Friday, January 30, 2009

What have you thought about this?

Have I asked you this before?

How do you parse the line: what do you think i'm stupid?

I've always struggled with this question. It could go a few ways.

a. What? Do you think I'm stupid?
b. What do you think? I'm stupid?

And if we throw away the contraction:
c. What do you think I am? Stupid?

If I hear the last option it's pretty clear. It would indeed be rare for someone to say I am unless it's in that final position. And I'm in turn is never sentence final. So we know that with contracted I'm it has to be one of the first two.

Sometimes the speaker uses a pause, making the parsing more apparent. But sometimes there is no pause. And at such times I have no idea which question I'm answering.

I was reminded of this by a collection of musings on the office blackboard today. All the usual punctuation games and one variation on the old joke:

Woman without Herman is like a fish without a bicycle.

[Update: Buffy reports that she's more accustomed to hearing and using the 'c' question—without the contraction. And if it's with a contraction (which she says she therefore wouldn't likely use) she would hear it as a b-question. But when I propose a-type she says it's fine even tho it hadn't occurred to her.]


  1. I'd go with B--even before I read the version without the contraction.

  2. I'd go with A, myself, if there are no clues in phrasing or tone.

    But the probable answers work for either reading (No. It's just that...)(Yes.) (Not stupid, just wrong) so I may have answered the wrong question in the past. I confess to never having thought about it.

  3. I think I wrote it in some dialogue one time like this: "What, do you think I'm stupid?" Which I guess is closest to A.

    Actually, I can't find the story right now, but I think it was more like, "What, am I wrong?" I think I originally wrote it, "What am I, wrong?" and some reader suggested I move the comma.

  4. I go with B although I might replace the question mark with a comma.

    Here's a similar sentence:

    "What have you got, no friends?"

    On the model of that, I build my interpretation of the first sentence.

  5. I can't choose, but it makes me wonder whether there might be some examples of oral language that defy the logic of written language. Chances are, that's an amateurish question, and I'm okay getting smacked on the side of the head for asking...

    But -- have you ever figured out "A whole nother...?" I know we visited this one time, but it felt unsatisfactory to me. Same goes for today's question.

  6. I hear a. I hear a what? I hear you asking yourself that.


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