Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘You’re so literal!’ Category

Changing History

Posted by Neal on November 30, 2013

So, about that news-related idea for a post that my mother had last week

Another of the reporters talking about the Kennedy assassination said something along the lines of:

Fifty years ago today, Lee Harvey Oswald changed history.

Mom’s observation (eagerly seconded by Dad): No, he didn’t. You can’t change history unless you have a time machine, and even then you can’t do it unless we’re living in a Back to the Future-style universe instead of an Anubis Gates-style universe.

That last observation was my contribution to the conversation. Mom’s complaint has occurred to me before, when I’ve heard the phrase. I haven’t blogged about it, because all I’ve had to say about it is what I just said. I would have categorized it under “You’re so literal!” and said how in contexts outside of science fiction and theoretical physics, change history is shorthand for change the course of history.

Now that I think about it, though, why should <I>change the course of history</i> get any closer to the desired meaning than change history? Isn’t that just shorthand for something like change the course of how future history would most likely have turned out, had you not intervened? Or to put it more concisely, make history? So, change history, make history, synonyms.

But one video put this topic on my to-be-blogged list, where it was then kicked to the top by Mom’s observation. The video, sent to me by my Uncle Ricky, is about the Boeing CHAMP missiles, which are designed to use a microwave pulse to disable all electronics in a target area. It’s about a successful test flight in Utah last August. “Today we made science fiction science fact,” said Keith Coleman, the CHAMP program manager. At the end of the video, the narrator says that Boeing and Air Force researchers

… are now analyzing data and telemetry from this flight, which not only made history, but stands to change it as well.

What? Not only … but … what do they mean? I think this commenter on the article got it right:

Sorry, I must’ve missed the bit describing its time travel abilities.  Bloody reporters speaking out of their a*se!

BTTF timeline by mysticalpha

BTTF timeline by mysticalpha

Posted in Ambiguity, You're so literal! | 1 Comment »

Thank You Much

Posted by Neal on October 18, 2011

Jessica Hagy’s webcomic Indexed makes frequent use of Venn diagrams. This one from July has the sets Nouns and Verbs intersecting in a set labeled Heinous Business Speak. So, according to this diagram, every noun that can be used as a verb or verb that can be used as a noun is an example of heinous business speak. This would mean that (as one commenter hinted) speak is heinous business speak, as are run, walk, and swim. Moreover, this diagram states that every example of heinous business speak is something that is both a noun and a verb. This would mean that going forward, at the end of the day, think outside the box, and pick the low-hanging fruit are not heinous business speak. They may be heinous, or they may be business speak, but not both.

I know, I know, it’s just a frickin’ joke; why don’t I have a sense of humor? Part of the humor of using technical language, concepts, or methods for silly things is doing it accurately. When Tom Lehrer put the names of all the known elements to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” it was funny because he didn’t make up stupid element names; he used real ones, and all of them that existed as of 1959. When the Roman guard corrects Brian’s Latin grammar, it’s funny not only because we don’t expect that as a reaction to an act of graffiti, but also because Romanes eunt domus really should be Romani, ite domum (at least in Classical Latin). As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Furthermore, Jessica Hagy is contributing to a sloppy understanding of various math concepts by people who laugh at her comics but aren’t entirely clear on how Venn diagrams work. xkcd pulls this kind of thing off better.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. In the peeve-fest that followed in the comments, one commenter wrote:

What gets me is that now people are using the phrase “Thank You much” instead of “Thank You very much” or just “Thank You.” It just sounds so wrong and annoys me every time I hear it.

Another commenter responded:

It just sounds lazy – they’re obviously so appreciative that they can’t put the effort into a complete sentence.

The idea that Thank you much is bad grammar or not a complete sentence can be found elsewhere on the web:

its makes them sound stupid because its not a sentence they forgot the very part. (link)

The sentiment isn’t limited to people with poor punctuation skills, either. From a thread on

“Thank you much.” is not correct English.

You can say “thank you very much” or even “thank you so much”.

I responded to the Indexed commenter:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

Suppose the commenter really was objecting to this use of unadorned much as a positive polarity item (PPI). In fact, there are times when PPI much sounds just fine without a very. It can modify comparative adjectives or adverbs: much better, more more quickly, etc. It also works if it has a too before it: I ate too much.

