That'll teach me ...
... to try to post brief, quick things to Language Log. Either I
have to do it up brown or I have to pepper the posting with
qualifications, provisos, and warnings. So I seriously messed up
on the teach you to posting
in at least two ways, and now I have a pile of e-mail messages about
The two things: (1) by not contextualizing and elaborating on my
observation that I had noticed the undernegation in
X to VP
I gave the impression that I was claiming the idiom was new to me and
that it was in fact recent; (2) by giving the shorthand gloss 'teach X
not to VP', I gave the impression that I thought this was a full
analysis of how the idiom is used.
I got lots of e-mail messages (astonished or corrective) on each of
these points, and on a couple of others. Here's the history ...
. Linguists are
forever "noticing" familiar things -- that is, noticing that some
familiar phenomenon has an interesting twist to it. What are the
regularities connecting the form and meaning of these
expressions? How might they have come about? And so
on. That's what happened to me with
That'll teach you to blow your quarters
on the arcade.
Yeah, sure, I was familiar with this way of talking, and had been for a
long time. But I was moved to reflect on the fact that such
expressions, which lack any negative elements, are nevertheless
understood as having negative import: they are indeed about teaching
and learning, but the lesson to be learned is NOT
VP. (Yes, there's more. I'm saying only that this is PART
of the story, not that it's the whole story.)
So we have an idiom (which I'll call Teach To), in which the meaning of
the whole cannot be read off from the meanings of the parts using
regular compositional principles of meaning. And Teach To is
undernegated: no negative in the syntax, negative import in the
semantics/pragmatics. (Undernegation comes up every so often here
on Language Log, since it was first
under that name by Ben Zimmer in December 2005; search on
"undernegation" for the full set of postings.)
In my first version of the posting, I said that we hadn't mentioned
Teach To before, but that was wrong. Somehow my search on the
site failed to pick up the 2004 Chris Potts piece in which Teach To got
a brief mention, but Mark Liberman quickly set me straight, and I
revised my posting.
Still, I failed to include the boilerplate:
My interest here is not in tracing uses
of this expression historically, but merely in noting that it's
frequent in current use.
And I failed to state EXPLICITLY
that the usage was
familiar to me and had (as far as I knew) been around for some
considerable time. Very bad step. (Students of implicature
might want to look at what went wrong here.) So I got tons of
e-mail, some from old friends, expressing disappointed bewilderment
about how dense I was about English usage.
My mail did include some cites:
[from Robert Coren] Kenneth
Grahame's The Wind in the Willows
(1908): Toad says "I'll learn 'em to steal my house!", in response to
which Rat objects to his use of "learn" for "teach", but there's no
suggestion that the inversion of the lesson is an issue.
[from Thomas Thurman] ... as a child I had a joke book which
contained this entry:
ANGRY HOUSEHOLDER: I'll teach YOU to
throw stones at my greenhouse!
SCHOOLBOY: I wish you would! I've had five tries and haven't hit it yet!
which seems to show that undernegative "teach" has been around a while.
(Actually, on a whim, I tried putting it into
, which shows examples from as far back as 1884. Some
of the results are actually about teaching people to throw stones, but
some of them are clearly threats.
[from Andrew McGuinness, the same joke] In England, the
undernegated form is certainly the common form. I remember in a
joke book (probably "The Crack-a-Joke book", Puffin books, something
like 1977) the following:
Angry Man: I'll teach you to
throw stones at my greenhouse!
Boy: I wish you would - I've had five shots and haven't hit it
So the form being used by the angry man is so normal that there's no
immediate ambiguity, or else the joke wouldn't work.
[from Simon Cauchi, in New Zealand] This "colloquial" or
"informal" use is already in the dictionaries. For example:
New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (2005): teach
, sense 3:
(foll. by to + infin.)
a induce (a person) by example or punishment to do or not to do a thing
(that will teach you to sit still;
that will teach you not to laugh)
b colloq. make (a person)
disinclined to do a thing (I will
teach you to interfere).
The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998): teach
, fifth and sixth bulleted
subsenses, the sixth being labelled "informal":
induce (someone) by example or
punishment to do or not to do something: my upbringing taught me never to be
disrespectful to elders
make (someone) less inclined to do something: 'I'll teach you to forget my tea,' he
said, and gave me six with his cane.
(I don't believe corporal punishment for such lapses is any longer
permitted in New Zealand schools.)
2 has much the same
entries as the Oxford dictionaries Cauchi cites, but with (of course) a
different illustration for the "informal" Teach To: I'll teach you to mess with young girls!
