Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

She Never Saw a Dog and Didn’t Smile

Posted by Neal on April 30, 2018

A tweet about a dog lover and friend of Los Angeles Parks named Nicole Campbell went viral yesterday. More accurately, it was a tweet about the message on a plaque memorializing Ms. Campbell on a park bench in LA. Here’s the tweet, from Twitter user Jen d’Angelo:

Like Jen, I feel bad for laughing at this memorial to someone who must have been a lovely person to know, and who was clearly loved and admired by the people who bought this plaque. But I can’t help chuckling at the message that so neatly manages to say (under one parse) the complete opposite of what it intended. The intended message, of course, was one that could also have been phrased who never saw a dog without smiling, or who smiled whenever she saw a dog–or to put it the way they’d do in a semantics textbooks, a statement confirmed by one of Campbell’s friends in a reply to d’Angelo’s tweet. But I’m still smiling at responses such as “Why didn’t someone just show this poor woman a dog?”

The sentence is a nice example of an attachment ambiguity, which I’ve diagrammed below. The intended reading is on the left, in which never attaches “high”, to the entire verb phrase saw a dog and didn’t smile. The funny reading is on the right, where never attaches “low”, to just the VP saw a dog.

I think one of the factors that makes the sober-faced dogless reading so easy to get is that under the smiling-at-dogs reading, you have to mentally expand the sentence out to

…who never saw a dog, and never didn’t smile.

Here, you get a double negative that actually is intended to be read as making an affirmation: She always smiled. Negatives like that are harder to parse, although you do get them for effect sometimes…

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4 Responses to “She Never Saw a Dog and Didn’t Smile”

  1. Ran said

    > I think one of the factors that makes the sober-faced dogless reading so easy to get is that under the smiling-at-dogs reading, you have to mentally expand the sentence out to
    > > …who never saw a dog, and never didn’t smile.

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but that seems very different to me.

    The intended meaning is “[…] who never saw a dog without smiling“, i.e. “[…] who smiled whenever she saw a dog”.

    “[…] who never saw a dog, and never didn’t smile” would mean that she never saw a dog, and (separately) that she always smiled.

    • dainichi said

      I agree.

      There’s something interesting going on with the combination of conjunctions and negators here, because the contracted version of “who never saw a dog, and never didn’t smile” would have to be “who never saw a dog or didn’t smile”. Except this is weird too, because there’s something infelicitous about the stacked negatives “never” and “didn’t”, whether the construction is parallel or not, and I think that’s the point Neal is trying to make.

      There’s also the version “who didn’t ever see a dog and not smile”. The ambiguity is gone now, but I feel like there’s something unidiomatic about the “didn’t not”. What do native speakers think?

  2. Esme said

    Attachment ambiguity reminds me of meaning’s dependence on context. How else would we know which meaning is the intended one? It is unlikely that a person never saw a dog and that that would be something put on a tombstone. It is also hard to imagine a person that does not smile and that that would be put on their tombstone.

  3. […] never saw a dog and didn’t […]

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