OK, so let’s suppose the commenter was more specifically objecting to use of PPI much without a too or very, and not as a modifier of a comparative adjective or adverb. Even looking at just this narrow set of circumstances for much, you can find other attestations in COCA:

  • North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago.
  • There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community
  • Shooting a handgun is much like shooting a bow in this respect,

And of course, there’s this song from Janet Jackson, though you could argue that she chose the title in part to make her listeners pause for a moment.

So maybe the commenter is not trying to make any wider claim about the usage of much; it’s just that when it appears after thank you, for whatever reason, there has to be a too or a very. Well, what do you think? Is it actually ungrammatical, or just somewhat old-fashioned sounding to say Thank you much? If you believe it’s ungrammatical, let us know why in the comments.

Posted in Music, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar, You're so literal! | 26 Comments »

From Seattle to Shanghai

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2011

Bill Walsh, who can be pretty literal-minded himself, wrote this about a journalistic cliche known as the false range:

A Scripps Howard story on actor John Leguizamo mentions that he “has starred in films and TV projects ranging from ‘Moulin Rouge’ to ‘Arabian Nights.’ ” Let’s see, how does that continuum go again? Oh, yes, there’s “Moulin Rouge,” then
“The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” “Davey and Goliath,” “Gonorrhea
and You: A Cautionary Tale,” and then finally “Arabian Nights.

And when my paper, The Washington Post, says “everything from fantasy to animation to suspense dramas” was popular at the movies in 2001, that necessarily includes straight-to-video Frank Stallone crap, NC-17 films involving barnyard animals and propaganda documentaries denying the Holocaust. Remember: It says “everything”! (link)

Grammar Monkeys, one of the Wichita Eagle‘s blogs, got pretty creative in filling in the missing parts of false ranges, too:

This movie has everything from fistfights to car chases to shootouts.
Really? Everything? Talking animals? Tender romance? Discussions about the nature of existence? Aliens?

The upscale women’s boutique has merchandise ranging from handbags to jewelry.
Just what all is in between handbags and jewelry? Clothes? Nope. Shoes? A few. Sunglasses? Bingo! Fancy pens? Yep — who knew?

The kitchen serves up everything from squid to paella to buffalo.
Again, everything? Even rainbow Jell-O? (link)

Ranges per se aren’t meaningless, as long as there’s a continuum that you’re giving the endpoints of. It can be a measurable continuum, as in from two ounces to two tons or from New York to Los Angeles, or a fuzzier continuum of a subjective property, like life-threateningness in from colds to cancer. But if there’s no apparent continuum, Walsh and others argue, then anything goes. Everything from X to Y becomes in essence, everything. As they’ve been discussing on Language Log, everything without a suitable restriction on its domain is trouble.

The solution, of course, is to interpret everything from X to Y but idiomatically, as the writer intended it: “many and somewhat diverse things, including X and Y.” It’s still a cliche, but at least not a meaningless one.

Anyway, so last night I was talking with my mom about NASA’s Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite, put into orbit in 1991 and falling back to Earth as I’m writing this. Mom said she’d heard someone on a newscast somewhere say that the pieces of the satellite might land “anywhere from Shanghai to Seattle.” A real, geographic range to work with. Let’s see…

Shanghai: 31°N, 121°E
Seattle: 47°N, 122°W

So the UARS might land anywhere along the (shorter) great-circle distance between 31°N, 121°E and 47°N, 122°W, including Tokyo and a long stretch of the North Pacific.

That’s probably too restrictive. After all, from New York to LA is usually taken to mean the entire US, at least the contiguous ones. Shanghai and Seattle don’t suggest such a salient area, but maybe the newscaster meant anywhere in the area bounded by the 31st and 47th parallels on the south and north, and by the 121st east and the 122nd west meridians. That would bring in the rest of Japan, Korea, Manchuria, some of Siberia, a little bit more of Washington’s Pacific Coast, and a lot more of the North Pacific.

No, that’s probably too restrictive, too. Maybe they meant anywhere between the 31st and 47th parallels. Now we’re talking. That’s all the area I mentioned before, plus Mongolia, the land of Stans, about half of Europe, and most of the contiguous United States.

Or, maybe they meant between 121°E and 122°W, a span of 117 degrees of longitude. That would be the area I mentioned two paragraphs ago, plus a lot of Indonesia, most of Australia, and just about all of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia, as well as Alaska and more of Siberia. So what exactly is the range here?

