shifted to match its meaning. I’d been parsing it like in the diagram on the left, when really it was intended to be read like the one on the right:

In the diagram on the left, the subordinate clause if you want a receipt is a complement to the verb, just like the cashier. The role the cashier plays is the person who gets asked something, and the subordinate clause has the role of whatever question is to be asked. You can parse it this way because if is something like an honorary wh word, so subordinate clauses it heads up can go with verbs like ask or wonder: I asked {what he was doing / where they were going / whether there was any pizza left / if we were free to go}.

In the diagram on the right, on the other hand, the verb ask only has one complement: the cashier. The question that gets asked goes unspoken, and you have to get it from the context, the same as you would in sentences like Ask mom. The if-clause, meanwhile, modifies the whole thing, saying under which conditions you should ask the cashier whatever question you have. We can parse it this way because if can also be used in its regular old “if” conditional sense.

So the intended meaning was this: If the circumstance arise in which you want a receipt, ask the cashier something. From context, the most obvious question is, “May I have a receipt?”

Meanwhile, the food court in the new student union has it right:

3 Responses to “Ask the Cashier”

  1. Florence said

    Thank Heaven for the Student Union. It’s late, and I wondered where you were going with this….it just did not read as it should have.

  2. The Ridger said

    Simply moving the subordinate clause to the front is the solution to so many syntactic ambiguities. It’s too bad it can – in long stretches of prose – mess up the information structure. Of course, in those long stretches you have far more context to resolve the ambiguities, so it generally works out.

  3. MBM said

    In Yoda-speak, the second version (the one with “if…” at the beginning) can be parsed in both ways too.

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