March 25, 2007

Drive the fun

On the back of a Hertz rental car reservation documents jacket I saw a slogan that offers one more reason for not thinking that there is (as so many linguistic theories have implied) some tight syntactic definition of which kinds of noun phrase can go with which kinds of verb:

The fun you reserve is the fun you'll drive.

Fun just doesn't go with these verbs normally. In older periods of linguistics, syntacticians would unhesitatingly put asterisks (to indicate ungrammaticality) in front of strings like these:

*I've reserved fun.
*Why don't you reserve the fun.
*Personally, I prefer to drive fun.
*Tomorrow I plan to drive the fun to Fresno.

These examples simply don't look like well-formed English. (Technically, they would be described as having violations of verb-object selection restrictions, and most linguists today take selection restrictions to involve semantic anomaly rather than purely syntactic deviance.)

Somehow we penetrate the apparent nonsense without trouble, and understand the slogan above almost instantly (at least I did: Hertz is guaranteeing that you will not reserve a dazzling white 2008 Porsche with five-on-the-floor shift only to find on arrival that all they have is a dented green Ford Focus with automatic transmission).

How do we get from apparent linguistic impossibilities to intended metonymical meanings with such astonishing ease and speed? (I ask these questions merely rhetorically, of course. Some people, notably my UCSC colleague Ray Gibbs, have devoted significant amounts of research in psycholinguistics to serious attempts at finding out the answers.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 25, 2007 04:00 PM