From what I’ve found out since that conversation, pieces of the UARS could land anywhere between 57°N and 57°S — a much bigger area than any of the possibilities I just laid out, and pretty much my mom’s understanding of “anywhere except the polar regions.” It seems that from Shanghai to Seattle was intended as a false range, with Shanghai and Seattle chosen just for their near-alliterative quality and intended to be taken as “many and diverse places, including Shanghai and Seattle”.

This rhetorical range has just the opposite problem from the usual. Most false ranges, when interpreted literally, generate a set that’s way too big. This one gives you a geographic area that’s too small, no matter how you calculate it. The lesson: If you’re going to use the false range cliche, make it truly false. Don’t choose endpoints that really do have measurable quantities between them.

Posted in Semantics, You're so literal! | 3 Comments »

Whose Camera…?

Posted by Neal on June 10, 2011

As I was saying in the last post, last weekend Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s spring campout. This year it was at Flint Ridge State Memorial, a place I’d never heard about before now, but where I learned not only that flint was a sedimentary rock (I’d have guessed metamorphic off the top of my head), but also that the current thinking is that it was formed from crushed and compressed sponges. When we took the tour of the visitor center, the guide mentioned that any flint found at the site had to stay there, and asked why. Adam volunteered that eventually there would be no flint left.

“Right,” the guide said. “If–“

But Adam wasn’t done yet. “And then they’d just have to call it ‘Ridge’.”

At one point during the weekend, a couple other parents and I were sitting in the shade on a picnic table while our scouts practiced making a fire in the 90-degree weather. Fred, the Cubmaster, came over to take a seat, too, but noticed my camera lying on the table. He asked me, “Is this your camera?” I said yes. Moving it aside, he said, “I didn’t want to sit on it.”

Well, that was nice of him. He didn’t want to sit on my camera. But what was the connection between his hesitation to sit on it and the fact that it was mine? I wondered silently if he would he have sat on it if it had been someone else’s camera. More specifically, I thought the words

*Whose camera would you have sat on it if it was __?

I didn’t say it out loud, though, because the syntax was so bad. The meaning was sensible, but it’s difficult or sometimes impossible to make this kind of question in English. This unspoken sentence is an example of something called an island violation. If you consider the sentence to be a piece of land, the wh word or phrase at the beginning of an interrogative or relative clause is sometimes thought of as having been “moved” from its more usual location to the front of the sentence. For example, in Whose camera would you have sat on __?, the wh phrase whose camera has been “moved” from its position as the object of on to the front of the sentence. But there are some constructions that are like islands, surrounded by water that a wh phrase can’t move over in order to get to the front of the sentence. The moved phrase is also sometimes called the filler, and the place it moved from is called the gap.

The island violation in my sentence was the “adjunct island violation”. Adjunct refers to a phrase that modifies another something; in this case, the adverbial clause if it was (whose camera) modifies the clause would you have sat on it. The adverbial clause (i.e. the adjunct) is an island that doesn’t allow whose camera to escape and go to the front of the sentence.

As for why islands exist, linguists still argue. For this one, my impression is that this sentence crashes because you start out parsing it as Whose camera would you have sat on, assuming that whose camera fills in a gap after on, but then comes an it, and you have to look farther and deeper for the gap that whose camera is to fill. But other times, islands do allow things to escape; for example, there’s the subtype of adjunct island called the relative clause island that I discuss in this post.

Trying to think of a workaround phrasing for my sentence, I came up with

Which person X is such that if the camera had belonged to X, you would have sat on it?

Yeah, that works, especially the person X is such that part!

One other highlight from the campout: Adam got his first taste of Spam. He liked it.

Posted in Adam, Fillers and gaps, You're so literal! | 18 Comments »

Serious Charges

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2010

On the front page of the Columbus Dispatch today, I read about a raid on a marijuana farm in Muskingum County. I was interested to read the following in the third paragraph:

[A]uthorities arrested 10 Mexican nationals and charged them with conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart.

Actually, that was part of the third sentence in the article, but this is a newspaper we’re talking about, so sentences and paragraphs amount to the same thing.
Anyway, those are serious charges: conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart. Consider what the authorities could have charged the growers with:

  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two fields
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields
  • conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two fields 90 miles apart

But no, they threw the book at these guys, and charged them with conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in two carefully tended fields about 90 miles apart. What would they have charged them with if they had had a conspiracy to cultivate marijuana in three fields, two of them 30 miles apart, two of them 40 miles apart, and two of them 20 miles apart, with two fields carefully tended and one haphazardly tended?

