Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Come In, Be Productive, or Just Relax

Posted by Neal on May 29, 2013

My sister Ellen got married this past weekend, and we’re all happy for her. (You know, the one whose father read to her when she was young, who was subjected to stupid linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from UTexas, earned her MD, and is now doing her residency?) One thing I’ve admired about Ellen since she started dating is that she doesn’t tolerate whiny or disrespectful guys. She dated some losers along the way (and who doesn’t?), but when their true nature became apparent, she dumped ’em. This guy has passed her filter, and we’re glad to have him in the family.

Anyway, during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the way back home, I noticed this sign outside a lounge that classier people than you get to hang out in:

Choose one. No, two! But not the last two.

Syntactically, this coordination is unremarkable. No weird multiple-level stuff going on, no right-node wrapping, or gapping, or other weird non-parallelisms or coordinations of different kinds of phrases. We have three imperative clauses joined by or: come in, be productive, just relax. Semantically, though, it doesn’t work for me. I think this was supposed to be a nested coordination, like this:

[Come in and [be productive or just relax]].

Unless, of course, the intended meaning is a three-way choice between coming in and doing whatever; staying out and being productive; and staying out and relaxing.

In other coordinations that seem to be missing a conjunction (i.e. the multiple-level coordinations such as sick (and) twisted and smells like old socks), the missing conjunction is the same as the one that isn’t missing. But here, the missing conjunction is and, while the audible one is or. So now the question is whether this is simply a mistake, or a variation in grammar as widespread as multiple-level coordinations? Since it’s the first example of its kind that I’ve found, I’m calling it an error. What do you think?

7 Responses to “Come In, Be Productive, or Just Relax”

  1. Glen said

    As I interpret it, the comma should have been a semi-colon. “Come in; be productive or just relax.” On the other hand, if there had been a second comma (before ‘or’), then I would have reacted the same way you did.

    • Ellen K. (not the sister) said

      I’m with Glen. The grammar is fine, the punctuation isn’t; the comma should be a semi-colon.

  2. L said


  3. the ridger said

    Russian uses commas for “and”, and so in fact do lots of people in casual writing. If you heard that said you wouldn’t be in doubt. It’s “come in and [be productive or just relax]” with the comma separating the clauses. Non-standard punctuation? Yeah. An error? I wouldn’t say so.

  4. the ridger said

    Dang, I meant to change that to “so in fact do lots of Americans”

  5. EP said

    I feel it should be [Come in and be productive [or just relax]].

    Or better yet:

    Come in and make the most of your time. Be productive or just relax.

    But now I’m fiddling around too much.

    • Jeuce said

      No, I would say not fiddling too much. I think that’s a much better construction and leaves less room for questions about semi-colons or missing conjunctions.

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