Locatives, inalienability, and determiner choices

All this, and more, in two recent One Big Happy cartoons, from 7/2 (I broke a finger — the determiner cartoon) and 7/4 (Where was the Declaration of Independence signed? — the locative cartoon). Both featuring Ruthie’s brother Joe.  I’ll start with the locatives.

The locative cartoon:


The question in the second panel is ambiguous, as between two understandings of locative where: where within the document is the signature located? vs. where did the event of document-signing take place? What I’ll call, faute de mieux, position location (within some domain) vs. event location.

The distinction is a metaphorical extension of a semantic distinction I’ve discussed in a series of postings on this blog, involving location on the body — an especially concrete and immediately available sort of position location — vs. location of an event, as in the ambiguous Where did you hurt yourself?

On this special, central kind of position location, five postings on this blog:

— a 2/27/19 posting “Body-location, event-location”, with its #2 I broke my arm in two places, exemplifying the locative ambiguity

a 3/5/19 posting “Another 100k spams”

a 3/8/16 posting “Where?”

a 4/5/19 posting “Science, charity, and adverbial ambiguity”

a 4/16/19 posting “She got pinched in the As … tor Bar”

Several of these postings relate the locative ambiguity to (in)alienable possession and to attachment ambiguities. More on alienability (and its relevance to determiner selection in English) to come below, but first a digression on another facet of #1, having to do with the pragmatics of the where question in it. In which it becomes important that the question-asker in #1 is the announcer on a tv quiz show and that the question-answerer is a kid, Ruthie’s brother Joe

Asking questions and giving answers. The title of a 8/21/18 posting of mine, which I’ll now quote from extensively; it was about

a significant ambiguity in the use of interrogative sentences: between information-seeking interrogatives (infoseek questions, I’ll call them), … and examination interrogatives (test questions, I’ll call them; they’re also known as quiz questions)

… Infoseek questions are the pragmatically prototypical interrogatives, acquired first and statistically dominant in conversation and texts. In its simplest variant, the speaker lacks some piece of information I (or is unsure about it), wants to acquire I, believes the addressee might be able to supply I, and is requesting the addressee to do so. Infoseek questions are a basic tool in coping with ignorance about things in the world; we are all ignorant of a great many things, small children especially so — so once they have the linguistic resources, they ask an enormous number of infoseek questions.

In test questions, the speaker has the relevant knowledge about I and is asking the addressee to perform by displaying the extent of their knowledge. This performance might be intended as part of a learning routine (the assumption being that the addressee should have I and so needs practice and correction), as an evaluation exercise (about the addressee’s knowledge), as part of a competition, whatever.

Infoseek questions can be directed at a wide range of addressees, but test questions are heavily loaded socioculturally: only certain speakers can direct them at only certain addressees, and only in certain contexts. One of the burdens of being a child in our culture is that all sorts of adults subject you to barrages of test questions, to which you are expected to respond cooperatively. (Similarly for people in an assortment of interview circumstances — for jobs, for school admission, to receive awards, in medical evaluations, etc. — where infoseek questions and test questions are likely to be mixed together.)

… Learning to cope with test questions involves a great deal of (quite culture-specific) learning about what, precisely, the questions are asking about and what, precisely, would count as an answer.

Joe is supposed to understand that the test question on the tv show requires an event location answer, not the position location answer he comes up with. His answer is deficient because it requires no specialized knowledge (beyond the knowledge that documents are customarily signed at the bottom). Indeed, his answer can’t be the right one because it takes the announcer’s question to be insufficiently challenging; test questions are supposed to be tough.

Just as some offers are too good to be true, some answers are too easy to be right.

It’s not easy being a kid.

The determiner cartoon:


The indefinite article a in panel 2 by default conveys inalienable possession (on alienable vs. inalienable possession, see my 7/27/18 posting “Are you my bottom?”): we expect Joe to be talking about his finger (I broke a finger here conveys ‘I broke my finger, one of my fingers’), though an alienable reading (referring to a finger Joe merely has in his possession or has some relation to) is available, and Joe takes advantage of that possibility in an attempt to distance himself from responsibility in finger-breaking.

(I broke my finger would also be taken by default to convey inalienable possession, though it could be understood inalienably, to refer to, say, a mummified finger that you display in a vitrine. But not to a finger as someone else’s bodypart.)

In English, articles with bodypart names — indefinite, as above, or definite, as in He hit me on the shoulder — are conventionally available to convey inalienable possession, as alternatives to explicit possessive determiners (He hit me on my shoulder). The patterns of usage are complex, but they’re not my topic here. It’s enough to note the connections with body-location constructions (which involve inalienable possession) vs. event-location constructions.

And that these alienability facts extend to position-location constructions in general: back in #1, Joe could have answered in panel 4, At its bottom, as an alternative to At the bottom.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: