Doing the same

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Yesterday's Stone Soup:

The joke here depends on  the potential ambiguity in what Haj Ross (Constraints on Variables in Syntax, 1967) called "sloppy [anaphoric] identity". Ross's examples were things like

George is losing his hair, but Bill isn't [losing his hair].
Sally forgot her mother's birthday, but Julia didn't [forget her mother's birthday].

where the hair the Bill isn't losing probably isn't George's, but the mother whose birthday Julia remembered might be Sally's or might be Julia's.

Somewhat later, Adrian Akmajian ("The Role of Focus in the Interpretation of Anaphoric Expressions", in S.R. Anderson and P. Kiparsky, eds.,, A Festschrift for Morris Halle, 1973, cited in Emmon Bach, Joan Bresnan and Thomas Wasow, "'Sloppy Identity': An Unnecessary and Insufficient Criterion for Deletion Rules", Linguistic Inquiry 5(4) 1974) introduced examples like

Jack put Mabel on the bed and poured honey on her, and I want to do it to Bill using the couch and apple butter.

And at some point along the way, anaphoric expressions like "the same [thing]" came into the picture:

John [went to the supermarket], and then Bill [did {it/that/the same thing/so}].

This sort of thing would be low-hanging fruit for complaints about frivolous research spending (though I believe that the Jack and Mabel business was supported by the U.S. Air Force, not the National Science Foundation :-).

And there's plenty of fruit available for the picking. Over the years, a striking number of famous linguists and computer scientists have studied this phenomenon — along with the works already cited, a partial list of references includes Östen Dahl, "On so-called sloppy identity", Gothenburg Papers in Theoretical Linguistics 11, University of Göteborg, 1972; Mary Dalrymple, Stuart Shieber, and Fernando Pereira, "Ellipsis and higher-order unification", Linguistics and Philosophy, 14:399–452, 1991; Peter Culicover and Ray Jackendoff, "Something Else for the Binding Theory", Linguistic Inquiry 26(2) 1996; Claire Gardent, "Sloppy Identity", in Logical Aspects of Computational Linguistics, 1997; etc.

But the motivation for this work was not fascination with the formal analysis of silly sentences. (Well, maybe a little…) Ellipsis and anaphora are ubiquitous, and must somehow be dealt with by any effort, theoretical or practical, to get at linguistic meaning. I might have preferred less emphasis on the formal mechanisms of generation or interpretation, and more emphasis on the distribution of relevant empirical observations — but all of the research on this topic has been underlyingly serious and potentially relevant.


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    Surely the locus classicus is Ray Davies' lyric "But I know what I am, and I'm glad I'm a man, and so's Lola."

  2. kktkkr said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    I really couldn't understand the comic until this post. Hope I'm not alone (and I'm not referring to the feeling of dumbness in general).

  3. Rick Sprague said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    Primed by the blog post title, it took me a while to catch on. I initially interpreted the question to mean "What if Tom Hanks is doing the same things the husband does?" and I focused on the elision of "things", which doesn't seem grammatical to me in that context. When I finally caught on, "What if he's doing the same" seemed grammatical for the intended ambiguous meanings (What if the husband is imagining he's married to an attractive celebrity/Tom Hanks) but still doesn't for my initial interpretation. Is it because there's no anaphor for "things the husband does"?

  4. Matthew Wright said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    The real locus classicus goes:

    A: I love you!
    B: So do I!

    This one can lie undetected for years before the penny drops…

  5. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    One of the ways I think of a lot of interpretation problems discussed on this blog is to recast them in light of AI, a process also suggested here at LL. Or to put it more simply, I ask WWWD (What Would Watson Do)?

    And the answer in this case is not so obvious, which tells me it really is a serious issue as Mark states. A computer should be very good at identifying an ambiguity ("does not compute," etc.) but picking the the correct threads, especially implicit ones, to make accurate sense of the intention (pace, Scalia) strikes me as a complicated process that we monkey brains handle quite easily.

    It's also a phenomenon that lends itself to going meta quite easily. Many a comic has gotten laughs using variations on the "apple butter" model. (Aside to Mark: could we call sentences like that "apple butter sentences"? It rings pretty well, I think.)

    Anyway, I'm also curious to know how well a language-processing computer can handle meta-humor, and what it would take to give one such ability. You could always supply it with a chip full of memes that have an associated "meta-flag," but a better language engine should be able to spot the meta in unique utterances. E.g., a good AI should get the humor implicit in "Lola" without a tip of the hat.

  6. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    There are a lot of jokes like that: "Bill makes love to his wife twice a week. So does his neighbor Jim."

