Monday January 23, 2006


In a recent post over at Language Log, Geoff Pullum quotes President Bush's tongue-in-cheek defense of his now-infamous flub "Is our children learning?":

Then there is my most famous statement: "Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning."  Let us analyze that sentence for a moment.  If you're a stickler, you probably think the singular verb "is" should have been the plural "are."  But if you read it closely, you'll see I'm using the intransitive plural subjunctive tense.  So the word "is" are correct.

The punchline, which relies on the humor value the string of technical grammatical terms "intransitive subjunctive tense", reminds me of my favorite grammar joke.

There are many versions of the joke; here's how I tell it:

A traveller who is a huge fan of seafood arrives in Boston for the first time.  He leaves the airport and hails a cab.  After he gets in, he excitedly says to the cabbie, "Hey, I'm new in town.  Can you tell me a good place to go to get scrod?"  The cabbie replies [in a thick Boston accent], "Pal, I've got to congratulate you.  I've heard that question a lot over the years, but that's the first time I've ever heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive."

(You have to do the cabbie in a Boston accent—it makes years, first, and heard funnier.)

This is one of those jokes, I think, whose punchline ("pluperfect subjunctive") has sort of seeped into our collective unconscious.  Sometimes people seem to be familiar with the punchline of a formerly-popular joke, but don't actually know the joke that goes along with it.  For example, I've met quite a few people who know there's a funny limerick that begins, "There was a young man from Nantucket...", but have never heard the whole thing.  (You'll have to google for it, this is a family blog, but fair warning: it's dirty and anatomically impossible.)  For another example, people also seem to recognize the line "Niagra Falls!" from the old vaudeville routine, but it's unlikely today's young people have ever seen it performed, unless they they've seen the versions performed by the Three Stooges, Abbot and Costello, or on I Love Lucy (none of which are very culturally current).  Note that this is a different phenomemon from Judd Nelson's well-known unfinished joke (the one with the naked blonde, the poodle, and the salami) from The Breakfast Club, which apparently was made up on the spot and has no punchline.

I think such isolated punchlines occur when a joke is so well-known (or so taboo) that just mentioning its most famous line is enough to remind listeners of it.  Then a new generation of people comes along who are only ever exposed to that one line and never to the whole joke.  This leads naturally to an acquisition-based account of the curiously fragmentary nature of intergenerational joke-transmission.  It would be interesting to know if young listeners are ever able to reconstruct the joke from just its punchline—that would argue that, even in the face of poverty of the humor stimulus, an innate Universal Humor (part of our genetic endowment) fills in the gaps, resulting in rapid and complete humor acquisition.

[Hmm, I think I feel a submission to the Speculative Grammarian coming on...]

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I believe if you look around in the less wholesome corners of Wikipedia you will find that the tale of the Nantucketan is in fact barely possible for some small percentage of Nantucketans. There is even (somewhat disturbingly) photographic evidence.

As for Universal Humor, you should write that. You need to write that. You must write that!

Posted by: Trey at Jan 24, 2006 5:42:19 AM

Niagara Falls.

(In case anyone was wondering.)

Posted by: language hat at Jan 24, 2006 6:42:38 AM

This actually reminds me of another old joke about the comedian's club, where they'd heard all the jokes before, and assigned them numbers, and then just yelled numbers at each other when they wanted to tell jokes.

This can lead us into discussions of cryptography, signal-to-noise ratios, message degradation and a variety of other tedious topics.


Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Jan 26, 2006 12:44:52 PM

I must have led a protected life. As I will be 76 in just a couple of months and have never heard the Nantucket, the Niagra Falls, nor the naked blond, poodle and salami stories. I have, however, told the scrod story for over the past 30-40 years. Too bad people under 40 don't know enough proper English to understand it.

Posted by: ichard Wild at Jan 31, 2006 12:45:57 PM