Posted in Ohioana, You're so literal! | 10 Comments »

The Un-Unwritten Rules

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2010

I don’t get too much use out of page-a-day calendars. I’ll rip off a page a day and put it in the recycle pile for a while, until I forget for a week or so, and then I just won’t bother catching up. After that, the page-a-day calendar is just an extra-fancy pile of scratch paper, which may take years to use up. I got a Latin phrase-a-day calendar in 1996 that I finally finished about three years ago, and in my office there’s a page-a-day calendar of brain teasers for I don’t know what year anymore.

However, Doug and Adam and I have been amusing ourselves with a page-a-day calendar called the Hidden Curriculum. It’s put out by the Autism Asperger Publishing Company, and is intended to provide written rules for many occasions, for people who don’t do so well with unwritten rules. For example, here’s a useful one that I actually learned on my own while growing up: “When your parents are lecturing your sister or brother about something they have done wrong, it is not a good idea to laugh or make fun. You may end up getting in trouble yourself.” Others, though, can cramp one’s style a little bit. “Don’t blow your nose on your napkin”? I’ll have to make a note of that one.

The rules are compiled from submissions from users of calendars from previous years, and sometimes I find myself imagining the circumstances that inspired someone to write down a rule. Was it an inconvenienced parent of a friend of an autistic kid who sent in “Don’t invite yourself to someone’s house. Wait for an invitation”? Was it an autistic kid’s own outraged parent who sent in “You should not have to buy gifts for or give money to your friends to keep them as friends”?

Many of the tips are translations of idioms like “Cat got your tongue?” or “I’m all ears.” Doug and Adam and I got a laugh when we pictured the inspiration for writing this one: “When someone calls ‘shotgun’ as she is leaving, that means she is claiming the front passenger seat in the car, not that there is a weapon.”

But some of these rules were not written with sufficient allowance made for an audience that has difficulty making generalizations. “If your grandmother tells you to “hold your horses,” she means that she wants you to wait or slow down.” OK, so what if your mother or a friend of the family tells you to hold your horses? Does it mean something else in that case?

And then there’s this piece of advice for people who might not know the social niceties:

If you meet a person with a service dog, ask if you can pet the dog. It may be busy helping the person, so you need to let it do its job. It performs an important function.

Reading this one, I imagined not the rule-writer, but the confused rule-reader, thinking, “But what if I don’t want to pet their dog? I never knew it was rude not to pet someone’s service dog. Good thing this calender has clued me in, so I’ll never make that mistake again!”

Posted in Pragmatics, Reviews, You're so literal! | 6 Comments »


Posted by Neal on April 10, 2010

Over on Language Log, there’s a new post about the usage of literally, inspired by an xkcd strip. So this seems as good a time as any to bring up a couple of interesting literally examples I’ve heard in the last couple of months. Before I do, though, let me say that I don’t care that very, really, and truly have gone through the same semantic weakening that literally has undergone; I don’t care that literally has been used non-literally for hundreds of years. I admit these facts, but darn it, I want there to be a word that signals you’re not speaking figuratively, and literally is the best word for the job.

First, there was the time my wife had a sinus infection. At the end of one day during the peak of the infection, she told me

I went through a whole box of Kleenex — literally.

I was just about to say, “Wow, how did you make yourself small enough to go through it?” when I realized that the literally part wasn’t about the going through idiom, but about the whole box part. She hadn’t just used half the box, not just three quarters of it, but literally the whole box. So I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to look like an idiot, did I?

Then there were the promos for a TV special for the Penguins of Madagascar–the team of commando penguins from the two Madagascar movies. The special featured their (newly introduced) nemesis, Dr. Blowhole, a bottlenosed dolphin with a Picard-as-Borg-like eyepiece fitted over his right eye socket. One of the promos was this one:

That’s right: Near the end, one of the penguins says

No matter where we go, he’s always got his eye on us! Literally — He’s only got the one eye.

