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  • A happily childfree friend of mine once joked that she had taken the instruction on a plastic bag literally: “Danger of suffocation, keep away from children.”

  • My favourite transitivity-ambiguous instruction came from a bottle of something-or-other which told you to “Place thumbs under cap and push off”.

  • Interestingly, this kind of usage is often genre-specific. Recipes are a good example of this. I don’t imagine that there is much (space) to be gained by omitting the ‘object’ participant (e.g. ‘the bread’ in ‘bake in a hot oven’), and yet it is commonly found in cookery books and other sources of recipes. The omission of participants in transitivity can also signal very specifically what the ‘object’ participant is. If, for example, we read something like ‘please give generously’, we can be pretty sure that the participant is ‘money’. We would also understand the ‘indirect object’ participant to be something like a good cause or a charity.

  • Yes, recipes are a good source. Crack an egg into a bowl and beat it. ?! or Pour over the marinade and chill. mmmmm…

  • Gordon: It’s usually very clear who or what the omitted participants are, isn’t it? The joke, in clauses like ‘shake for more than a minute’, or ‘push off’ is to wilfully assume that no participant has been omitted – to treat the verb as intransitive: ‘shake’ = ‘tremble’. I also like both ‘push off’ & ‘beat it’ (thanks Stephen & Jeannette); ‘Beat it’ is good because it does actually have the vague, general, object ‘it’, which is almost meaningless in the ‘wrong’ interpretation..

    Btw, the newer recipe books – Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson – seem to be altering the trend and have fewer absent participants; perhaps they’ve noticed the danger of ambiguity leading to humour that could threaten the solemnity of their mission.

    As you say, these participant-omissions occur mostly in recipes and instructions, so I’m glad you mentioned ‘give’ with two omitted participants – it is not associated with either genre. I was trying to think of others like ‘give’ – there’s ‘Do not steal’ – where ‘anything, from anyone’ is retrievable. It needs more thought.

  • I totally agree that “Perhaps the most rewarding part of learning a language is figuring out its jokes, and teachers can often use them to explain grammatical distinctions”, and think it applies to spelling/vocabulary too – think of the possibilities afforded by Graham Rawle’s ‘Lost Consonants’ (http://www.grahamrawle.com/lostconsonants/), for example!

  • I’m not a native speaker of English but have spent a few years in the U.K. I heartily laughed at most of your meaning twists by assuming the none existence of an accusative.
    There is one I can’t make out though:
    “Dogs must be carried”. “carried” seems to be able to assume a meaning which I don’t know.. I shall be glad for enlightenment!

  • Kate, I’d understood ‘dogs must be carried’ to be ambiguous in a slightly different way from the transitivity issue that Gill raises in her blog. The funny meaning is the one where we understand the notice as something like ‘you can’t travel on this escalator unless you’re carrying a dog’. In other words, if you don’t have a dog to carry, you can’t use the escalator. The presumably intended meaning is ‘if you have a dog with you, you must carry it when using the escalator’ and that would be to avoid the dog getting hurt walking on the escalator itself. If I’m right in understanding the ambibuity in this expression, then you can see that there’s a fair amount of contextual information necessary for an appropriate interpretation.

  • Kate: Another escalator sign is “Shoes must be worn”, i.e everyone must wear shoes on the escalator.The joke is to interpret “Dogs must be carried” in the same way: “You must have i) shoes and ii) a dog”. Confusing, if you see them side-by-side on the same escalator! The best way to distinguish one from the other is through intonation. SHOES must be worn. Dogs must be CARRied.

    But this is interesting: I can’t think of any other signs that work in the same way – will try to do so! The use of the passive seems part of it, but then “Wear shoes, carry dogs” is similar (but does not occur). Fortunately, ambiguity is immediately resolved by context, as Gordon says. No-one goes back and kidnaps a portable pooch before continuing their journey.