Today's little amuse-bouche

« previous post | next post »

Here at Language Log, we don't just sit around unravelling the mysteries of by-topicalization, stress-timing, resumptive pronouns, and the like. We have our playful sides: cartoons, "lost in translation" examples, Cupertinos, fun with taboo avoidance. Here's today's little amuse-bouche (or, if you prefer, amuse-gueule), which came to me originally on a card from a friend: a photo of a sign on a platform at the Penrith (English Lake District) railway station. The card was a grainy print-out, but here's a much better image:


(Hat tip: Chris Ambidge) You can find a dozen or so references to the sign, mostly from 2007, by googling on {"or you may get sucked off"}.

So, if you're a reader in search of fellatio, you know what to do: go to Penrith station and stand close to the edge of the platform; you might try looking lustful. (Granted, there are much easier ways to get your needs taken care of, but this one at least has the imprimatur of British Rail.)

Note that the sign is framed as a warning, of the form

Imperative + or Declarative

where Declarative denotes some eventuality the reader can be expected to prefer to avoid. And indeed even if you crave fellatio, you might not want to get it in public on the edge of a railway platform.

I am of course unable to just drop the topic here. There are some linguistic points to be made. To start with, we have our old friend potential ambiguity. It's everywhere, even at the railway station. There's no EFFECTIVE ambiguity here, though. Any reasonable reader will get the intended meaning, though readers especially sensitive to blue meanings will also notice the possibility of the contextually inappropriate meaning 'fellated' for sucked off.

The potential ambiguity arises — as so many potential ambiguities do — from a combination of lexical and constructional ambiguity: there are two different structures, with two different uses of off in them:

(1) V suck + particle (Prt) off, in the idiom suck off 'fellate', taking a direct object (DO);

(2) V suck, taking a DO and an adverbial preposition phrase (PP) with the preposition (P) off.

The structure in (1) usually alternates with V + DO + Prt (known as the "particle movement" structure): suck off two men ~ suck two men off. The structure in (1) ordinarily requires a DO for V + Prt, as in suck off two men. But the Penrith sign has a passive, so there is no DO; the relevant NP — you, in this case — functions instead as subject.

The structure in (2) also ordinarily requires a DO (intervening between V and PP: suck six passengers off the platform), but again the sign has a passive, so there is no DO and the relevant NP, you, functions as subject.

But the sign deviates in another way from the structure in (2): the object NP of the P off (as in off the platform) is missing. In fact this "zero" is in alternation with an overt pronoun: you may get sucked off it (with accent on off); compare Sandy grabbed the door of the bus and jumped on (it); Terry went to the edge of the precipice and vaulted over (it). The circumstances in which you can have zero objects — DOs or objects of Ps — in English are very complex, and there is not just one construction here, but there are phenomena of some generality, and one of them contributes its bit to the potential ambiguity of the Penrith example.

The point of this digression is that potential ambiguity frequently results from the (fortuitous) confluence of lexical ambiguities with a number of different constructional patterns (in this case V + Prt vs. V + PP; passive; and zero anaphors as objects of prepositions).

A final small point: the modal auxiliary may in may get sucked off. I mention this only because of my earlier postings on potential ambiguity.

This may of possibility has figured several times over the years in stories people have sent me about Copy Editors from Hell.

[In advance: I am certainly not down on copy editors in general. I've had several bad experiences of my own, and I've heard much worse from others. But I've also been well served by excellent copy editors, and I've even spent some time being one. (By the way, I also have a growing fund of stories from copy editors suffering under the thumbs of bosses who are unreasonable about language matters.)]

People write me to say that they've had manuscripts edited so as to replace all instances of possibility may by might. Why?, you ask. Because may means permission, so that things like You may feel light-headed after taking this drug — this stands in for hundreds of different sorts of examples I could supply — would be "ambiguous" if we allowed may to have a possibility meaning. We have to avoid the "ambiguity" by using might and only might for possibility.

This is a bright crystal of silliness — well, failure to appreciate how people use language in context. Situations in which may is effectively ambiguous between permission and possibility are, in my experience, extremely infrequent. Yes, you can concoct examples (like You may leave) that, out of context, could go either way, but in context there is rarely an issue. (Some time ago I discussed some innovative uses of may that some people have found "confusing".) In addition, there are entire classes of cases where a permission reading for may is impossible: sentences with non-human subjects (It may rain tomorrow. It may upset some of your friends that you've been talking behind their backs. A storm may threaten the South.), for instance, and those whose aspect is incompatible with a permission reading (Sandy may have cooked the books. Terry may be cheating on taxes.). And then there cases where the permission reading is just very implausible in the real world: Kim may be our next department chair.

