LINGUIST List 4.884

Wed 27 Oct 1993

Disc: That Will Teach You

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Knud Lambrecht, Re: 4.874 That Will Teach You
  2. Knud Lambrecht, Re: 4.873 Sum: That Will Teach You, Addendum to Infixation Summary
  3. , Re: 4.874 That Will Teach You
  4. "Claude M. Steinberg", that'll teach you

Message 1: Re: 4.874 That Will Teach You

Date: Mon, 25 Oct 93 12:32:46 -0Re: 4.874 That Will Teach You
From: Knud Lambrecht <>
Subject: Re: 4.874 That Will Teach You

In his posting on `That'll teach you' Larry Horn states that "this construction
is indeed ... related to others in which an original ironic flavor becomes
conventionally associated with an expression (as with the missing negation
of... "I could care less")" While I like the notion of conventional
association of irony with a grammatical construction (as a `construction
grammarian' I am fascinated by the phenomenon) and while I agree with the
claim that our construction indeed represents one such case, I think Larry
(and others on the list) is (are?) conflating two distinct phenomena. In
my opinion the funny negation fact with "That'll teach you (not) to come
on time" is not the same as that in "I could care less". In fact, I think
there is no relationship between the two. In the case of "That'll teach you
(not) to come on time" I would say (though I must say that I was not familiar
with the "not" version of the idiom and may be getting it wrong) that the
form with the negation is used by speakers who do not conventionally
associate irony with the construction and therefore feel the need to add
the negation in order to make sense (someone keeps coming late, something
bad happens to her as a result, or in relation to her habit, and someone
who dislikes her bad habit says, non-ironically, that this experience will
be a lesson teaching her NOT to be late).

So yes, there's irony conventionally attached to the construction (as in
many other constructions, some of which Larry and others mention), but
the conventional irony is not what causes the occurrence of the negation.
Adding the negation is not a sign of pushing the irony further but of not
getting it. At least that's my hunch.

As I see it, the case of "I could care less" which Larry relates to the
"That'll teach you not to..."-case is of an entirely different sort,
having to do with a general human (?) constraint on the processsing of
double negations, especially when one of them is hidden in a verb like
`miss' or a quantifier like `less'. I think that the construction "I could
care less", in its conventional construal in which it is synonymous with
"I couldn't care less" did not arise from irony at all but from the
difficulty speakers have in processing in a single clause "not - less" as
meaning something more easily understood in the bi-clausal "It is not
possible for me to care less", i.e. "I don't care at all" (the difficulty
I have making my case shows that I am one of those ordinary humans).
Notice that while "That'll teach you to VPinf" is ironic, hence in a
sense non-compositional, "I couldn't care less" is non-ironic and
compositional (but hard to process).

So I think unlike "That'll teach you (not) to VPinf", "I could(n't)
care less" is one of a family of expressions of which the following
are members (spouses, children, nieces, nephews, and less closely
related kin):

 I could(n't) care less
 I really miss (not) to have (having?) a car
 Prends garde de (ne pas) tomber

and the following, which is one of my favorites: In French, there's
an expression "Vous n'etes pas sans savoir que..." (`you aren't without
knowing that...'), which means "You know very well that...". Now people
of the kind that would say "I could care less" tend to say, or say
systematically instead:

 Vous n'etes pas sans ignorer

to mean the same thing. The reason, I think, is again the problem with
double negation processing: `pas + sans' is like `not + less'.

Notice that none in the second series is conventionally ironic (though I
could imagine a linguist wise guy ironically making the "mistake" of
saying "I could care less" to make his colleagues smile like Augurs).

Whaddaya think?

