Thank The Knife

The number of times in my life that a friend has been so grateful that I’d cut their mom’s box-spring mattress in half with a Leatherman that they bought me dinner has, I’ll admit, been pretty small. But when it does happen, boy, that’s a great day.

17 Comments

  1. Melanie
    Posted July 28, 2004 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    wow, from a (somewhat amateur) linguist’s perspective, that was a really cool sentence.

  2. Mike Hoye
    Posted July 28, 2004 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    It took me a minute to make sure the brackets were balanced.

  3. Nick Hamilton
    Posted July 31, 2004 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    As a professional, I need to jump in here. That is a fine sentence. And following it with a shorter sentence that begins with a conjunction (for abruptness) and an interjection to echo the complexity of the first one was a good move. I bow to your mighty skizillz.

    Three obscure edits: “The number of times in my life that a friend has been so grateful because I’d cut their mom’s box-spring matress in half with a Leatherman knife that they have bought me dinner has, I’ll admit, been pretty small.”

    There might be a fourth edit if you tell me what the auxilliary verb in “I’d cut” is. A bottle of scotch to whoever can explain why I changed what I did. Anyone with a background in linguistics or languages must use metalinguistic terminology to qualify. Tell your friends.

  4. Melanie
    Posted August 3, 2004 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, I study language development in infants. I’m not a linguist, but I sometimes pretend to be. Here’s what I would say (probably not worth the scotch):

    1. “Because” suggests an interpretation where what follows attaches as an adjunct (?)/subordinate to “grateful” whereas “that” is more ambiguous. “That” can open an adjunct of “grateful” or it can connect further up the tree (I couldn’t tell you where in this case, but up high somewhere), where the meaning of the following clause is a consequence of being grateful. So using “that” requires a higher memory load because you have to keep both possibilities open (or risk garden-pathing).

    2. “knife” specifies “Leatherman”, and therefore makes it less likely that the “that” is opening a relative clause to provide even MORE (unnecessary) information. So this would bias the interpretation that “that” is opening a “consequence” clause, rather than further specifying “Leatherman”. I guess.

    3. “matress” is a typo on your part…

    4. I’m not 100% sure why “have” helps, but I guess it synchronizes/co-ordinates the mood (?) of the clause with “a friend has been so grateful”, and therefore makes it sound more like a co-ordinate clause than a subordinate one.

    There, I have exposed my linguistic inadequacies for all to laugh at.

    I will say, I like Mike’s version better. Artistically, it benefits from making the reader work a little. :*)

  5. Tara
    Posted August 4, 2004 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    My background is in English Literature (and it sometimes amazes me that I’ve achieved a Master’s degree in the topic without ever taking a single course in grammar) so hopefully that doesn’t qualify me for the metalinguistic terminology requirement.

    Here goes:

    1) Changing that to because. My research on grammar indicates that ‘because’ is used to start adverb clauses, while ‘that’ is used to start adjective caluses which modify nouns. Therefore it is more correct to use ‘because’, since the item being modified is “has been so grateful”, or more particularly, the verb to be.

    2) Adding knife after Leatherman. I’m inclined to argue this is almost a stylistic point, rather than a grammar correction in the strictest sense. It is incorrect to use a brand name as a noun, because nouns are copyrighted. e.g. instead of writing a novel where the narrator uses kleenex to wipe away her tears, the narrator should use tissues. Using Kleenex is robbing the manufacturer of Kleenex of the value of their brand name and turning the name into a common noun. However, in this case it was a Leatherman being used, which should obviate that requirement, and in fact could be considered free advertising.

    Perhaps the concern is that the reader may not know what a Leatherman is, in which case adding the word knife makes it more obvious. I don’t really buy this argument either, given that the subject of the post is “Thank the knife.”

    I’m also not sure I buy Melanie’s argument that having knife as a descriptor of Leatherman makes it easier for the reader to figure out that the ‘that’ immediately following is the beginning of the consequences portion of the sentence. To me, you could still perceive the ‘that’ as a signifier to Leatherman knife. For example: “with a Leatherman knife that I happened to have in my pocket…”

    3) inserting the word ‘have’. I believe you made this change because the original sentence has a tense disagreement. Let’s see if I can get the terminology correct: “has been so grateful” is in the past perfect tense. “they bought me dinner” is in the simple past tense. Making the change to “they have bought me dinner” puts that phrase into the past perfect tense, thus making it consistent throughout the sentence.

