May 11, 2007

Family Circus Filology

Today's language cartoons come via the Comics Curmudgeon, who has featured a coupla linguistically-significant Family Circus cartoons in recent rants.

First, a simple Eggcorn Genesis moment:

Next, something a bit more sophisticated:

To fully appreciate this one, you really need to read part of what Josh (the Curmudgeon) has to say about it in his original rant:

I wasn't aware that there was some Papally proscribed prayer posture, with more knees denoting more Christian sincerity. I'm also not sure how Dolly can tell Jeffy's only doing half an Ave Maria if he's still in the midst of it -- is he only doing every other word or something?

Josh's remark illustrates an important point about the temporal properties of events that can be described as "saying half the Hail Mary", namely, that they unfold towards a specific endpoint along a timecourse specified by the extent properties of the element denoted by the object NP in direct object position. That is, such events keep on going until half a Hail Mary is said and then they stop. The size of half a Hail Mary determines the extent of the event. This necessary stopping is a crucial property of such events -- called "telic events" -- and distinguishes them from another kind of event, ones with no predetermined endpoint, like running or singing -- ''atelic'' events..

Now, the English progressive (be + V-ing) has the property of focussing on the midpoint of some event -- the event is ongoing when you use the progressive to describe it. So the normal interpretation of "Jeff is saying half a Hail Mary" is that Jeff is in the middle of saying half a Hail Mary -- he hasn't reached the endpoint of the saying-half-a-Hail-Mary event yet.

Josh's point is that Dolly can't possibly tell whether Jeffy is only saying half a Hail Mary or saying a full Hail Mary. Any midpoint of a saying-half-a-Hail-Mary event is ALSO a midpoint of a saying-a-Hail-Mary event, so if Dolly's in the middle of watching Jeffy executing such an event, she can't know if he's going to stop halfway through or not, so she can have no evidence that he's only saying half.

There are only a couple of ways her report can make sense as a true statement about an ongoing event. One is the way that Josh mentions in his comment -- if he's saying half the Hail Mary by uttering every other word. Then, after hearing just a few words, Dolly could extrapolate the pattern to the end of the prayer, conclude that Jeffy isn't going to say the whole thing, and make her report.

The other way is if she's witnessing an iteration of half-a-Hail-Mary-saying events -- Jeffy has been repeatedly saying half-Hail-Marys. This represents a so-called 'coercion' effect of the progressive+telic verb combination -- rather than one event halfway through, the event is reimagined as consisting of multiple iterated events. He knocked at the door could be true with just a single "knock!", but He was knocking at the door has to involve multiple knocks -- coercion to an iteration interpretation, since knocking has no internal event duration that the progressive could focus on. Saying a Hail Mary does, though, so there's both the 'normal' and iterated interpretations of the progressive available. And as a description of iterated half-Hail-Mary-saying events, Dolly's report makes sense.

I imagine this is why it's the Hail Mary and not some other bedtime prayer that is mentioned in the caption -- in my media-based and sketchy impression of Catholicism, Hail Marys are a prayer that is often said repeatedly, yes? Poor little Jeffy. Now he'll have to go back and say all the other half-a-Hail-Marys. Halfs-a-Hail-Mary? Certainly not halves-a-Hail-Mary. Hmm!


Posted by Heidi Harley at May 11, 2007 03:50 AM