If you really want to argue that possibility may should be abandoned in general, in favor of might, you're arguing for an impoverishment of the communicative resources of the language. The distinction between may and might in many contexts is subtle but significant: roughly, might is "modally distant or remote", more so than may (there is a fair literature on the subject). Legislating against the possibility reading of may excises this useful distinction. Why would you want to do that?

Share:



28 Comments »

  1. Mark P said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    Can the originators of the sign possibly not have recognized the ambiguity? Could the sign be old enough to predate that possibility? Just how old would that have to be?

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    It'd have to be exceedingly old. I remember jokes from school (late 1960s): all variants, some decidedly racist, on a man or boy being warned not to get near the platform edge because the train would suck them off, and in response standing there in expectation saying "Come on, train" or similar. Here's a citation from 1975: Snoo Wilson's book Pignight & Blowjob.

  3. Sili said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    I'd like to know how many people have been in danger of being sucked off because they've been posing for photos under the sign.

    I seem to be able to construe ambiguity in your examples with non-human subjects, if I'm looking for it (and adding context):

    "It may rain tomorrow for all I care; I'll be on Madeira."

    "It may upset some of your friends that you've been talking behind their backs. Because that's really a rude thing to do, so they have every right to."

    "A storm may threaten the South. Please, God, let a storm threaten the South."

    But of course that takes extreme uncoöperativity on my behalf.

    Granted, there are much easier ways to get your needs taken care of

    Do tell. I think I've learned more about fellatio from LL than from reading slash …

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    After vainly invoking the Muse
    A poet said "Hell! What's the use?
    There is more inspiration
    At Grand Central Station–
    I shall go there this moment and cruise."

    –W.H. Auden

  5. Robert S. Porter said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    Not only is the sign funny, but it's incorrect in its intended meaning. As the Discovery Channel how Mythbusters showed, there is no suction. That's not to say it's safe though.

  6. Ann said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    Regarding "may/might" and copy editors, my group enforces the distinction because we were told that it's helpful for our translators and for ESL readers.

  7. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    "…because we were told that it's helpful for our translators and for ESL readers"

    Ah, the enforced internationalisation of English…

  8. Lester Piggot said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

    Sili said,
    I think I've learned more about fellatio from LL than from reading slash
    and Arnold Zwicky said,
    but I've also been well served by excellent copy editors

  9. Charles said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

    I am reminded of a Simpsons moment:

    Marge Simpson: Kids can be so cruel!
    Bart Simpson: We can? Thanks, Mom! [sound of Bart's footsteps as he runs down hallway]
    Lisa: Owwww! Bart, cut it out!

  10. Roger Depledge said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 2:56 am

    From The Guardian, Jon Henley, Tuesday March 21, 2006

    Harrowing news from Penrith, meanwhile, whence reader Keith Matson writes – with, we regret to say, supporting photographic evidence – that he has never seen a sign warning passengers to Keep Away from the Edge of the Platform or You May Get Sucked Off (all used fivers of no further avail; this is positively the last time we will repeat that). The actual wording, Mr Matson insists, is Keep Back from the Platform Edge, Passing Trains Cause Air Turbulence. How very deflating!

    As they say, this story was too good to check.

  11. Leon said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 8:58 am

    Perhaps they could have decreased ambiguity by using "be" instead of "get" to form the passive. To me "get" more strongly implies an agentive semantic role than "be" in passive constructions, e.g. "keep back from the platform edge, or you may be sucked off" vs. "keep back from the platform edge, or you may get sucked off".

    Or perhaps it's because we use "get" in some imperatives, e.g. "get bent", "get cleaned up" vs. "be bent", "be cleaned up".

  12. David Starner said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    It strikes me that the first reading I give to "You may leave" is that of a command. I suspect I'd find the permission form of "you may leave" to be odd in practice; I'd use "You can leave", almost always as "You can leave if you'd like" or "if you want to". I actually think that I'd likely interpret "you may leave" in the permission form as "you might leave".

  13. Ambrose Nankivell said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    I'm a little intrigued by the possibility of a very tall person walking along the trackbed at Penrith (surely chosen as the English station that sounds most like 'penis') who's walking along looking for fellatable items stuck out of the platform edge awaiting fellation.