In fact, it turns out that the OED
has the relevant sense, not marked as colloquial or informal:
d. Used by way of threat: To let one know the cost or penalty of
something. Also without direct object.
1575 Gamm. Gurton III. iii.
Ciijb, And I get once on foote..ile teach the what longs to it.
a1619 FLETCHER Mad Lover III.
ii, I'll teach you to be treacherous!
1697 DRYDEN Virg. Past. III.
76 I'll teach you how to brag another time.
1778 F. BURNEY Evelina (1791)
I. xxxvi. 191 She will..teach you to know who she is.
c1863 T. TAYLOR Ticket-of-Leave Man
II. 33 Sam! is it? Confound him! I'll teach him.
1889 A. LANG Pr. Prigio ii.
10 I'll teach you to be too clever, my lad.
Moral: always check out the dictionaries. (It's not in AHD
4, by the way.)
. Another pile of e-mail came in about how the point
of Teach To us to encourage the addressee to AVOID
VPing by alluding to the unfortunate consequences of VPing.
That's certainly what Teach To conveys. When I say
That'll teach me to try to post brief,
quick things to Language Log.
I convey that I should avoid VPing (posting brief, quick things to
Language Log) because doing so leads -- in fact, has led -- to
unfortunate consequences (in this case, being widely misunderstood).
When someone says
I'll teach you to talk back to me!
they (probably) convey that the addressee should avoid VPing (talking
back to them) because doing so will lead to unfortunate circumstances
(there is a threat of forthcoming punishment for the recent action of
This is still far from the full story, but it's better than my offhand
For more turns and twists, see the Linguist List discussion from 4
October through 3 November 1993, initiated by a query from Laurie
Bauer: postings 4.795. 4.822, 4.844, 4.859. 4.873, 4.874, 4.884, 4.898,
4.909. (Thanks to David Denison for pointing me to these
exchanges.) Like most mailing list discussions, this one wanders
a good bit, but many good points are made.
announced): odds and ends. Here in passing are a few topics from
. Lots of readers
pointed out that they allow, or prefer, learn
instead of teach
in the Teach To idiom (as in
the Wind in the Willows
above). This is just what you'd expect in varieties that have learn
'teach'. But there may
be people who don't generally use learn
'teach' but nevertheless have learn
as part of a package with undernegation, in a kind of importation of
elements from vernacular speech.
Many readers wrote to tell me that Teach To is enormously frequent,
much more frequent than any explicitly negative counterpart (note
Andrew McGuinness's comment above). I'm sympathetic. But: I
no longer trust ANYONE
's off-hand estimates (even my
own) of the frequencies of variants; your/my impressions are so biased
by expectations, beliefs, selective attention, etc. that they can't be
trusted. Ya gotta do the numbers.
That is, I suspect my correspondents are right, but that has to be
Also, in this case, it's hard to know how to factor in the enormous
number of occurrences of will teach
VP that are entirely
literal (an offer: "I'll teach you to factor polynomials").
readers wrote to say that Teach To is sarcastic: it has a
characteristic intonation and a characteristic import, it is claimed.
Well, as with could care less
Teach To CAN
have such an intonation and/or such an
import, but it very often doesn't have either. That is, the idiom
isn't intrinsically sarcastic. Like all sorts of other
expressions, it can have sarcasm attached to it.
(David Eddyshaw attempted to connect the absence of negation to
sarcastic intonation, in much the way that Steve Pinker proposed for could care less
. The idea is
that the intonation marks the speaker's intent, so an explicit negative
isn't necessary. I refer you to the Language Log discussions of could care less
for a critical
treatment of this idea; an archive of postings is here
In the Linguist List
discussion, John Lawler noted that the will
is part of the idiom. As
with the could
of could care less
or the would
of would rather
, a modal
is part of the idiom.
3.5. Negative polarity
In the same Linguist List discussion, John Lawler pointed out that
though Teach To is implicitly negative, it doesn't license negative
polarity items (like anyone
??I'll teach you to talk to anyone
??That'll teach you to go anywhere in Alabama.
Contrast the implicitly negative deny
I denied that I had talked to anyone
I denied that I had gone anywhere in Alabama.
So there are several different flavors of implicit negation.
Final note: this has been a quick pass through some of the complexities
of Teach To -- more adequate than my unfortunately brief original
posting, but still far from the whole story. Still, I think it's
useful to say some things on the topic, without trying to say
everything that could be said.
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 6, 2008 03:21 PM