The final exam for my freshman Intro to Linguistics class included the following question:
1. How is this sentence ambiguous?
*The eating of the hippos disgusted me.
I admit that I can no longer diagram the two alternative readings. It has been too long and I have had to delete those circuits — and anyhow, the syntactic theory they taught us back then is outdated. However, it is easy to describe the ambiguity in qualitative terms. In one reading, the hippos are eating something else; in another, the person uttering the sentence is eating hippo flesh. In the first case, the way in which the hippos eat is disgusting. In the second, the hippo meat is rancid.
What is interesting about this example is that in both readings, the “eating” is a gerund, i.e. a noun formed from a verb that describes the action denoted by the verbal root. The ambiguity stems from the fact that in one case the hippos are the subject of the action of the gerund, and in the other, they are its object. This is different from a slew of other well-formed English sentences whose ambiguity stems from the fact that certain English words can be either gerunds or participles (a participle is an adjective formed from a verb) depending on context. Although these sentences look like the previous example, they are quite different, because their ambiguity stems from the fact that the -ing word can be either a noun or an adjective:
*Smoking grass can be nauseating.
*Fucking Canadians can be lugubrious.
(I will let readers write in as to whether Canadians are lugubrious either as intimate partners or ontologically. Pontifications are limited to grammar.)
Frank Rolf is a font of wisdom about everything Mobile Home Park. He is a history buff, with a special interest in the early-to-mid twentieth century in Europe and the United States. And he loves aphorisms about the mobile home park business. Here’s one of his favorites:
*It’s easier to change people than to change people.
The sentence is not, strictly, ambiguous. It only has one meaning, albeit one that requires you to squint. It can be understood better thru spoken language than written language:
*It’s easier to change people than it is to change people.
However, the aphorism’s punch derives from the fact that it is made up of two conjoined identical ambiguous sentences. The “than” divides two different readings of the sentence. Here’s that ambiguous sentence:
*It is easy to change people.
This sentence is ambiguous because the term “change” has two meanings. It can either mean “to exchange”, or “to transform”. In the first case, “change people” means “exchange one person for another”. In the second, “change people” means to make a person change their character. By saying this, Frank means that people’s natures generally do not change. At the very least, people change when they want to change, not when you want them to. Employees who have common sense, honesty, people skills, a reasonable attention to detail and a work ethic generally come to you that way. You might be able to train an employee who lacks those traits to improve, but it is easier to get rid of someone who is not working out than to get him or her to change. So, in certain cases, if you can’t change people, you need to change them.
Harsh? A violation of Kant’s categorical imperative? Something you want to do as gently and respectfully as possible? Yes, yes and yes. Using people as means rather than ends is immoral, but we do it all the time. It’s called “the marketplace”. Like valuing lives in dollar terms, it is something that we should never do, but that we must do. The best that we can do is to do it sparingly.
I have written about my maintenance guy JB before. He is the nicest guy in the world. He is good with his kids. He does good work. He can do plumbing, carpentry, excavation, simple electric and welding. He plows and mows well. He kept a 1974 Ford backhoe that I bought for five grand running for three years pretty much on his own. He lacks common sense and has bad judgment when it comes to personal decisions, but I have been able to keep that in check by shortening his leash. But lately, shit has gotten worse. His lack of common sense has gotten out of hand. If this continues, something will have to give.
Here are a few things that JB has done lately that have made me think twice about our on-going business relationship:
Each specific incident has an explanation. He can’t clean up the lot because of a kidney stone, a brokedown truck and rain. The electrical cable was hidden in a stump. The augur didn’t break the water main — a rock the augur hit broke it. Transmissions for his truck are hard to come by. But I have reached the point where I have stopped listening. Everyone fucks up — it is human nature to do so (I think Alexander Pope said that) — but if a pattern forms, that’s a problem.
Of the recent incidents, the inability to plow for the winter was the biggest blow. Snow plowing is an important obligation for park owners in northern states. It is my job to make sure that roads are clear of snow for tenants. I take that responsibility seriously. By late October, all of the plow guys are booked for the coming season. I will find someone to plow it — but the way JB dropped the ball has made me have to scramble, and it is not a first offense.
I need someone who I can depend on. JB is not proving up to that task. It will be painful to get rid of him. If I do so, he will become homeless as well as jobless. He has a girlfriend, a new baby and an adult son living with him. He has a pile of stuff in the pole barn. He likes living there and expects to stay there forever. I am not quite ready yet to open the trap door beneath his feet and his family’s feet. But unless things turn around quickly, I will have to give him some very difficult news. It will be hard for me to deliver, but it will surely hurt him more than me.
Originally published at https://dirtlease.com on November 2, 2020.