Bring this upstairs for me

Today’s Zits, with Jeremy and his mother engaged in Grice War:

Jeremy’s mother assumes that Jeremy will use the literal content of what she says as the starting point in a chain of Gricean reasoning about what additional content might reasonably be inferred. The situations are different in different strips, but Jeremy reliably refuses to act like a cooperative conversationalist in these interactions, choosing instead to fix on whatever understanding would require the least action on his part — in this case, bringing his mother her note, rather than the rather large box to which the note is affixed.

The crucial part of the problem here is the interpretation of the demonstrative pronouns this and that, which require the hearer to seek out an appropriate referent in the real-world or linguistic context of utterance. Connie Duncan supposed that her son would work out that there would we no point in asking him to bring her the note, but that it would be reasonable of her to ask him to help her by carrying the box upstairs.

Of course she could have been more explicit by using a demonstrative determiner (this box — or, if for some reason she actually wanted him to bring her the note, this note) rather a demonstrative pronoun, which requires Jeremy to reason (tacitly) about her motives.

I looked a bit at the demonstrative pronouns in a Language Log posting of 4/21/08, “Why are some summatives labeled “vague”?”, where I wrote:

I hadn’t realized that summative demonstratives … were also proscribed in general by some authorities until the topic came up as a side matter in a Stanford graduate seminar back in 2003; most of my students told me they’d been taught in high school NEVER to use this or that on its own (that is, as a pronoun rather than a determiner), because such uses were “vague”. Such an innocent I was; I’d gotten to late adulthood without having butted up against this piece of nonsense.

Further discussion in that posting.

Two other cases, of somewhat different sorts.

From a posting “Zits relevance” of 8/28/12:

Here we have a deliberately uncooperative response from Jeremy, who treats his mother’s request entirely literally, rather than thinking “Why is she making this request?” and calculating the reasons for her request and the kind of response she’s looking for. So his answer flouts Grice’s Maxim of Relation (or Relevance), as in this discussion of an earlier Zits. Jeremy is given to evasive uncooperativeness.

And from a posting “The domestic relevance duels” of 10/28/12:

In these domestic playlets, Jeremy’s mother says something (often in the form of a question) that is designed to get Jeremy to do something, but she goes about things indirectly (as we all do, very often), counting on Jeremy to understand the relevance of what she says — in particular, her reason for saying what she does; Jeremy, on his part, then avoids doing what his mother wants by contriving to understand her literally.

2 Responses to “Bring this upstairs for me”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From John Lawler on Facebook:

    Sadock, J. “Read at Your Own Risk: Syntactic and Semantic Horrors You Can Find in Your Medicine Chest”, Papers from the Tenth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society: 599-607, 1975.

    The connection to this post is the contextual interpretation of material — in the post, interpretation of this in a message as referring to the thing the message is attached to; in Jerry Sadock’s piece, the interpretation of an ellipsis (“Take two ___ before meals”) in a label as referring to the contents of the bottle to which the label is affixed.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Jerry R. Hobbs on Facebook:

    When I was in grad school, I’d covered my blackboard with a solution to a math problem, and before going home, I wrote “DO NOT ERASE”. The next morning when I came in, everything had been erased except “DO NOT ERASE.

    Words of one syllable department.

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