Lingvistica

On the Pragmatics of Puns

A: I want to buy a dress to put on around the house. B: Yes, Madam. How large is your house?

A: Are you chewing gum?

B: No, I’m John Smith.

 

The problem with this set is that the author of the reply to the question, B, does not read it as A would have expected, and therefore present an answer that completely breaks the speaker/writer’s expectations. This is possible partly due to the syntactic configuration of the question. However, out of the three possible readings proposed for the example, we shall see that only the first one is pragmatically correct, as one has to oblige to much more than strictly linguistic rules when constructing one’s discourse, such as knowledge of the world that is shared between the speakers of a certain language.

First of all, let us take a look upon the first and most common possible reading of A’s question, that would immediately have conjured in the head of any listener. A is using a present a present continuous form of the verb “to chew”; this involves constructing the predicate with the auxiliary “are” followed by the subject “you” and the main verb (chew) in the progressive aspect. From a grammatical point of view, one would use the present continuous to make reference to an action that is ongoing at the moment of uttering the sentence. This usage in a question, just like in the case of present perfect continuous, may indicate that there is empirical evidence of the action (traces, signs, anything that can be picked up by the senses, etc.), but the speaker needs the question to make certain. We could then assume A has noticed B’s jaw movements and thus is using a yes-or-no question to ascertain his belief and, most possibly, follow with a request of the sort “may I have some as well?” or “could you not do that here/now?”. B’s answer does begin with “no”, which at first gave the impression he read the question the way it was presented here; moreover, he follows with “I’m”, which is the natural sequence in an answer of the sort “No, I’m not”. But instead of “not”, he uses the Noun Phrase “John Smith”, which we now understand to be his name and which shows he has not read the question correctly (a reading outside the simple yes-or-no spectrum is not ‘correct’ from the point of view of A’s intentionality/the pragmatics of discourse). A Romanian translation of this case would be A: Mesteci gumă? / B: Nu, sunt John Smith. We can see that the Romanian version of the question’s construction is missing the essential “are you” part and so, the Romanian “sunt” (am) is immediately wrong after the “Nu” (no), unlike the original, English example where “I’m” is completely justified in that position. Thus, in Romanian, we realise earlier on that the answer given by B is completely inappropriate and, unlike English, entirely unrelated. I say entirely unrelated because, in the English conversation, when B gives his answer, the original speaker/writer immediately realises how exactly B read the question that they produced such an answer. Since “mesteci” and “sunt” have no connection, this is not possible in Romanian.

What exactly do we mean when we say that A immediately realises how B read the question in English, but not in Romanian? To answer that, we take a look at the second possible reading for A’s interrogative. It stands on the grounds that “are you” can be decoded separately, with “are” being a main verb to be, instead of an auxiliary, such as in questions like “are you drunk?”. In this case “chewing” is no longer interpreted as the verb ‘to chew’ in its progressive aspect, but as a predeterminer in the Noun Phrase ‘chewing gum’. Although such an interpretation is allowed by English syntax, it is ruled out by the pragmatics of discourse, since a person would not seriously talk to a piece of chewing gum as they would to another person. Much less would the gum be able to reply (unless in fiction, but, for the purpose of this work, we will assume that the dialog is a piece of everyday conversation, instead of a piece of fiction). This is why B’s answer is so unexpected and surprising: by reading that A asked them whether or not they were a piece of chewing gum, B breaks the a presupposition of discourse that has to do with the common knowledge of reality, namely that A knows they are speaking with another person. Since ‘chewing; is no longer the main verb in this situation, a Romanian translation would be different than the previous reading and would go along the lines: A: Ești gumă de mestecat?/ B: Nu, sunt John Smith. The Romanian question here can only be read in one way: “out of the things that exist in the world, are you a chewing gum?”. Although it is a bizarre question to ask outside a framework of fictional literature, B gives the correct answer here, which is interpreted to be ‘no, I am a person and my name is John Smith’.