  7. John Lawler said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 11:48 am

    Incidentally, Haj Ross's dissertation (Constraints on Variables in Syntax, 1967) is now available online, along with many other papers and squibs.

  8. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

    A note on sloppy identity on my blog, here.

  9. Emily said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    I thought at first that "doing the same" referred to the husband pretending he himself was Tom Hanks, with the underlying meaning being something like this (I'm using placeholder names because I don't remember the names of the characters):

    "Mary pretends John is Tom Hanks, and so does John [pretend John is Tom Hanks]"

    But "pretending he's married to a celebrity" seems to be what the first two women have in mind. This reminds me of Douglas Hofstader's discussion of how one can understand an unfamiliar viewpoint through analogies and role-fillers: the husband is thinking of whoever plays the same role to him (roughly "attractive celebrity whom I wish I was married to") that Tom hanks plays for his wife.

    Yet a third interpretation is "pretending his wife is Tom Hanks" (which would indeed explain a lack of romance, assuming the husband isn't attracted to Hanks himself). The question of which woman uses which interpretation may be crucial to the punchline here.

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    A favorite of mine, and it worked once, briefly, in an argument with the Mrs. "You're right and I'm wrong, like you usually are."

  11. GeorgeW said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    I know practically nothing about AI. But, I can imagine that pragmatics would be very difficult to program where these monkey brains are able to sort out issues like "sloppy identity" with little difficulty. The reason this is funny is because there is a more literal interpretation possible which one has to stop and think about to even realize.

  12. peterm said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    Mr Fnortner:

    There's also Churchill's famous"retraction", after calling another member of the House of Commons a liar, and then being required to withdraw the remark:

    "I called the Honourable Gentleman a liar. It is true, and I regret it."

  13. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    I interpreted it to mean: the husband is also fantasizing about Tom Hanks, thus is gay, hence the lack of romance in marraige. Then the other woman corrects: "No, the husband is fantasizing about the female equivalent of Tom Hanks…"

  14. Nick Lamb said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

    I think this comment thread has amply illustrated that

    (a) humans actually aren't very good at resolving ambiguity correctly in these cases
    (b) they think they are anyway

    And that, to me, amply explains the Air Force's interest in this topic. It only takes one pilot to misunderstand one ambiguous phrase, and you've got yourself a blue-on-blue.

  15. Emily said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    I interpreted it to mean: the husband is also fantasizing about Tom Hanks, thus is gay, hence the lack of romance in marraige. Then the other woman corrects: "No, the husband is fantasizing about the female equivalent of Tom Hanks…"

    Yeah, that makes the most sense. My earlier comment was somewhat confused, sorry.

  16. Joe Fineman said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    From my undergraduate years, I remember: Boy & girl are sitting on a fence, watching a bull & a cow. He (shyly): "Gee, I wish I was a-doin' that!" She (shrugs): "It's your cow".

  17. John Roth said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    Jonathan Mayhew –

    But is he fantasizing that his wife is (hot female star) or that he'd rather be with (hot female star). The latter seems more likely from the lack of romantic response.

  18. Lance said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

    The lyric that stuck with me from my undergraduate seminar on deletion and sloppy identity is from John Hiatt's "Your Dad Did", pointed out by Julie Sedivy:

    Now if you don't get your slice of the roast
    You're gonna flip your lid, just like your daddy did

    where (a) your father clearly flipped his own lid, not yours; (b) there's an ambiguity between whether what you're doing that your daddy did is "flip your lid" or "flip your lid if you don't get your slice of the roast"; and (c) λx . x flips x's lid if x doesn't get x's slice of the roast" is a marvelously complex predicate to pick up via ellipsis.

    The Stone Soup cartoon really is a lovely example.

  19. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

    "I never slept with my wife before we were married. Can you say the same?"

    "I don't know. What was her maiden name?"

  20. Mary Apodaca said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 3:54 am

    Matthew: My husband's intentionally ambiguous equivalent is
    "I love you!"
    "Me too!"
    Sometimes he's forced to say, "Me too you."

  21. maidhc said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 4:30 am

    I can see why the Air Force might support research on stuff like this, because ambiguity in air traffic control, plane service manuals, etc., could be a big problem. "Attach the Z to the Y and rotate it 90 degrees clockwise."

  22. Matthew Wright said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 4:59 am

    You've reminded me of one I overheard some years before I became a father:

    Moody daughter: I wish there was an island I could go and live on all on my own!
    Tired mum: We all wish that darling…

    Not quite the same, I know.

  23. GeorgeW said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 5:41 am

    Nick Lamb: "(a) humans actually aren't very good at resolving ambiguity correctly in these cases"

    Actually, we are. Did you, or anyone else, initially think she meant that the husband was fantasizing Tom Hanks? The humor is in the surprise that there is this possible interpretation.

