February 16, 2006

I didn't write shit today

The sentence I didn't write shit today is ambiguous: the idiomatic meaning typically says you didn't write (or at best, you wrote essentially nothing); the literal meaning typically says that you did write, and what you wrote could not be described as shit. But, I just noticed today, the two roughly opposed meanings can both be true in the same situation! Consider someone who expects daily output to be between 15 and 20 pages, and today they wrote only a page and a half, though it was of high quality. Then on the idiomatic meaning, they didn't write shit (because a page and a half counts as approximately nothing). But on the literal meaning, they didn't write any shit: it was all good stuff, not excrement. Both meanings are true! So... umm... I have no idea why I told you this. It just occurred to me on the walk home, after a couple of drinks, that's all. I guess it's just another of those observations about the English language not exactly being a perfectly designed instrument for the precise expression of thought. You know, rather like the old observation (which comedian first said it?) that, paradoxically, we drive on the parkway but we park on the driveway.

The people who have commented (here, for example) that there is a difference in intonation that can keep the two meanings apart are right, of course.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 16, 2006 10:23 PM