Yet another possible and final reading of A’s question, that, just as in the previous case, may yield an answer the likes of which B gives, is still in the paradigm of keeping “are” as the linking verb and “chewing gum” as a Noun Phrase functioning as the Subject Complement. The difference from the second case analysed above would be considering the Noun Phrase a name, instead of denoting a common concrete object in extra-linguistic reality. This is however possible only in spoken discourse, since in written discourse, the Noun Phrase would have to be capitalized, “Chewing Gum”. In this case, B’s answer is perfectly normal, since it clarifies that they are not the person named ‘Chewing Gum’, but the person named ‘John Smith’ and it presupposes that A was looking for someone with that name and most likely meeting them now for the first time, since they had to ask around to see who ‘Chewing Gum’ was specifically. In a case like this nothing seems to be wrong syntactically and strictly semantically, however this is not an acceptable reading either, because, again, it disconsiders some shared knowledge of the world that speakers have, particularly that it would be very uncommon and odd to name a child ‘Chewing Gum’, since names in contemporary English are not picked from common nouns or objects and even if they are, they are most likely to be picked from abstract nouns with great significance (such as Grace, etc). For a Romanian translation of this particular case I would go with A: Ești Chewing Gum? / B: Nu, sunt John Smith. Important to note here would be that, for a Romanian speaker who has no knowledge of the English language and civilization, this could seem to be a perfectly normal and correct dialogue, that aligns with the principles of pragmatics. This is because, to a foreign ear, ‘Chewing Gum’ can sound as a legitimate name in the English language.

 

A: I want to buy a dress to put on around the house.

B: Yes, Madam. How large is your house?

 

Again we are dealing with the misreading of a statement that, just in the case discussed previously, is allowed by English syntax, but is ruled out by the pragmatics of discourse. We can divide A’s statement into two parts, pertaining to the two logical predicates found in it: “I want to buy a dress” and “to put on around the house”. Syntactically and semantically, the first part may only lead to one interpretation: that lady A is in a shop, most likely, and expresses her wish to buy a dress. She has not decided yet, since she is using the indefinite article “a” instead of a demonstrative that would lead to constructions such as “this dress” or “that dress” and would have eliminated the B’s misinterpretation of the second part of the statement. Because she has not decided on a particular dress, A extends her statement to inform the shop attendant as to what she would like to do with the dress she intends to buy, so that the attendant may recommend a dress from the appropriate category. Now comes the second part, “to put on around the house”, which is seen as a necessary explanation and is constructed with the phrasal verb “put on”. Although A most likes sees “around the house” as the most important part of her statement (because, as mentioned, it will help the person working at the shop to recommend a dress from the correct category, as opposed to a different category, such as evening dresses), the most important part is actually the phrasal verb.

In English, a phrasal verb is a special construction consisting of a verb and one or two particles that together form a single semantic unit. Thus, “this semantic unit cannot be understood based upon the meanings of the individual parts in isolation, but rather it can be taken as a whole. In other words the meaning is non-compositional and thus unpredictable” (Pullum 2002:273 and Allerton 2006:166). Even though it is pluri-morphemic, a phrasal verb has a distinct meaning, as if it were a separate word in the English dictionary. The meaning may or may not be deduced from context and it is never dependent on the phrasal verb’s component elements. “On” is one of the particles that may be added to the verb “put” to form a phrasal verb. Thus, when the two morphemes come together, the English language gives the choice of decoding and interpreting them as separate semantic units, in which case “put on” would mean something along the lines “place upon” (meaning of “put” plus meaning of “on”), or interpreting them as a single unit (phrasal verb) which has the set meaning “dress oneself”. “Dress” and “put” may be correlated since the act of dressing may be seen as the act of putting clothing unto one’s body, but this should be viewed as simple coincidence since we established that the meaning of a phrasal verb has to do with language convention, rather than the meaning of its component morphemes (to be contrasted with the phrasal verb “give in”, whose meaning of unwillingly stop fighting or arguing has nothing to do with the main interpretation of “give” as placing one item from one person to another).

In the second part of Madam A’s statement, “to” is used to introduce a reasoning/an explanation, “put on” is used as a phrasal verb because she was talking about dresses and the meaning of this phrasal verb has to do with dressing oneself in clothing (or accessories) and “around the house” is used to explain where exactly would lady A dress with the particular dress and this is used simply to differentiate between dresses that can be worn indoors, in the comfort of one’s home versus dress that may be worn outdoors, in public etc.

However, B’s response is a question about how big the speaker’s house is. Since there is no connection between the act of wearing a dress indoors and the size of the house where the said dress is to be worn and because B asks about the size of the house specifically, we deduce that the misinterpretation of the of the elements in A’s statement has lead to the lost of logical common ground between the two speakers. Establishing that “put on” can either be decoded as two separate semantic units or as one single semantic unit with a different meaning, B must not have interpreted “put on” as a phrasal verb and took the combination of the two to mean “place upon”. The structure after “put on” was “around the house”, which, along with the phrasal verb, is meant to be the setting in which the speaker/writer means to wear the dress, but with an segregated interpretation of the two morphemes now refers to what the dress should be placed on. This is why B asks about the size of the house; to find a dress of suitable size. A note should also be made here in regards to “around”. With the correct interpretation of “put on” as a phrasal verb, “around” means something on the lines of “while in” (i.e. “around the house” = while one is in the house). But with the separation of the two morphemes, “put” is decoded alone and then “on” is adjoined with “around”, changing its interpretation to “all over”; thus “put on around the house” now becomes “wrap the house all over in [a dress]”.

