scratch and sniff card

The One Big Happy from February 10th:

The sign says (but with reduced and):

SCRATCH AND SNIFF CARDS

Is that to be parsed as conjoined imperatives — you are to scratch and to sniff cards — or as an NP describing some cards — these are cards you can scratch and sniff, cards for scratching and sniffing?

Ruthie takes the sign to have the analysis:

(P1) SCRATCH-v AND SNIFF-v CARDS

but the intended analysis is instead:

(P2) [ SCRATCH-n AND SNIFF-n ] [ CARDS ]

((P1) can be parsed in either of two ways; see below.)

In both P1 and P2, CARDS is to be understood not as referring to any old cards, it doesn’t matter which ones, but as referring to the cards in the context, the cards in the display to which the sign is attached. Ruthie gets things wrong, but not as wrong as she could have: she could have behaved like the joke character in a lab with a developing fire, the person who looks at the sign

IN CASE OF FIRE, BREAK GLASS

on a box enclosing a fire alarm box, a fire hose, or some other object useful in fighting fires, and picks up a beaker in the lab and smashes it, not appreciating that the glass to break is the window in the front of the box the sign is attached to. Context, context, context.

Still, Ruthie understands the sign as having a conjoined imperative, as in (P1). But P1 can be understood in two ways: as

(P1a) SCRATCH-v, AND also SNIFF-v CARDS

(with an intransitive verb as the first conjunct and a transitive verb + direct object as the second); or with a parsing parallel to (P2):

(P1b) [ SCRATCH-v AND also SNIFF-v ] [ CARDS ]

(that is, as conveying ‘scratch the cards and sniff the cards’).

Ruthie, striking out on her own path, goes for (P1a).

There are still further potential ambiguities. A verb that is formally intransitive (lacking a direct object) is typically open to several interpretations: as referring simply to an action (with no understood affected participant, as in Sandy danced) or to an event affecting the referent of the subject, as in Sandy vanished), as referring to an action with an understood indefinite affected participant, as referring to an action with an understood definite affected participant (whose referent is supplied from context), to a reflexive action (as in Sandy washed), or to a reciprocal action (as in Sandy and Chris met). The possibilities are different for different verbs, and there’s significant dialect variation.

Of these choices for the (formally) intransitive verb scratch, Ruthie chooses the reflexive option (she could have made scratching motions in the air, or scratched the side of the display). She scratches herself and sniffs a card from the display.

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