Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Before You Drink That

Posted by Neal on August 8, 2013

As Adam was getting the DVD cued up and the subtitles turned on, I saw Doug walk in with his movie snacks: a bowl of chips and a tall glass of milk. A tall glass of milk! I had to speak up, fast:

Hey, Doug, before you drink that milk, you want to go for a run after the movie?

Doug’s response, naturally, was “What?” The before bit and the after bit were clashing with each other. What sequence of events was I proposing? Movie first, then run, then milk? But then how could he drink his milk while watching the movie?

But I’d bought myself enough time that I could explain what I’d meant. Doug had been wanting to do some running, in preparation for the grueling physical conditioning that he knew he was in for in band camp. Sometimes I would go running with him. The other relevant fact was that Doug had discovered that drinking a big glass of milk before he played a game of soccer or went on one of these runs usually wasn’t such a good idea. I just wanted to suggest the possibility of going running so that he could make his decision right now, and then drink the milk or save it for later accordingly.

In other words, before you drink that milk wasn’t modifying go for a run; it was modifying the whole sentence do you want to go running after the movie?. Actually, even that isn’t entirely accurate. Before you drink that milk was modifying the entire utterance. It was as if I was saying,

Before you drink that milk, I ask you: Do you want to …?

Cribbing from the introduction of a paper by Chris Potts, I see that modifiers like these have been called utterance modifiers, second-order adverbs, and pragmatic adverb, and illocutionary adverb. Others include frankly, just between you and me, and the oft-criticized usage of hopefully. Potts himself notes that they have a “metalinguistic” feel, using a word that I used in a recent post, and which my brother Glen asked me about in the comments. Metalinguistic describes something whose meaning isn’t part of the ordinary meaning you get from a phrase by using ordinary rules of grammar; rather, the meaning is about the speaker’s attitude. The best-known example of metalinguistic stuff is probably metalinguistic negation, a term coined by Larry Horn to describe utterances such as, “It’s not a shtraw, it’s a straw.” The speaker is not denying that the object is a straw; they’re objecting to someone’s pronunciation of the word straw.

So I had sandwiched the heart of the clause do you want to go running with an utterance modifier Before you drink that milk at the beginning and a VP modifier after the movie at the end. Doug, however, had taken them both as VP modifiers.

Here’s a diagram of just Do you want to go running after the movie?. You know after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run because the two phrases are under one roof, which is the bigger VP go for a run after the movie.

Watch the movie, then run.

Now here’s a diagram of just Before you drink that milk, do you want to go for a run? with the before clause modifying the entire utterance, as I intended. (I don’t have a way of distinguishing sentential modifiers such as probably and utterance modifiers like frankly, but since that difference isn’t the main point of this post, I won’t worry about it.) You know that before you drink… is modifying the entire sentence do you want… because the two chunks combine to form another, bigger sentence.

Before you drink that, lemme ask you a question

Now here it is modifying just the VP go for a run. It looks almost the same as the earlier diagram, but there’s one difference. Notice that the PP label for before you drink… has a subscript 1, and that next to go for a run, there’s an empty place where you might find an adverb phrase, labeled GAP, with a matching subscript 1. This is the syntactic structure of a sentence with a so-called “extracted adjunct”; i.e. a verb modifier put at the beginning of the sentence instead of the usual place for VP modifiers.

So how do we parse before you drink… as modifying go for a run? Like this:

Run first, then drink

Now what happens if we try to parse a clause with both an extracted VP modifier and one in situ? It’d look sumpm like this:

Movie, run, drink; what's the problem?

Here, after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run, and before you drink that milk is modifying the larger VP go for a run after the movie.

In any case, Doug didn’t want to go for a run that day, so he drank his milk, ate his chips, and watched the movie. He did fine at band camp, by the way. He’s quite happy with the six pack that has begun to appear on his torso, and has surprised himself with how many pushups he’s become able to do in one go.

UPDATE, 10 Aug. 2013: What the hell happened?! The post that readers were commenting on up until now is not what I thought I had published! The whole bit about two PPs trying to fill the same spot is, as Randy noted, not a problem, and I thought I had taken that whole paragraph and diagram out. Furthermore, there was other stuff that I added, which did not appear in what got published. I have re-done the revisions that apparently didn’t stick last time, and the post in its current form is what I intended to publish.

15 Responses to “Before You Drink That”

  1. In all of your diagrams, I think you’ve reversed the ‘do’ and ‘you’; you have them as NP and Aux respectively.

    • Neal said

      Shoot! You’re right. To change them, I’d have to redo every diagram, download it, save it, and substitute it for the incorrectly labeled one currently in the post. So I don’t think I’ll bother, since most of what I want to talk about is elsewhere in the sentence.

