July 10, 2004

If wine and stew can always, why can't toast?

Eric Bakovic recently teased Charles Harrington Elster for a semantic solecism, "the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down."

Don't worry -- I'm not going to stick up for Elster. I might have praised William Safire, and even defended Richard Lederer, but in this case, I agree with Eric that Elster's phrase evokes "the same piece of toast reconstituting itself over and over again and falling, always falling, on its face". My problem is that I'm still not clear about why.

I was initially persuaded by Eric's suggestion that Elster might have tried (and failed) to get a generic malicious-toast category going. Eric's post brought to mind the "food that always" cliché of restaurant reviews:

(link) This is a cosy, unpretentious place with food that always satisfies and sometimes delights.

After all, it's different food on each occasion -- at least I hope so -- but in another sense, it's the same food. And how big a jump is it from "food that always..." to "toast that always..."?

This is a friendly little diner with toast that always hits the floor jelly-side up. [sorry, you can't always find the example you want via Google]

You might think that Elster's problem was using the definite article the in his phrase. But a reviewer might also praise a restaurant for "the seafood that is always fresh" or "the pasta that is always al dente", so why not "the toast that always..."?

Those were my thoughts, before David Beaver laid out a feast of crunchy scopal goodness that included offered another, more compelling explanation:

The problem with the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down is that the quantificational element always occurs in a relative clause, and the variable for the piece of toast is introduced in a higher clause.

Now David is a trained semantic professional, able to field-strip a donkey sentence in seconds. And he gives persuasive examples (involving diplomats and countries) to show that relative clauses are scopal islands.

But I'm still stuck on these other kinds of food examples, for instance:

(link) Their Barbera is a fun and fruity wine that always pleases us...
(link) My mother used to make a fantastic beef stew that always tasted better the next day.

As in the restaurant reviews, what seems to be going on here is that there's a single abstract wine or stew entity that always behaves in a certain way across occasions, even though its instantiations on the different occasions are completely disjoint in every physical respect.

So we could write, by analogy,

Their sourdough is a light and crispy toast that always hits the floor marmelade side up.
My mother used to make a delicious rye toast that always hit the floor creamcheese side up.

But then, why can't Elster have his " slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down"?

I don't know. It just doesn't work. Probably David Beaver will be able to explain it to me.

This is something that distinguishes linguists from "language mavens". If a generalization that we've been taught -- or worked out for ourselves -- seems to conflict with common usage or with our own judgments, our reaction is to question the generalization or its application to the cases in question. Language mavens try adjust their own usage to fit the "rule", and sneer at those who don't.

[Update: David Beaver, who is a bit busy, sent the following helpful note, pending fuller explication when he has time:

Oh, I see now, ... the difference is that between:

1) the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down
2) the slippery (kind of) toast that always hits the floor jelly side down

I think it's "piece of" that rejects being kind denoting in this case. Confusingly, "the piece" can still be quantified over generically, as in:

3) the slippery piece of toast is always the last one eaten.

I can just about conjure up a set of situations involving both one slippery and one or more non-slippery pieces of toast, such that the slippery one is the last one eaten. It was Carlson who distinguished between different types of generic sentences, only some of which involve references to kinds. Something close to a diagnostic is whether you can add: "is extinct" or "is not common these days".


4) That fruity wine is not common these days
5) ?? That piece of toast is not common these days.



Posted by Mark Liberman at July 10, 2004 07:00 PM