Anaphora in the park

From Victor Steinbok (who found it on Google+), this entertaining sign (from Randwick, NSW, Australia):

The sign allows for two readings, according to whether it refers to the dog or the dog poo. The sign writer intended the second, but the person who took the picture set things up to make the first reading salient.

Now, the idiom do a poo. This is a verb-object idiom roughly synonymous with the verb poo ‘defecate’ (and the alternative verb-object idiom take a poo). Strictly speaking, poo in do a poo isn’t referential, but the idiom can nevertheless be taken as supplying an antecedent for an anaphoric pronoun, in much the same way as the verb poo in:

If your dog poos, put it [the poo ‘feces’] in a litter bin.

This is a straightforward “anaphoric island” example — some discussion here — with the noun poo ‘feces’ “inside” the verb poo, and its do/take a poo counterparts can be seen as related cases.

Then the poo expressions themselves: the verb poo and the verbal idioms do/take a poo, with the noun poo in them. These have euphemistic poo (verb and noun, related to one another), one of a set of words for feces and defecating that includes poop, dump, crap, and shit, in roughly ascending order of taboo level. All are available as verbs and nouns and can participate in the do/take a X idioms, though the social distribution of the alternatives is unclear to me; my impression is that the poo set is distinctly British or Australian.

7 Responses to “Anaphora in the park”

  1. Victor Says:

    From Jerry A. Coyne, a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago: “This is one of my pet peeves in grammar, and is very common in student papers. It can be damaging . .”
    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/unclear-antecedents-are-dangerous/

    He does not specify what “this” is. It gets worse in the comments:

    “It’s not that they are violating an obsolete (or obsolete-able rule), it’s that they’ve structured their sentence such that the subject is ambiguous.”

    “Very common in student papers?!?!? It’s very common in newspapers!!!”

    “No, I’m sorry, but this graphic does not illustrate an antecedent problem. Really. The antecedent of “it” is its nearest noun, which is “poo.” The confusion is the reader’s, not the writer’s.”

    [Several “dittos” on this one and only one disagreement, demanding authority. A bit later someone posted another disagreeing response, this time with an example:]

    “So, if I say, “If your car leaks oil, take it to a garage”, you would take the oil to a garage because it’s the nearest noun?”

    “Of course, to me, an expat Limey, it makes perfect sense. Limeys usually refer to their animals according to their gender, not as “it”, but “him” or “her”.QED.”

    “Uncharitable grammar police are absurd.
    The antecedents are not unclear because no one in our society would seriously think the meaning of the sign is to put the dog in the trash.”

    Finally, an unrelated comment from the same thread: “descriptive adjectives in English usually follow this order: Opinion, Appearance (which in your example would include “big”), Age, Color, Origin and Material. So one would say I’d like to own a good, small, new, red, German, stainless steel car.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’ve posted again and again (on Language Log and this blog) on referent-finding; one lesson of these postings is that the “nearest noun” proposal is hogwash.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      You write: “He does not specify what “this” is.”
      But he does — in the title of the posting, just above “This is one of my pet peeves in grammar”: “Unclear antecedents are dangerous”. So the referent of “this” is (using) unclear antecedents.

  2. the ridger Says:

    Hmmm. Every time I read a Dick Francis novel I’m struck by all the jockeys and trainers calling the horses “it” exclusively. Maybe it’s only house pets? Maybe it’s only some Brits?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Interesting. My experience with jockeys and trainers in the U.S. (which isn’t negligible) is that they use the sex-appropriate pronouns: mares are “she”, stallions “he”.

      • the ridger Says:

        Same here – all horse people in the US do as far as I’m aware, and I used to be one back in the day. That’s why it’s so striking to me that the Dick Francis people don’t – and he should know.

  3. The sound in your head « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Here, it at first appears to refer in inactivity, but a bit of thought will convince you that the writer intended it to refer to activity; but activity is inside the word inactivity, and so would (on many accounts) be unavailable as an antecedent for it. The relevant putative generalization is known as the Anaphoric Island Constraint (AIC): words are “islands” for anaphora; anaphora can’t “reach inside” words. (Brief discussion here; examples of AIC violations here and here.) […]

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