  2. Randy Alexander said

    I think intonation would influence the interpretation heavily. If you say “before you drink that milk” in a higher intonation (maybe followed by a pause) it would set it off from the matrix clause, but if you say it in the same way that you say “after the movie” then I think there would be confusion.

    I don’t see any problem with “two PPs trying to fill the same spot”. Isn’t multiple PPs a common feature in English? It’s quite a different thing from having two objects, or (like you illustrated) assigning two different functions simultaneously to a certain category.

    Speaking of functions and categories, I think if one has to choose between function labels and category labels in a diagram, function labels would be much more useful. I think most readers would be able to identify “after the movie” as a PP, and “you” as an NP. But if you still want to put in the category labels, isn’t there a way to put them both in? (On separate lines, maybe?)

  3. Randy Alexander said

    (Sorry, forgot to check the follow-up comments checkbox.)

  4. Mar Rojo said

    Sometimes you drive me bonkers with your inability to understand normal utterances. Your question to Doug is easily understood.

  5. Mar Rojo said

    I’m often heard saying things such as/like this: “Hey, Carlito, before you put your tennis shoes on, you wanna play football after the class?”

    Carlito never says “What?”.

    • Ran said

      One of my friends in college was always annoyed because I’d ask him to clarify things that didn’t make sense to me. He would often complain, “well, everyone else understood!”

      Whenever we checked, it always turned out that no one else knew exactly what he meant, either — they just didn’t care to clarify.

      So, fortunately for Neal, it seems that Doug cares what he has to say; and unfortunately for you, . . .

    • Neal said

      Yeah, I don’t know why, between the two parses I sketched out above, Doug went for the one he did. Maybe he was expecting something like, “Before the movie, would you mind shutting the blinds” or something like that.

  6. Mar Rojo said

    I know you understood what you said, but you seem to suggest that many others wouldn’t. Maybe I misunderstand your reasons for discussing this form.


    This might be a tad confusing: “Hey, Carlito, before you put those tennis shoes on, you wanna to go for a curry after the film?”

    But not this:

    “Hey, Carlito, before you put those tennis shoes on, you wanna play footie this afternoon?”

  7. Mar Rojo said

    Ran, I’ve put Neil’s question to Doug around the language forums and around our office in the past few days, almost all said it is easily understood in context. Maybe it’s not that we don’t understand, but that we try hard not to understand. The latter approach seems to make for better blogposts. 😉

    • Neal said

      I don’t think it’s so much that I try hard not to understand. I pay more attention to the little flicker of misunderstanding that most people quickly leap past and forget about. I ask myself why it happened, and sometimes get an interesting blog post out of it. Other times I really do misunderstand, long enough to be confused and give an inappropriate response.

  8. ASG said

    This is an interesting post but I’m not sure I agree with the way you glossed the sentence. I didn’t read it as, “I ask you [this question] before you drink the milk,” because that’s not interesting information and not very relevant to the situation. It would be like saying the clause means “At 4:27 p.m. I ask you”, which may well be true, but isn’t why you added that clause. I understood the clause correctly on my first pass, I think (i.e., I didn’t share your friend’s confusion about temporality when reading the sentence), but I would gloss it differently. Maybe more like: “Wait! Don’t drink the milk until you think about this”. Or, “Your choice to drink milk is contingent upon this.” The “before” here is not quite temporal. It’s something almost… causal? Like the frequent ambiguity in English with the word “since”, which you’ve written about before, but backwards. I hope I’m making sense.

    • Ran said


      > Before you drink that milk, consider this: Do you want to …?

      As for not-quite-temporal uses of “before”, is that the same as this? :

      • ASG said

        Oh, cool! I didn’t know the term “veridical” before, so thanks for linking that. That is clearly one thing that’s going on here.

        I think there’s an element in Neal’s milk sentence that isn’t captured by “sit down before you fall down” though. True story: after writing that comment I went to Starbucks, a terrible habit of mine, and ordered a half-sweet mocha, another terrible habit of mine. A lot of baristas mistakenly assume that because I like my mocha half-sweet I also don’t want whipped cream. So yesterday the barista started to put a flat cap on the cup. And I said:


        Of course I wasn’t using “actually” literally, or even metaphorically. “Actually” was not modifying the content of the sentence that followed it in any way. Rather, it functioned as a polite way of saying “Wait, stop.” And she understood me perfectly, because she paused and waited for me to clarify that I wanted whipped cream too. In the conversation about the milk, I’m imagining Neal saying “Before you drink that” in a similar tone.

        I realize this post isn’t about illocutionary/perlocutionary stuff and that angle may not interest Neal very much, but I think it was niggling at me a little when I read the original sentence; the Starbucks experience clarified the “wait!” aspect a bit for me in my mind. Also, both sentences are about dairy products! I bet there’s a journal article in that somewhere. 🙂

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