    Had the friend seriously intended this meaning, she would have been more explicit like, 'what if he's also pretending you are Tom Hanks?' (I think this would fall under one of of Grice's maxims)

  24. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 9:02 am


    Exactly. Our monkey brains are extremely well-suited to resolving these types of ambiguities in favor of the speaker's intention.

    What I suspect we are differently capable of doing is noticing the ambiguity to begin with. I teach in an open-admissions community college, and I suspect a lot of my freshman (certainly not all) would have a hard time getting the joke in Friday's Stone Soup, much as they have a hard time getting all but the most in-your-face instances of verbal humor (and I'm omitting the ELL's from this casual analysis).

    It's been a while on this board since I've seen reference to Bernstein's distinction between restricted and elaborated codes. Anyway, I suspect that's what's in play in this thread, as restricted codes tend to create greater potential for ambiguities that are not in fact realized.

  25. Emily said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    Since we're sharing jokes on this theme, here's one I recall (paraphrased):

    A teenage boy crashes a high-class tea party, where he witnesses the hostess's toy poodle licking its privates. "Wish I could do that!" he snickers. The hostess replies, without losing her cool, "Well, maybe if you give him a biscuit, he'll let you".

  26. army1987 said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    I first interpreted it the same way as Jonathan Mayhew did. After reading this thread, I still think this interpretation of what the brown-haired woman gets is the most plausible one, but I can think of other possibilities of what the two other women actually mean, e.g. "what if your husband is imagining he's Tom Hanks" or (less likely) "what if Tom Hanks is imagining his wife is you".

  27. army1987 said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Jimi Hendrix played the guitar with his teeth. Chuck Norris plays the guitar with his teeth, too. I mean, with Jimi Hendrix's teeth.

  28. army1987 said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    I once saw a sticker on a freezer reading smth. like "Do not put a hot appliance on the top of the freezer or the top of the freezer might be damaged". At first I wondered why they repeated that, then I realized "it" would have been ambiguous.

  29. army1987 said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    Once, I read on my notes "Weyl — a friend of Schrödinger, who fucked his wife".[1] I couldn't remember who fucked whose wife, but of the four possible interpretations I could exclude two (involving either guy fucking his own wife) because they wouldn't make for an interesting anecdote so the professor wouldn't have told us that and I wouldn't have written it down in the first place.

    [1] The less likely I think something can be found in the textbook, the more likely I am to note it down. :-)

  30. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 19, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    A little more on my blog (including an example from Bonanza), here.

  31. Brian Throckmorton said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    In "Maurice," the 1987 film of E.M. Forster's novel, Maurice's mother says, "Dr. Barry is a most clever man — and so is MRS. Barry." Maurice's sister receives this as an unintended bit of absurdity and laughs: "Imagine Mrs. Barry being a man!" Maurice, roiling as he is with unexpressed homosexuality, reacts more darkly to the comment (and to the fact that his sister finds it so ludicrous). Elegant screenwriting by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory.

  32. Josh said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 10:03 pm

    What is "better" to the Rabbi is not necessarily "better" to his disciple. For instance, the Rabbi likes to sleep on his stomach. The disciple also likes to sleep on the Rabbi's stomach. The problem here is obvious. —Woody Allen

  33. Kragen Javier SItaker said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

    This problem is much deeper than it appears; it is not merely linguistic, but goes to the heart of the nature of abstract thought.

    The lambda-calculus was the first serious work on the foundations of mathematics — work that continues today — and is fundamental to many modern computer languages; but its first years were seriously marred by a failure to ever correctly state its fundamental operation, called beta-reduction, precisely because of this problem of anaphoric ambiguity. And although the logicians figured the problem out, McCarthy didn't know about their solution when he used their work to invent functional programming in 1959, cursing us with two decades of scoping problems.

    The categorical imperative also interacts deeply with this kind of anaphoric ambiguity: perhaps I do not want everyone to write my signature on a contract with my landlord to rent my apartment, or to sign another contract with my landlord to rent my apartment, or to sign a rental contract with my landlord at all, or even to sign a rental contract. An infinite variety of possible maxims can be conjured for any particular action, and this anaphoric flexibility is at the heart of that multiplicity. (None of this is a new observation, of course; I'm just relating it to Tom Hanks.)

  34. The Ridger said,

    July 2, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

    A bit late, but I just saw the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, and the end of the movie plays with that. Angelica plays her trump card to regain her freedom, telling Jack Sparrow "There's something I should have told you… I love you." He responds, "As do I…" and then says he has to go, and does, abandoning her on the isle. One can easily interpret that as "As do I love me…"

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