  14. Kit said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

    Just as a quick note: I'm told that the Welsh for train station and Breton for orgasm are cognates; I've not confirmed this, speaking only a little Breton and no Welsh. However, it seems appropriate here.

  15. Chris Bogart said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

    Is it possible that the use of a theoretically ambiguous word like "may" could be more taxing to the reader — they go down a garden path then have to re-interpret what they've read so far? In that case, even if the sentence in context is not genuinely ambiguous, a kind author might prefer to use "might".

  16. Gavin said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 8:49 am

    You mention that you have "a growing fund of stories from copy editors suffering under the thumbs of bosses who are unreasonable about language matters". Please blog them.

    I have one, albeit second-hand, from a friend who is sub-editor on the sports section of an English language newspaper in Chennai, India. A decree came down that in an effort to modernise the paper, all instances of the honorific "Sri" were to be rendered as "Mr". So instead of writing Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, from then on it had to be Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, etc. The subs duly obliged by referring to India's southern neighbour as "Mr Lanka".

  17. Kate said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    The Germans take a more puritanical view of getting sucked off at the train platform – in that same area at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, there are signs in English that say "Please don't get off."

  18. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    Gavin: "You mention that you have "a growing fund of stories from copy editors suffering under the thumbs of bosses who are unreasonable about language matters". Please blog them."

    I don't think I can do that. The stories aren't interesting without some detail, and details might make the editors (and their bosses) identifiable. In fact, my correspondents have specifically asked me not to post their stories.

  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    Chris Bogart: "Is it possible that the use of a theoretically ambiguous word like "may" could be more taxing to the reader — they go down a garden path then have to re-interpret what they've read so far? In that case, even if the sentence in context is not genuinely ambiguous, a kind author might prefer to use "might"."

    I have a posting (a rather long one, alas) in preparation about just this idea, of "temporary potential ambiguity". The very short response is that any common word is potentially ambiguous, so that understanding sentences means juggling possibilities (excluding some, favoring others) at every step; people are very good at doing this. Eliminating one potential ambiguity (out of many thousands in the language) would not assist the process at all.

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    > Welsh for train station and Breton for orgasm are cognates
    Assuming this isn't a wind-up, not obviously. Modern Welsh for railway station is "Gorsaf Reilffordd" (i.e. a place where a train stands). Breton for orgasm seems to be something like "diskargadenn" or "strinkadenn" ("discharge" or "sprinkle" – see Webster's Breton-English Thesaurus Dictionary). But there could well be something idiomatic that's not in this dictionary.

  21. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 9:32 am

    For non-UK residents, Penrith is (ostensibly) where Withnail and Marwood demand the finest wines known to humanity in the film Withnail & I.

  22. James Wimberley said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

    A few miles south down the line (or up in the London-centric British train lingo) is Carnforth Junction immortalised in the classic weepieBrief Encounter. Penrith is clearly the location for the remake Even Briefer Encounter.

  23. j said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    The may/might thing is made even sillier if you consider the use of "might" to signal a mild suggestion, as in "If you're looking to buy a bike, you might talk to Joe. He's selling his old one." or "Next time, you might try asking before you take the last donut."

    Just as the two uses of "may" would rarely be confused in context, I can't think of an example where the above meaning of "might" would be confused with the one in "It might rain".

  24. Robert Hawkes said,

    June 24, 2008 @ 9:24 am

    May/Might: What bugs me is to hear "He said he may do it", or equivalent. Surely one of the functions of "might" is as a past tense of "may". "He says he will/can/may do it/He said he would/could/might do it."

  25. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 24, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

    David Starner: "It strikes me that the first reading I give to "You may leave" is that of a command."

    This is subtle, but I'm inclined to think that this is just permission "may" — but the granting of permission to X to do Y can, in context, be used to convey a suggestion, even a strong suggestion, that X should do Y.

  26. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 24, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

    To Robert Hawkes, about things like "He said he may do it": there's some discussion of uses of "may" for "might" in the earlier posting I linked to above:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002016.html

  27. Trevor Clements said,

    June 24, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

    In Bangkok there is a subway station called Bang Sue. I used to work in an English Academy here in Korea and one of the receptionists there had taken Sue as her English nickname. There was a sign in the subway station that had an arrow and read "To Bang Sue". It seemed like maybe here was the instructional manual I'd been looking for.

  28. martin said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    May (in English law) means give if the circumstances are correct

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment