Presupposition & VP-ellipsis in the comics

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Today's Doonesbury Flashbacks, 35 years ago (July 30, 1977): Trudeau here has made clever use of the fact that normally, with VP-ellipsis, the presuppositions of the antecedent VP are preserved …


  1. Jeff Carney said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    I was instantly reminded of the old Peter Cook – Dudley Moore sketch "One Leg Too Few," about a one-legged man (Moore) who wants to be cast as Tarzan. (I seem to recall in the the SNL version the character was a soccer player ?)

    Anyway, the appropriate line is spoken by the would-be employer (Cook): "I've got nothing against your right leg. The trouble is – neither have you," wherein it's not so much the presuppositions that change as it is the switch from an idiomatic to a literal expression.

  2. Joshua said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    I have to say, this is one of the more elliptical entries in Language Log I have seen (but given the topic, that may be appropriate).

    If the last line of dialogue had been "Gosh, we didn't know he had been paroled, either!", would there have been anything "wrong" with that? (Zonker and Duke, the two characters in the car, didn't know Tony Placebo had been paroled because they didn't know he had gone to prison in the first place.)

  3. Abbie said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    I need some help- I don't see anything clever going on here.

  4. Lugubert said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 3:28 am

    Abbie, you're not alone.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 7:05 am

    When the guy standing says "I didn't know he'd been paroled", he means he thought the guy was still in prison. The two people in the car, in saying "neither did we", mean they didn't know he'd ever been in prison. Which is rather opposite.

    I'd call it playful rather than clever. But, then, coming up with that to use in the comic is clever.

  6. Mr Punch said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    But note the verb forms – don't/do, not didn't/did.

  7. Barbara Partee said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

    Abbie and Lugubert, it turns out that my husband is with you. He insists that by the time of Zonker's reply, Zonker and Duke DO know that Tony Placebo has been in prison, because of the gas station attendant's immediately preceding remark.
    So maybe this is also about the "reference time" that goes with the past tense, and is normally made clear (or at least clear enough) from the context. I interpret Zonker's reference time for "neither did we" as referring to the time earlier in that week's streep when Duke bought the apricot farm from Placebo. And then it's what Ellen K said.
    Anyway I still think it's funny, though I'm not sure I've got the analysis pinned down exactly right. I'm not sure if it's a presupposition or an implicature of "I didn't know he'd been paroled" that "I did know that he was in prison." Maybe it's just an implicature, because Zonker's statement does seem to be true, just misleading.

  8. Gou Tognzhi said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

    At the risk of sounding pedantic, Barbara, if your husband is right (which he isn't), there is no joke here. Obviously, the humor stems from the fact that they thought of Placebo as an honest man – thus Duke's outraged echo when he hears Placebo has been involved in a previous land fraud. (Placebo sold Duke Shady Grove, which he is just realizing is also a fraud.)

    As someone who has read the entire sequence, I find the final panel quite clear. I can see why your husband might misunderstand Zonker's final remark – but he is misunderstanding it.

  9. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

    Looking up verb phrase ellipsis on Wikipedia (because I'm just an interested reader of LL and don't already know these things that many here take for granted) is very, very interesting. The antecedent-contained ellipsis is pretty fascinating.

    Anyway, the entry says that "VP-ellipsis is, however, impossible when it operates both backwards and upwards."

    They provide this example:

    The people never do, who say they will help.

    Sure, that doesn't seem quite right to me — but I don't think I'd either have trouble parsing that sentence nor feel certain that it was bad English.

    In fact, I sort of like that construction and believe I have seen it in the wild from good writers. Deferring help to the end of the sentence, when it's so crucial, has a particular rhetorical punch.

  10. chris said,

    August 1, 2012 @ 8:03 am

    Now that some of the commenters have provided the context of the immediately preceding strips, I think Zonker's comment is very much about the fact that they know something *now* (thanks to the gas station attendant) that they didn't know *then* (and the knowledge would have done them quite a bit of good if they had learned it earlier).

    "I didn't know that" in response to someone telling you something new does, IMO, entail that now you DO know that, because the other person has just told you (and you have accepted it as truthful, otherwise you would respond differently).

    I assume that Zonker is able to perceive the humor in the situation so quickly because it's Duke who paid for the fictional apricot farm and Zonker is just along for the ride.

  11. John Baker said,

    August 1, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    I get the differing presuppositions: The service station attendant's presupposition was that Placebo was still in prison, while Duke and Zonker had the presupposition that Placebo was an honest man who had never been in prison at all. But why is this VP-ellipsis? The attendant and Zonker are saying the same thing: That they did not know that Placebo was on parole from prison.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    August 1, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    It's VP-ellipsis because the verb is left out.

    I didn't even know he'd been paroled.

    Gosh, neither did we [know he'd been paroled].

    It's VP-ellipsis because "know he'd been paroled" is left out of the responding statement. Which is what VP-ellipsis is.

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