In regards to why exactly is B’s reading of A’s statement wrong, it ought to be said that A was talking about a dress and there exists the knowledge of the world that dresses are for people or, in some exceptions, for dolls, but most certainly not for houses. It is this logical convention that we put clothing items mostly on our bodies and not on our houses that imposes the reading of “put on” as a phrasal verb with the meaning “dress in”.

Interestingly enough, the same example in Romanian would also have been wrong, but not because of the duality of “put on”, but because of the translation of “around”, which would have eliminated the wrong reading of placing a big dress on the house. In the correct, idiomatic reading of the phrasal verb, we would have to translate “around” in Romanian as “prin”, which literally means “through” – as such, there is no question of wrapping the house around (on the outside) with a dress: A: Vreau o rochie să port prin casă / B: Da, doamnă. Cât de mare este casa dumneavoastră. The confusion would have been impossible in Romanian also because “port” is a first person singular form of the verb, meaning the act of dressing can only be in reference to the same subject that says “vreau” (want).

Sometimes in football you have to score goals.

 

This sentence is humoristic (at first reading) due to the semantic-level interaction between its three main parts, “sometimes”, “have to score goals”, and “football”. The humour produced by this peculiar adjoining is not lost in the Romanian translation, which produces exactly the same effect as its English counterpart: Câteodată în fotbal trebuie să dai goluri. Let us take a look at why this effect is produced by analyzing all three of the sentence’s main parts individually.

A good analysis could start with “football”. The idea of football may have slight variations in the hearer’s mind depending on where they come from and which particular form of football they are used to seeing or playing, but, nevertheless, all sports in this family involve, to slightly varying degrees, kicking a ball into a certain area of the playing field to score a goal, i.e point(s). The notion of ‘sport’ also comes into play and it should be noted that, because football is considered a sport, any listener of a given community who knows what it is will automatically make a set of assumptions that are connected with the concept of sport/game, such as: the fact that it is a physical activity undergone by two teams of players (in this case) and that it is competitive. The key element of our semantic and pragmatic interpretation here is the competitiveness that inherently comes from the notion of knowing football is a sport played between two opposing teams. Therefore, one team shall win while the other shall lose, if we are no dealing, of course, with the case of a tie. Because football is a competitive game played by two groups of people, both teams play for the purpose of winning the game. This is, so to say, the intentionality of the agent-subjects. In order to win the game, a team must gather more points than the enemy team before time runs out, while trying to prevent the enemy team from gathering points. This is done, in football, by scoring goals – i.e. kicking the ball until it touches a certain area of the playing field, roughly speaking. Thus, football is played in order to score goals, because we automatically assume that one plays a game with the intention of winning.

Considering all this about the nature of sports, it is of no surprise that the verbal structure “have to” is used in the sentence. In English, this particular construct is used to express a strong obligation, where, unlike the use of “must” external circumstances make the obligation necessary. The external circumstances are represented in our case by the previously-established rules of the game, that cannot be changed by the players, less they create a new, different game. As such, disconsidering certain rare exceptions, because football is a competitive sport it is engaged by the players with the intention to win against the other team and because it is engaged with the intention to win, it is therefore played with the intention of scoring goals. In simpler words, the players “have to score goals”. This construction has a general character and could easily be seen as an instruction on how to play the game.

The humor comes, however, from the use of “sometimes” at the beginning of the sentence. Since football has a set of fixed rules, the scoring of goals is the main point of football every single time that football is played, since there is no other way to win the game. If one is to read the sentence at a literal level, it seems rather odd, because of the slight contradiction between what one knows, from their knowledge of the world, about how and why competitive sports are played and the use of the temporal adverb “sometimes”, which could imply that there is another way to win or to play other than scoring goals. If a team does not try to score goals all the time or at all, hoping for a tie (the match ending with 0 points for both teams), this would not be seen as the appropriate way to play football, even if it could theoretically happen in reality and would prove to be a rare exception. However, there is another reading available to the hearer and it involves stressing “have to”, rather than “sometimes”. This produces the meaning that, in some of the cases, one/a team ought to increase their efforts and try harder to actually score a goal; this, most probably, being their only chance of not losing. Such a reading of the sentence could be considered an imperative, an advice, or an exhortation on what to do and where to focus the efforts: it could be uttered, perhaps in semi-mockery, by the coach of a team who relies too much on defensive tactics; in such a case there would be no discrepancy between the semantics of “sometimes” and “have to score goals”. It could also be uttered, again with the stress on “sometimes” by someone referring to a team that is underperforming in their opinion; thus mocking the way the team plays by pointing out the obvious as if the players have no idea what to do. The fact that such possibilities exist and are valid proves the importance of the pragmatics of discourse.