Knud Lambrecht
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Message 2: Re: 4.873 Sum: That Will Teach You, Addendum to Infixation Summary

Date: Mon, 25 Oct 93 13:00:46 -0Re: 4.873 Sum: That Will Teach You, Addendum to Infixation Summary
From: Knud Lambrecht <>
Subject: Re: 4.873 Sum: That Will Teach You, Addendum to Infixation Summary

I am grateful for Laurie Bauer's summary of responses to her (his?) "That'll
teach X (not) to Y" query. I take issue though, with the formulation (which
may not be an expression of her theoretical convictions) "simply idiomatic
and thus uninteresting synchronically". To the extent that this formulation
is an expression of the theoretical bias against, or lack of interest in,
the lexicon and all things ready-made which we have seen since the beginning
of generative grammar (and probably before, but I don't know) I would like to
state emphatically that being idiomatic and being uninteresting synchronically
are not the same thing (though, of course, finding something interesting is
eo ipso a subjective matter; but I think Laurie meant "uninteresting" in a
non-subjective way).

There have always been, and I think there now are more and more, linguists
(generative and other) who are unwilling to go along with the dichotomy
grammar vs. lexicon or idiomaticity vs. regularity, etc. I can't help
throwing in my usual bit of advertising for the theory or framework of
Construction Grammar (Fillmore, Kay, Lakoff, and others in Berkeley and
elsewhere, people like Manaster-Ramer and Zadrozny, etc.) In Construction
Grammar, the line between those X-vs-Y pairs above is not drawn, and a
theoretical point is made of not drawing it. (A case in point is a paper
I published in Language (1984) on the nebulosity of the line between
idiomaticity and regularity, which was largely ignored by the linguistic
community. (Oops, I shouldn't have said that, now the readers will think
I'm a resentful and grouchy anti-generativist, which I'm not.))

In the case of "That'll teach you (not) to VPinf" Laurie herself mentions
a number of theoretically highly interesting questions one can ask, and
should ask, as a generative linguist, like "is there a correlation between
intonation and degree of non-compositionality/idiomaticity", "how come
the above construction is attested cross-linguistically" and "how come
we recognize something as the same construction across languages even
when it doesn't exactly look the same (an extremely important question,
in my mind, having to do with the relationship between complex linguistic
expressions and complex types of social experiences), etc.

As I said at the beginning, I did not mean this comment to be against
Laurie Bauer, just against a theoretical stance which is still far too
prevalent in generative grammar and which I can't to leave unchallenged.

Knud Lambrecht
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Message 3: Re: 4.874 That Will Teach You

Date: 26 Oct 93 13:39:00 -0400
From: <>
Subject: Re: 4.874 That Will Teach You

Does any of this relate to the scene from Saturday Night Live
in which a nuclear physicist falls dead on site after warning his
underlings: "You can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor!"
They argue about whether he meant "it is not permitted to", or
"it is not possible to",...until of course the place goes

--David N. WIGTIL. ER Network Support. U. S. Department of Energy.
Sophronos d' apistias
ouk estin ouden khresimoteron brotois. (Euripides, "Helen" 1617-1618)
(There's nothing more helpful for mortals than sensible disbelief.)
{ cc:Mail (DOE): David Wigtil at ER }
{ Internet : (DOE ER cc:Mail) }
{ Internet/CIS : (personal mail) }
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Message 4: that'll teach you

Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1993 18:31:57 that'll teach you
From: "Claude M. Steinberg" <>
Subject: that'll teach you

In response to a message from alexcompapp.dcu, whose full name was not
posted, the prosody of "THAT'll teach him to come early" involves more
than stress on the initial word. In literal usage, the rest of the
sentence receives level pitch, since his coming early is topical, whereas
in sarcastic usage, the word "early" receives a fall-rise, since the
sarcastic use of the word is being newly proposed.

Would people agree that "sarcastic" is a more appropriate term than
"ironic" here, since it's not as if people are expecting to hear
something and finding out that they hear the opposite but it means the
same or that they hear what they expect but it means the opposite?
Surely irony contains some element of surprise for the listener?

 Claude Steinberg
 Northwestern University
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