When the penguin (I think it’s the one named Kowalski) said “Literally,” I got the same kind of mental image I did when Jim Croce sang, “She caught my eye, and I put it back.” But then Kowalski finished with “He’s only got the one eye,” and I realized that the literally applied not to the part about having an eye on someone, but more specifically about an eye.

So for all you speakers like me, who use literally to mean that you’re not speaking figuratively or exaggerating, what do you think? Are these examples legitimate? Does literally have to scope over the entire sentence that it’s part of, or are we cool as long as it’s highlighting some part of the sentence as the literal truth?

UPDATE, Apr. 12, 2010: In first paragraph, put in link to Word Routes column that I forgot.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Semantics, TV, You're so literal! | 7 Comments »

Quirky Goldblum Linguification

Posted by Neal on May 4, 2009

Jeff Goldblum

Jeff Goldblum

I was reading the entertainment section of the newspaper yesterday, and came across an article about Law & Order. A few paragraphs in, it said:

Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which has added to its cast an actor about whom it is apparently impossible to write a sentence that excludes quirky. (Ginia Bellafante, New York Times News Service)

Ah, I get it, I thought. Bellafanted doesn’t intend for me to take this literally. I’ve learned from Geoff Pullum’s occasional criticisms of linguification that all she means is that this is an actor who’s widely regarded as quirky, enough so that writers often mention this trait when they write about him. Or her. So anyway, who is this actor? Johnny Depp? Jodie Foster? John Malkovich?

The article went on: “Needless to say, it’s Jeff Goldblum.” Oh, Jeff Goldblum. OK, he’s quirky, too. Now I can see that it was needless to say. At this point, though, Bellafante was not content to let the linguification lie; she seemed to want to say, “No, really! I’m serious! It’s actually impossible!” because the next sentence was:

A Google search of his name along with the adjective to which he is involuntarily hinged [NW: hitched?] results in about 18,700 entries.

Now that called for some investigation. I looked first at Bellafante’s own article, which contained seven sentences referring to Goldblum, only one of which contained the work quirky. That, of course, was the one I quoted, and even there it’s a mention of the word, rather than a use. Oh, well, I’ll count it. And to be charitable, maybe Bellafante meant you couldn’t write an article about Jeff Goldlum without using or mentioning quirky — that would explain why her Google search only looked for whole pages, not individual sentences, that met the criteria.

Which brings me to the Google search. Probably for reasons of space, Bellafante’s search for pages containing Jeff Goldblum that didn’t contain quirky got left out of the article, which is a pity, since that’s what really would have helped prove her point. Here’s what I found on Google:

Search Google hits
+”Jeff Goldblum” +quirky 20,100
+”Jeff Goldblum” -quirky 1,020,000

I notice first of all that the search with quirky returns 20,100 hits, more than the 18,700 Bellafante got. This is understandable because first of all, counting Google hits is a slippery business, and second, now there are lots of hits for news sources that include Bellafante’s article. But the search without quirky returns 1,020,000 hits. So about 1 in 51 webpages with Jeff Goldblum also contains quirky.

Well, I guess I’ve been too literal once again. Now I know: Journalists are getting smarter about using linguification. Smart enough to find some numbers to add punch to a trope that’s become trite, but not enough to find numbers that actually mean anything. That makes sense: If they tried to get meaningful numbers, they’d end up having to leave out the linguification, and how plain and boring the articles would be if that happened.

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Posted in You're so literal! | 15 Comments »

Did I Join a Good Gym?

Posted by Neal on February 18, 2009

Not a picture of me

Not a picture of me

In December, I wrote about my confusion at an ad for a weight-loss system that had a satisfied customer saying, “I lost fifteen pounds! And kept it off for three years!” A commenter (regular reader Viola) wrote, “And for goodness sakes, Neal, I thought you’d literally lost 15 pounds!” Actually, I have lost about 15 pounds in the past year, and lowered my body fat by about eight percentage points. My wife made me go and buy new pants because my belt wasn’t holding up my old ones well enough. Unfortunately, I lost the weight by going to a gym, which puts you in a dangerous cycle. OK, not dangerous, but troublesome. As with narcotics, it takes more and more exercise to get the same effect, as your body gets more efficient at lifting the weights or running on the treadmill. And when Doug and Adam are sick and home from school, like they are today, I can’t go to the gym. The gym has a nice kids’ area (that is, a nice area for kids; mean kids aren’t excluded), but if I were to park Doug and Adam there on a school day, the attendant would probably ask me inconvenient questions, whose answer would be “Because they’re sick and can’t go to school.” So I stay at home, and that body fat percentage starts creeping right back up. Isn’t there some point at which I can ease off without the weight and fat coming back? Oh, I forgot: Fitness is a journey, not a destination. But like, journeys have ends, don’t they?