One accusation you can’t throw at me is that I’ve always done my best.

 

This sentence is also humoristic at first level/reading and it keeps the same peculiar aspect in its Romanian translation as well: O acuzație pe care nu poți să mi-o aduci este că mereu am dat tot ce-am putut. Without trying to look into more complex aspects for now, such as setting of utterance, a bare, in abstracto, reading does pose a problem.

On the one hand, we have at the end the structure of “doing my best”, which The Free Dictionary defines as “perform a task as well as possible”. This compound verbal structure does have an ‘+positive’ feature in its semantic interpretation since our shared knowledge of the world tells us that striving to do a thing as well as the agent possible can is regarded as a good thing and, even if the intended result is not achieved, at least a good intention. On the other hand, the definitions for the term “accusation” include the following: an act of accusing or the state of being accused / a charge of wrongdoing that is made against a person or other party / an allegation that a person is guilty of some fault, offence, or crime; imputation / (Law) a formal charge brought against a person stating the crime that he is alleged to have committed / the specific offence charged / a charging of someone with a misdeed etc. We can then infer that the noun “accusation” has a ‘+negative/+bad’ feature in its semantic interpretation. This leads to an obvious disagreement between the negative features associated with accusing and the positive ones associated with doing one’s best. From such a contradictory reading, without proper co-text and context, at the level of conversational implicature, at least two things can be inferred (separately) about the speaker/writer of the statement. First, the misuse of the noun “accusation”, disregarding the negative aspect that it implies; this could easily be seen as a mistake of someone whose native language is not English and who probably wanted to say something along the lines of “one thing that cannot be said about me is …”. This does seem like a counter-intuitive thing to say, however. Secondly, from the very same reason mentioned previously, we could also deal with the misuse of the verb ‘do one’s best’ with disregard of its positive implication. A non-native speaker or a learner may have wanted to utter a sentence in the likes of “one accusation you can’t throw at me is that I’ve always went through with it”. If misuse of the language’s lexicon is the paradigm we are subscribing this example to, then the meaning may be able to be decoded in lack of context of utterance (to a certain extent).

However, how about the case when the speaker/writer is a native user of the English language and knows exactly what both structures mean? Are there scenarios in which such a case is acceptable? We would have to look again at the pragmatics of discourse. Since this is a reply to an accusation, the speaker must be trying to defend their position in one way or another. Whether as part of a formal, official context such as a court of law or as part of an informal context such as a fight between two people who know each other well, how can a defence be built on the grounds that doing something to the best of one’s abilities is a negative thing?

To find an answer, I propose a short incursion with moral philosophy, where one can distinguish between two major trends. The first is Consequentialism, which states that an action can only be regarded as either good or bad by the consequences that it has post-factum. For example, killing a person in self-defence should not be regarded as malevolent intent. Or, to take it to the extreme, doing an apparently bad deed that results in a greater good should not be categorized as a bad deed at all. The second trend is Deontology, which states that deeds are either good or bad by their very nature. That is to say, killing a man, regardless of motive, is always a bad thing and so is telling a lie for a greater good, or for protecting someone. Considering this paradigm, the speaker can be accused of a bad deed and, admitting it, they build their defence around the fact that they never strived to perform said bad deed to the best of their abilities, which, although it most certainly can be considered a poor defence, it is a defence nonetheless.

Another possible interpretation in the pragmatics of discourse is that the speaker/writer is being accused and, knowing they cannot form any sort of defence for themselves, they utter this sentence, in admittance to their lack of performing according to their best efforts, in a joking or mocking manner.

Even though they have not been everywhere mentioned or defined in a strict theoretical framework for pragmatics, the concepts that were at the basis of our analysis, such as deixis (words or expressions whose meanings change depending on who uses them/context/point of view like you, me etc), the taking of turns in conversation to contribute to cooperative communication on the grounds of the common knowledge of the world shared by the speakers, discourse organization, presupposition (assumptions about the background of information created by uttering a sentence) or implicature (suggesting a meaning beyond what is explicitly said), prove that higher levels of meaning and interpretation cannot be achieved by a look at solely the syntactic-semantic interference.

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