Monday, January 19, 2004

Stuck in a Syntactic Puzzle You Can't Get Out Of

That's the clever post title I thought Neal should've used for his post below, and now I have a chance to use it, because Dad emailed me the following message that he was unable to post in the comments box:
Neal calls this kind of situation an "attachment ambiguity." No doubt that is the correct linguistics term, but I call it bad diction, good diction being defined as a skillful choice of words accurately used to express clearly the speaker's ideas.

Our society generally forgives a modicum of bad diction or bad grammar on the part of singers and songwriters, because it is often necessary to make the timing and tempo (or the rhyming) of the lyrics fit with the melody ("poetic license"). This is not surprising, since frequently (if not the majority of the time) the music is written before the lyrics are. In fact, it is not uncommon that different people write the music and the lyrics. My impression is that this is especially true with musicals.

Were it not for the absurdity of the "call her up a thousand times" scenario, that would be exactly what I would think was meant, just as Ellen did, because of the sentence structure. Consider the following:

"I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day" has the same structure as, "I resolve to call her every week." Now, having removed the outlandish aspect (a thousand calls per day) from the problem, it is clear that what the speaker means to say is that he intends to call her every week (whether he actually gets around to it is another matter).

If, instead, the speaker said, "Every week I resolve to call her," it is equally clear that every week he resolves all over again to call her (but apparently he can't ever work up the nerve to actually do so).

While on the subject of misleading song lyrics, Neal, what is the proper linguistics term for the kind of intentional misdirection embodied in the song line that goes, "I want to kiss her, but .... pause .... she won't let me," meaning that he wants to kiss her (except she won't let him), although what the singer wants the listener to hear is that he (the singer) wants to kiss her butt.

Also, what does BTW mean? And did you mean to say Police both times or Sting both times?
Here are my answers, even though the questions were for Neal. With regard to the intentional misdirection ("I want to kiss her, but..."), I think the technical linguistic term is "pun." "BTW" is Internet shorthand for "by the way." And Sting was the lead singer of the Police, so I think Neal deliberately used both names.

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