Anyway, about a month ago, I was at the gym, on my way to the bank of treadmills, when I noticed a woman sitting with one of the membership sales reps at a desk in the sales-closing area. I always have sympathy for the sales people there — I remember being in their situation many times when I worked at a ballroom dance studio. “Looks like he’s presented her the three membership plans,” I thought as I approached. “And now he’s probably asked her which one she wants, not whether she wants one, and he’s silently waiting for her answer.” As I passed, I thought, “I wonder if — hey, that’s Doug and Adam’s orthodontist!”

OK, she’s my orthodontist, too. I was not diligent in wearing my retainer back in high school, if you must know.

“Hi, Dr. Higginbotham!” I said. She looked up and waved, I continued to the treadmills, and she turned her attention back to the membership information. I wondered if she would sign up, or say she needed to go home and think about it.

A couple of weeks later, I was lying in the chair at the orthodontist’s office. As Dr. Higginbotham put on her rubber gloves, she asked,

So, did I join a good gym?

Had she joined a good gym? Well, for the answer to be yes, two things would have to be true. One, she would have to have joined a gym. Two, that gym would have to be a good one. I guess my gym’s OK, but that still left the first requirement.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Did you join?”

She affirmed that she had. As she poked around the wires and brackets, telling the technician to put a Class 2 box here and a chain there, I thought about how stupid my response had been. She wouldn’t have expected me to know whether she’d joined my gym. Heck, she wouldn’t have expected me to know whether she’d joined any gym. Furthermore, she already knew whether she’d joined or not. Clearly, she wasn’t asking for an answer to whether she had joined a gym. She expected me just to accommodate an addition to our common knowledge, to the effect that she had joined a gym, and not just any gym, but the gym where I had seen her. And that left the only part of the question I was competent to answer anyway: Was the gym a good one?

For that matter, she probably wasn’t truly interested in even that answer. If I thought the gym was a bad one, why had I been working out there? No, all she’d been doing was making conversation, and acknowledging the unusual circumstances in which we’d last seen each other. And in fact, I knew this as soon as she asked the question. But still I’d been sidetracked by the literal semantics of it. It’s part of my charm, I suppose.

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Posted in Pragmatics, You're so literal! | 5 Comments »

Pragmatics Practice

Posted by Neal on September 25, 2008

“Are you getting something to drink?” my wife asked me.

OK, that’s it. I need a pseudonym for my wife, like Better Half or Mrs. Semantic Compositions or something. I’d ask … my wife for a suggestion, but I don’t think she’d be too enthusiastic about helping, since she’s still waiting for me to come up with a pet name for her. In all the time we dated, all the time we were engaged, and all the time we’ve been married, I’ve never had a pet name for my wife. Not as a matter of policy; I just never happened to start calling her by a pet name. Maybe it’s part of my language acquisition that never fully took. (Yes, I admit it: Part of the last line in this story is a lie, a lie! )

Anyway, so where was I? We were getting ready to watch the third episode of the show my brother’s writing for, and my wife asked if I was getting something to drink. I said yes.

“If you decide to open a bottle of wine and wanted to pour me a glass, I wouldn’t say no,” she told me.

“Okay,” I said, and headed off to the kitchen.

I don’t think I want a glass of wine, I thought. I’m going to get me a tall glass of iced tea. Woohoo! I was off the hook for getting my wife a glass of wine!

On the other hand, I thought, as I cut the lemon … my wife didn’t say not to bring her a glass of wine if I was getting something else for myself. She probably wouldn’t mind if I brought her a glass of wine regardless of what I was having.

In fact, I reasoned further, she probably wants me to bring her a glass of wine. She was probably just trying to frame the request in a playful, not quite so demanding way. Maybe I ought to bring her a glass of wine.

So I did, and she called me honey and thanked me. Actually, she said, “You’re so sweet,” but since I’m pretty savvy with these indirect speech acts, I could tell it was an expression of thanks.

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Posted in Pragmatics, You're so literal! | 6 Comments »