What would you say?

rogersgeorge on December 10th, 2013

Here’s a fairly funny comic. What’s going on grammatically here?

shoe would

Shoe, March 2012

I suppose if you have to explain a joke, it’s not as funny, but the actual humor, I think, is a play on the stereotype of women being concerned about looking fat, and men’s defensiveness about it. But what about the grammar?

The waitress’ intent is to ask a question with a metaphorical verb (“say” meaning “have the opinion”) and a predicate adjective. This is easier to see if we put in the relative pronoun.

Would you say that I’m fat?

Even that invites a defensive reply about whether Loon would take the verb literally and would he  say anything, “No, I wouldn’t even bring the subject up.”

(Here’s a lesson in expository writing: say exactly what you mean. She really is asking, “Do you think that I’m fat?”)

Loon’s defense, though, is to interpret the question as the imperative of “to say” and as containing an object phrase, hence his reply.

I remember two other jokes that rely on similar misinterpretations.

A guy walks into a soda fountain being tended by a jini. He says, “Make me a chocolate malt.” The jini goes “Alakazam! You are a chocolate malt!” Object  and predicate nominative  ambiguity.

And in grade school back in the fifties this joke ran around. You tell an unsuspecting kid, “Say ‘black eyes’ backwards.”  The thoughtless response of “Ise black” would stimulate gales of laughter. Kids quickly caught on, though, and soon the reply was, “Black eyes backwards.” and they’d make their own laughter.

I’ll let you analyze that last one yourself.

Postscript: It’s about a month after I posted this. Today I ran into a comic that uses this same grammatical misunderstanding. It’s from the Luann comic strip for Dec 22, 2007. Luann is one of few strips that make me regularly laugh out loud.

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Related relatives: that, which, who

rogersgeorge on March 31st, 2012

Hebrew has a word, asher (accent on the second syllable, so ah-Sher), loosely translated at the back of a Hebrew grammar I have, as “that, which, who,” a woefully oversimplified definition of this complex word, but it fits perfectly as the title of today’s lesson. These three words are easy to get wrong in English. But when you get these three words right, you improve your writing.

That

You can use that in a whole bunch of ways. Mainly it’s a relative pronoun. It shows some connection between two things. Use it when the connection is important to the sentence. Do not use “which.”

Here is the motorcycle that my brother rides.

That is also a demonstrative: That man is riding a motorcycle. I remember my English teacher used to demonstrate multiple uses of “that” with this sentence:

That “that” that that man said was wrong.

The first and last are demonstratives, the third one is relative, and the one in quotes is a noun.

Which

Use which when the connection is not important to the structure of the sentence—when you have an aside. It is usually right after a comma.

Correct: Bob’s motorcycle, which is the black one, is a Harley.

Incorrect: Here is the motorcycle which my brother rides.

A lot of people use which when that will do, and I’ll probably never win this battle, but still, don’t. It’s pretentious.

Who

Use who when you refer to people; use that when you refer to things.

Correct: The tough-looking guy who just climbed onto his motorcycle is my brother.

Incorrect: The tough-looking guy that just climbed onto his motorcycle is my brother.

There you have it. In case you are wondering, my brother really does ride, and his bike is a Harley. Here he is, taking my wife for a ride.

Taken several years ago in Wisconsin