distributive law

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 9 09:48:24 UTC 2010

In response to a comment from Der Spiegel,
> Too many police, they say, can't read or write, can't shoot straight
> or _take_bribes_.

James Taranto of WSJ writes,
> They say in hell the police are German. But if it's a problem that the
> Afghan cops _can't_take_bribes_, surely there are some ex-Stasi guys
> who could help.

(emphasis added in both)
This is a classic. As a student, I've often found myself rewriting
sentences to make sure that serialized phrases were properly
distributed. So, in this case, I probably would have put "take bribes"
first, just to avoid the misinterpretation that Taranto is mocking. Yet,
the original sentence is fairly clear--since "can't" appears in two
parts, there is no reason to believe that the second one extends to the
third part. Still, it is easy to understand where the confusion comes
from. I am just not sure Taranto can see the correct parsing at all.

And this is from the man who thinks he can see funny in headlines.

Interestingly, there is another distributive problem that Taranto ran
into. He found the headline below amusing because, apparently, he
thought that coordination was broken:

> San Francisco's Meat-Free Mondays gets a shrug

He added [sic] after "gets". Yet, if quotation marks are used, the
problem disappears.

> San Francisco's "Meat-Free Mondays" gets a shrug

Well, maybe not "disappears", but it's certainly easier to parse it as
reasonable. It seems Taranto simply has attention span of  a 2 year old.
(No slight of 2 year olds is intended.)


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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