15 dic. 2010

Sentences

There's a famous joke about a guy shipwrecked on an island. He happens to be Jewish and he spends the first year building a synagogue. Then, when he's done, he builds a second synagogue. When he's eventually rescued they ask me why he built two, and he points to one and says, "That one I don't go to."

Notice that the joke is not funny at all if you change to the punch line to: "I don't go to that one." Nothing; it's not even a joke anymore. Why is this? The information structure is off. " What is the use of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man? " That's an aphorism by Gertrude Stein. It wouldn't work if you said: "If you are going to grow up to be a man, what is the use of being a little boy?" Or take "The business of America is business" (Clark Coolidge). It doesn't work at all as "Business is the business of America." Certain kind of sentences only work because of the exact order of elements.

4 comentarios:

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

This is a wonderful post, Jonathan. The Stein and Coolidge (Calvin, not Clark) examples aren't as funny as the shipwrecked Jew, and I wonder why. I wonder if it's not more than just word order. "That one" has a connotation that only works when it has special emphasis, as when McCain pointed at Obama and said, "That one." By putting it at the beginning of the punch line, that connotation is preserved; at the end, it's lost. By the way, almost every online example I could find of this joke uses the inferior formulation, "I don't go to that one."

Jonathan dijo...

It's not funny if Calvin Coolidge said it. If you attribute it to Clark, then it's funny.

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

Ok. For the .02% of Americans who know who Clark Coolidge is. Make it Bernie Madoff, maybe....

Jonathan dijo...

It's more like .0002%, and mostly those are the readers of this blog.