Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

He’ll Be None the Wiser

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2014

Since I began this blog in 2004, I’ve been vague about where in central Ohio I live, but tonight I’m proud to say that I live in Reynoldsburg, where phenomenal community support for our public school teachers has seen them through a summer of appalling disrespect from the local board of education (except for one notable member) and superintendent, who did everything they could to cause a teacher strike. That strike began on September 19, and might finally be ending today, if a tentative agreement is approved by the teachers.

In other news, Doug and Adam, who have been sick this entire time, might finally be showing signs of recovery. In the mornings, I’ve still been packing a lunch for Adam before I head to work. It’s not that he can’t get himself lunch, but if I don’t make him one, he’ll end up just eating Cheerios for every meal. So a couple of days ago, I opened the bag of bread and pulled out the three slices that were left: two heels and a whatever-you-call-a-slice-that’s-not-a-heel. Dang it, it had happened again!

I remembered a conversation from a month ago, when I had been encouraging Adam to make his own sandwich for a change, and he said he couldn’t, because he’d have to use a heel.

“That’s not a problem,” I told him. “Just do what I do. I put the pieces of bread together, like this, and turn the heel crust-side-in, like this. Then I grab these kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I always do.” (Yes, I cut off the crusts. I don’t have to anymore, because Adam has recently started to eat his sandwiches with the crusts left on.) “Then I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, finish making the sandwich, and you’re none the wiser.”

“Oh, I most certainly am the wiser!” Adam said. “Every time you do that, my sandwich tastes funny.”

Almost as interesting as the fact that Adam was, and had been, hip to my trick, was his phrasing I am the wiser. At first I thought he had used a negative polarity item in a positive polarity context, you know, like he did when he was four years old, during another sandwich-related occurrence. But as I thought about it more, I realized that the plus any comparative did happen outside negations and questions, in phrases like all the better and even somewhat the wiser. In any case, you can use NPIs in positive contexts if you’re really emphasizing them, as in Yes, I do give a damn!, and Adam was definitely emphatic. Well, maybe it was because Adam used the wiser without a specifier saying how much the wiser he was: No somewhat, no all, not even very much. But a specifier isn’t necessary, either: I could just as easily have said: You’re never the wiser. So maybe it was the combination of his using the wiser with positive polarity and without a specifier. I don’t know, so that’s one reason I never wrote it up here. Besides, delivering “We Support Reynoldsburg Teachers” yard signs, going to rallies, passing around petitions, writing letters, and picketing the residences of members of the board of education on top of my actual job made it tough to find the time.

Anyway, here I was again, making a sandwich out of a heel. So I put the pieces of bread together, turned the heel crust-side-in, grabbed the kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I used to do. I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, sliced the banana on top of it, and laid on the top slice of bread. I put the whole thing in a sandwich container, and stuck a note to the top. The note read, “He’ll be none the wiser.”

When I arrived home that afternoon, Adam had eaten the lunch I’d made. On the table, he’d left my note, with an edit:

Oh, heel naw!

Ha! The linguistic hook of my potential post about the syntax and semantics of none the wiser had just become a post about the homophony of he’ll and heel … or rather, the homophony of he’ll and hill outside of careful speech, and not in a dialect that lowers [i] to [I] before [l] as a matter of course. My guess is that it’s a frequency effect, because he’ll is such a common word. Similarly for we’ll/will and she’ll/shill, but not for Neal/nil.

6 Responses to “He’ll Be None the Wiser”

  1. bradvines2014 said

    In the mornings, I STILL PACK a lunch for Adam before I head to work.
    Dang it, it happened again!
    I remembered a conversation from a month ago, when I ENCOURAGED Adam to make his own sandwich for a change
    I don’t have to anymore, because Adam recently started to eat his sandwiches with the crusts left on.
    At first I thought he used a negative polarity item in a positive polarity context

    That’s enough to make the point. Someone has a ‘have-has-had’ problem, an unrecognized ‘have-has-had’ problem. It’s a bad habit worth fixing.

    • bradvines2014 said

      Hmmm. It didn’t transmit all of it, but maybe that’e enough, the point being, that ‘had’ does not belong in front of a past tense verb, EVER.

      • Neal said

        Some of your corrections actually sound a bit strange. Not ungrammatical, but strange, and not transmitting quite the message I intended. I chose every tense deliberately, whether past (e.g. remembered), present perfect (I’ve been), present perfect progressive (I’ve still been packing), past perfect (had used), past perfect progressive (had been encouraging), or some other tense. For example, I’ve still been packing a lunch for Adam means that I’m still doing it these days (just like I still pack does), but also carries the meaning that it is a state of affairs that began in the past and is still true now … and may not be true much longer. Taking up another of your corrections, I thought he used a negative polarity item is downright confusing, because the time of his (possibly) using an NPI came before the I thought event, which was itself in the past. Your use of the simple past tense makes it sound like the events were concurrent, and I have to mentally adjust the timing after I read your version. The past perfect had used, on the other hand, places this event further in the past. Of course, it’s not mandatory to use past perfect tense; after all, English made do without a past perfect tense before such a tense developed, but these days it makes a useful meaning distinction.

        As for had not belonging before a past tense verb, you’re right: had went, had saw, had was, had ate are all nonstandard (although 3 of the 4 are common enough in some dialects). But had before a past participle, as in had gone, had seen, had been, had eaten, is fine.

  2. I’m surprised by your use of the word “heel” in this context (not involving feet), which I’ve never heard before. Wondering if it’s widespread in American English, or a local regionalism of yours, or something you picked up on your travels.

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