Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Pleasure and Pain

A nutrition brochure I was reading said something along these lines:

(1) To lower your risk of cancer, enjoy 3 to 5 servings of fruit per day.

So if you've just been choking down your daily servings of fruit for the health benefit, this message seems to say, too bad for you. It's not enough just to eat the fruit--you have to enjoy it, too.

Of course, the writers were really just using enjoy as a synonym for eat, and trying to put a positive spin on it. Actually, it's used as a more general synonym for have, as seen in this example:

(2) American citizens enjoy the right to vote.

The main thought is just that American citizens HAVE the right to vote, and by the way, they in general like having it. This synonym usage goes away, though, when we start talking about individual people, as in:

(3) Glen enjoys the right to vote.

This sentence means that by golly, Glen takes pleasure in exercising that right!

I've identified one other verb that's used this way, and it's a near-opposite of enjoy: suffer from. It is used as a synonym for have in the following sentence, with a negative spin on the having:

(4) 50 million Americans suffer from hemorrhoids.

This could just mean that 50 million Americans HAVE hemorrhoids. (In fact, I'm almost certain it does mean this.) But on the other hand, the speaker could conceivably mean that of all the 60 million or so Americans who have hemorrhoids, 50 million of them actually suffer from them. The other 10 million who are indifferent or who kinda like them are not being discussed. Interestingly, this synonym usage doesn't go away when we're talking about specific individuals. In (5), suffers from still just seems to mean has:

(5) Kim suffers from hemorrhoids.

I wonder what happens if I replace suffer from in (4) with enjoy ?

(6) 50 million Americans enjoy hemorrhoids.

Now we get the ordinary, non-specialized meaning of enjoy. The sentence tells us nothing at all about how many Americans actually HAVE hemorrhoids; it just says that 50 million Americans derive pleasure from hemorrhoids, perhaps by having them, or maybe by looking at them, collecting them, or something else.

These examples remind me of a similar situation with adjectives, in sentences like this:

(7) Our friendly employees will be happy to assist you.

But our surly ones won't, I always want to add. If they were describing the employees with a relative clause, they could avoid the ambiguity by using commas, like this:

(8) Our employees, who are friendly, will be happy to assist you.

In (8), the friendliness is definitely a "by the way" piece of information, packaged in a non-essential relative clause. If the smart-ass interpretation of (7) were to be phrased with a relative clause, it would be one not set off by commas, like this:

(9) Our employees who are friendly will be happy to assist you.

But enjoy and suffer from are different from these adjectives or relative clauses. "By the way" information carried by adjectives or non-essential relative clauses can be deleted from the sentence without changing the main idea; thus, you could say Our employees will be happy to assist you, leaving out the friendly, but still getting the main message across. But in enjoy and suffer, it's built right into the verb itself, and can't be removed without wrecking the sentence.

UPDATE: Mark Liberman has written more about enjoy and suffer from at Language Log, and his posting reminded Q. Pheevr of a quotation from Pippi Longstocking that shows Astrid Lindgren suffered from the same kind of literal-minded streak that I do.

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