[Milton-L] Pass the salt.

Richard A. Strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Mon Sep 4 16:23:54 EDT 2017

Statements, in actual usage (as opposed to when used as examples of grammatical constructions or such) do not come without contexts.  This is part of what speech-act theory is about.

To pretend not to understand is always possible, and to dramatize such misunderstanding, in very ordinary cases, is, as noted, humorous.  But that does not make a difference to the point that in normal cases of such an utterance as the one in question there is no ambiguity.  And, of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of such cases.  As there have to be, if language is to work at all.  The humor in the misunderstandings comes exactly from the recognition of the misunderstanding, a recognition that is perfectly clear.

From: milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu <milton-l-bounces at richmond.edu> on behalf of James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
Sent: Monday, September 4, 2017 2:59 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] turtles

I tend to agree with Hannibal's last post, but I think we should clarify where the ambiguity lies. If I understood him correctly, the phrase "pass the salt" is grammatically ambiguous (it is -- it doesn't say to whom or how), while within an immediate physical context of dining, it is not: of course we know that when someone says that to us, they mean to have us pass the saltshaker to them. But the words alone don't convey that meaning: social context supplies what is missing grammatically. If it didn't, we would always say, "Could you please pick up that salt shaker and place it in my hand?"

Children's books have a great deal of fun, in fact, with the difference between grammatical literalness and what is supplied by convention. Alice in Wonderland comes to mind. The recent Guardians of the Galaxy film series has an alien character who can't process figures of speech. It's very funny: "Nothing goes over my head. I would reach up an catch it." I think the observation is extensible to more complex linguistic expressions as well, and the more time and distance there is between a reader a the originary social context, the more complex reading becomes. What is obvious to us, immediately, may not have been so to the writer.

Jim R
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