cut the bill in half

Yesterday’s Mother Goose and Grimm:

An ambiguity in the verb cut, combined with two metonymically related uses of the noun bill.

Relevant senses of the verb cut, from NOAD2:

3 divide into pieces with a knife or other sharp implement

6 reduce the amount or quantity of

The gadget in the strip promises sense 6, but Grimm offers sense 3 (with scissors as the sharp implement).

Then there’s the noun bill, with this sense from NOAD2:

an amount of money owed for goods supplied or services rendered, set out in a printed or written statement of charges

The definition combines an abstract referent, an amount of money, with a concrete referent, a piece of paper with the amount printed or written on it; these are metonymically related. You cut-6 the abstract referent, but cut-3 the concrete referent.

NOAD2 takes the abstract referent, an amount, to be primary; the concrete referent is merely a piece of paper on which the amount is printed or written. In contrast, OED2 gives only the concrete referent:

A note of charges for goods delivered or services rendered, in which the cost of each item is separately stated.

In this definition, the abstract referent is just the total cost that’s printed on the piece of paper. (AHD5 is similar.)

It seems to me that neither approach is correct, and that we’re dealing with a genuine ambiguity here: there are two distinct senses of

Our bill at the drugstore is huge.

— as you can see by considering the two alternative continuations:

(a) It’s over 2 feet long.

(b) It’s over $200.

and contemplating the oddity of sentences in which our bill at the drugstore must be understood as referring simultaneously to an amount and a piece of paper:

??Our bill at the drugstore is $214 and 3 feet long.

??Our bill at the drugstore is both high / exorbitant and long / lengthy.

The intended effect of such sentences can be felicitously achieved through means other than two simple predications, in particular via a PP of the form for Amount, or via Amount as a prenominal modifier:

Our bill for $214 at the drugstore is 3 feet long.

Our $214 bill at the drugstore is 3 feet long.

and no doubt by other means as well.

 

One Response to “cut the bill in half”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    But, strangely enough, Grimm is not using the scissors to cut the bill (I.e. the piece of paper demanding payment) in half, but to reduce the amount of the bill by cutting the source of electricity.

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