    However, while I was on the topic of tenses, I might also be a stickler for another edit, which is to make the plural “they have bought me dinner” into a singular “he has bought me dinner” to match the singular “a friend has been”. (this would also require changing “their mom’s box-spring mattress” to “his mom’s box-spring mattress”.) I recognize that in this day and age it is generally acceptable to use ‘they’ as a gender neutral version of he/she/it and does not necessarily indicate a plurarity of people, but still, as long as we are shredding Mike’s beautiful prose…

    4) I’d cut. I would argue that the auxilary verb in this case is “had”: “I had cut their mom’s box-spring… .” I don’t think an edit is required in this case.

    So, how’d I do?

  6. Melanie
    Posted August 4, 2004 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Well, I think the Nick and I both agree the original sentence was actually grammatically “correct”, in the sense that Mike did go to the effort of making sure the brackets were matched and all the slots were filled appropriately. The changes that Nick proposed were, I believe, all for the sake of making it easier for the reader to parse the sentence correctly.

    I’m also not sure I buy my own argument about “Leatherman knife”, but I can’t think of any other reason to put it in, and it does seem to make it easier to read. Maybe there’s some psycholinguistic data on this sort of thing?

  7. Posted August 5, 2004 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Impossible Becomes Difficult Becomes Done

    I’ve been trying to recuperate from the Impossible Move that just took place. I know, that’s a bit of a…

  8. Posted August 5, 2004 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Well, that’s a lot of linguistic and grammatical discussion, some of which I follow. I only wanted to comment that, in fact, the mattress itself was not subjected to the ‘knife’ which was really the saw part, I believe. A typo of sorts, I presume. Those present knew exactly what was meant.

    Still, I have found it interesting while reading the comments that the question of why a mattress would want cutting in half had yet to be posited.

    It need not be now. Which is a good thing, since I would not have a reasonable response at hand. (As an aside, I’m not at all sure a mattress actually *could* be sawed in half with a Leatherman tool. No, that’s not a challenge, Mike. Unless another mattress was used to prove me wrong!)

  9. Mike Hoye
    Posted August 5, 2004 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    You people are fucking crazy.

    A “Leatherman” is as much a knife as a person is a leg. It is a multitool, and the appendage of choice for this job was the wood saw, because sawing wood with a knife would be stupid. “Thank the knife” is not indicative of anything relevant to the situation; it is a not-very-obscure Simpsons quote.

    Nick, you’ve baroqued my sentence and you are using your english degree to sodomize Orwell’s corpse, stop it.

    Mel, don’t listen to him; those changes don’t make it easier to parse, they make it trivial to parse wrong.

    Tara, your brand-dilution argument is insane; every rationally-managed brand-name would love to achieve the common-use status that some rare companies enjoy; it is a desirable condition, and when the occasional company comes along and complains about brand dilution, that’s because it’s being run by its lawyers and/or “brand consultants” and is therefore doomed, because the remoras now outweigh the shark they’re riding. Kleenex, brand name or not, is de-facto a noun synonymous with “paper tissue”. To Fedex, and to Google, are likewise de-facto verbs which the sane among us realize amounts to both free marketing and an assertion of a dominant market position.

    Furthermore: Jesus, people.

  10. Mike Hoye
    Posted August 5, 2004 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to add here that I wrote my post before Janice’s arrived, and did not intend to tar Shaver’s mother with the same brush that should be generously slathered over the rest of you lunatic fruitbats.

  11. Posted August 5, 2004 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Uh, thanks, Mike. And, although not quite as vehemently nor half as colourfully, I was quietly thinking along the same lines.

  12. Mike Hoye
    Posted August 5, 2004 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Colourful vehemence is kind of my thing.

  13. Melanie
    Posted August 6, 2004 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I was assuming you needed to throw out the mattress and were having trouble getting it through the door or around a tight corner. And I thought the feat of having actually managed the task was part of what made it a great day, so I didn’t question. I don’t really distinguish between knives and saws under most conditions. I suppose if I needed to cut a mattress in half, I might…

    So what DID happen to the mattress, if it wasn’t cut in half??

