December 9, 2013

Sometimes my son hates having a writer for a parent.

Out at dinner the other night, my younger son finally got fed up.

"Sometimes I hate having a writer for a parent," he grumbled.

"Only sometimes?" I asked. I got all warm and fuzzy. Not just because I succeeded (again) in ruining my children's life, but also because he recognized and appreciated the word-nerd sarcasm I had just unleashed in a teachable moment disguised as humor.

See, I love to call out two ambiguities in particular, and he had just stumbled into one of them.

One is the misplaced modifier, as in

Ugly and ineffective, teachers shun corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool.
Okay, I admit the above sentence is actually unambiguous. But how often does the speaker really intend to call teachers ugly and ineffective, do you think? (Hmm. Maybe I should have used a different example.) Anyway, I usually just enjoy these gems quietly, without comment.

The other one I love is more than/less than, as in what my son had just said:
I like bread more than my brother.
Even within the context of our conversation, the ambiguity of this sentence gave me pause. Did he like bread more than he liked his brother? Or did he like bread more than his brother liked bread? This was a toss-up, so I asked him, and we got into a lengthy discussion of the possibilities of this construction.

A particular pet peeve of mine is the frequent misuse of "more than me" when "more than I" is intended. Take a simple example such as
You like fish more than me.
While it may be true that the listener prefers the company of fish to spending time with the speaker, usually the speaker means that the listener enjoys fish more than the speaker does. If that's the case, the speaker should have said
You like fish more than I.
(Kids especially hate this because it sounds awkward and stilted, so they think it's wrong.)

The simple test here is whether the sentence holds its proper meaning if you add the verb phrase at the end. As in:
You like fish more than I like fish.
If, however, you really mean that the listener prefers fish to you, then go ahead and use the object "me" here. And of course, You like fish more than me like fish makes no sense.

Besides providing a way to titillate grammarians, this rule can also come in handy when ambiguity is what you're looking for. For example, if you wish to tell someone who doesn't like cheese that you find them distasteful, you could say something like this:
I like cheese more than you.
The listener will heartily agree, thinking that you meant to recognize their dislike of cheese. But you and I both know you meant something different. And who could blame you? I also like cheese more than people who don't appreciate this grammatical concept.

And no, I never did find out whether my son liked bread more than he liked his brother.

And finally, because I had no photos of fish or cheese handy, here are some kittens I've shown before:


Peter Dudley said...

By the way, the construction "I like cheese more than you" is preferable in the above example to "I dislike you more than cheese." Although your meaning is identical, one is somewhat easier to decipher than the other, even for stupid people.

Sarah Laurenson said...

As long as you're having fun. That's the important part.

And I'm sure his brother ranks below bread, because, c'mon, it's bread.