    Oh, and people who study obscure aspects of language LOVE decomposing samples from real life speech, even if they end up “sodomizing Orwell’s corpse” (????) in the process. Studying how people understand language is like studying how people process visual input – it seems really damned obvious until you actually try and test your hypotheses. Then you start learning things like “there’s no such thing as yellow” and “these two lines look like they’re the same length, but they really ain’t” and even “if enough people say that two lines are the same length, they can convince a single person who sees that they’re obviously not the same length that they are” (although this third is probably happening a little further along in the cognitive processes than the processing of visual input, but it’s interesting nonetheless).

    Point being, don’t knock the linguists. They know at least enough to know what you don’t know but think you do.

  14. Mike Hoye
    Posted August 6, 2004 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    You’re largely right, Mel, barring a few inconsequential details – we needed to keep the mattress, and that’s why it needed to go through the door, and the feat of having done so (and thereby procuring food, w00t! ) is what made it a great day.

    See, I have no problem having my speech dissected. That’s cool, I’m all about carving things up to educate myself. And I’m not knocking the entire class of linguists and their linguistic what-have-you. What I am doing is saying that one linguist (English major, really) in particular, that being Nick, has baroqued my sentence, adding words while detracting from the accuracy, significance and whole aesthetic of it. The dissection doesn’t bother me, it’s this shambling monstrosity that he’s reassembled out of the pieces that I’m getting increasingly worked up about.

    The particular work of Orwell’s that I’m alluding to is, of course, Politics And The English Language, with particular attention to rule three. It’s the spirit of that essay, though, that’s the crucial thing: when you’re writing, speaking, or really just trying to convey anything at all, your goals in order of importance are:

    1. Accuracy
    2. Brevity
    3. Originality

    Adding anything else to that list, grammar and syntax included, is genuflecting to a priest whose god does not exist.

  15. Melanie
    Posted August 6, 2004 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I totally agree, your version was better than his (and the rest of your points too, by and large). I was more interested in the reasoning behind his “edits” than in hailing it as a better version.

    I will point out, however, (not having read the Orwell piece, I admit) that one might choose to add “clarity” to the list you made. Was your sentence grammatically correct (not in the grammar school sense, but in the sense of sounding like a sentence of English to a native-speaker of English, given enough time and memory to parse it completely)? Yes. Was your sentence accurate? At this point, I am unsure, now being a bit confused about the actual events that transpired which it was intended to express. Was it pleasing to the ear/original? Yes, indeed. Was it extremely clear? No, not really. Took me several seconds and several read-throughs to parse it.

    I am interested in Nick’s edits not because they make the sentence “better”, but because they may say something intelligent about the human capacity to and mechanism of, parsing language. There is an entire field of research in this area, psycholinguistics, which I am very interested in, and which does rigorous perceptual experiments to back up its claims. I am, one might say, a “developmental psycholinguist”, so my area of research is related to, but not the same as, your typical psycholinguist. Because the people I study don’t, by and large, KNOW their native language yet. In any case, I was (and still am, until informed otherwise) assuming that Nick’s claims were based on existing knowledge in this area. Whether “grammar and syntax” themselves are bowing to a god that doesn’t exist is a separate question (though I can go on at length about it if you wish), but psycholinguistics is very real. And it can tell you something about how to produce a sentence which is easier for your reader to read. If that is your goal – which I don’t think it was in this particular case, but generally speaking this is something one aims for.

  16. Mike Hoye
    Posted August 6, 2004 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I was waffling between “accuracy” and “clarity” as a choice for that first one; A difficult choice, since muddy or esoteric situations can sometimes require you to sacrifice clarity for accuracy. But if I could have it both ways, I would.

    I will argue about whether or not “readability” is actually a laudable quality at some point later in the day, but I don’t think I’m going to just accept that idea on its face. You’d think that readability would be, generally speaking, good, of course. But I’m not convinced of that.

  17. Posted August 6, 2004 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Last comment from me – honest!

    Here’s the thing: The mattress was squished through the problematic space into the room in which it was to be used, largely due to its flexibility. The box-spring which is, by design not flexible, had to be modified slightly to obtain the angle required for aforementioned squishing.

    The very scrumptious dinner that followed was the least that could be done to thank Mike for his part in the move and getting all of my bed into one room.