Principal The stuff of thought: language as a window into human nature
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The stuff of thought: language as a window into human nature

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Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Chapter 6 - WHAT’S IN A NAME?


Praise for The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
“Pinker brings an engaging and witty style to the study of subject matter that—were it not as important to
us as it is complex—might otherwise be off-putting. . . . An inviting and important book. Everyone with an
interest in language and how it gets to be how it is—that is, everyone interested in how we get to be
human and do our human business—should read The Stuff of Thought.”
—Robin Lakoff, Science

“Packed with information, clear, witty, attractively written, and generally persuasive . . . [Pinker] is
unfailingly engaging to read, with his aptly chosen cartoons, his amusing examples, and his bracing
theoretical rigor.”
—Colin McGinn, The New York Review of Books

“Engaging and provocative . . . filled with humor and fun. It’s good to have a mind as lively and limpid as
his bringing the ideas of cognitive science to the public while clarifying them for his scientific colleagues.”
—Douglas Hofstadter, Los Angeles Times

“Pinker is not only wonderfully clear; he is also blessedly witty. There’s plenty of stuff to think about in The
Stuff of Thought, but a lot of fun stuff too.”
—George Scialabba, The Boston Globe

“An excellent window not only into human nature but into Pinker’s nature: curious, inventive, fearless,
—William Saletan, The New York Times Book Review

“[Pinker] is the cognitive philosopher of our generation, and his work on language and mind has
implications for anybody interested in human expression and experience. . . . [He] has changed the way
we understand where we have come from a; nd where we are going.”
—Seth Lerer, The New York Sun

“A fascinating look at how language provides a window into the deepest functioning of the human brain.”
—Josie Glausiusz, Wired

“A perceptive, amusing and intelligent book.”
—Douglas Johnstone, The Times (London)

“This is Steven Pinker at his best—theoretical insight combined with clear illustration and elegant
research summary, presented throughout with an endearing wit and linguistic creativity which has become
his hallmark. Metaphor, he says, with typical Pinkerian panache, ‘provides us with a way to eff the
ineffable.’ The book requires steady concentration, but despite the abstract character of its subject matter
it is not difficult to read. That is Pinker’s genius. He effs like no other.”
—David Crystal, Financial Times

“Immensely readable and stimulating.”
—David Papineau, The Independent on Sunday

“Illuminating and astonishingly readable.”

—Robert Hanks, Sunday Telegraph (London)

“The Stuff of Thought delivers the same rewards as Pinker’s earlier books for a general audience. He
has a very good eye for the apt example, the memorable quote, and the joke that nails the point; he is
lucid in explanation and vigorous in argument. . . . The Stuff of Thought [has] the two most important
qualities in a good popular science book: it makes the subject accessible, and it makes its readers think.”
—Deborah Camerson, The Guardian (London)

“The pleasure of Pinker’s book is in watching the careful skill with which he peels back the linguistic layers
that clothe those models. The whole performance brought to my mind (very Pinkerishly, I now see) those
elaborate colored diagrams in anatomy textbooks, in which you can leaf through successive
transparencies to remove the skin, musculature, and organs to reveal at last the skeleton. . . . Like
[Pinker’s other books], it breathes the spirit of good-natured, rational, humane inquiry.”
—John Derbyshire, American Conservative

“[A] brilliant book.”
—Emma Garman, Huffington Post

“A cracking read.”
—Shane Hegarty, The Irish Times

“I recommend the book as highly as I can recommend any book, without reservation. Buy it. And read it.
You’ll find yourself educated and entertained at the same time.”
—S. Abbas Raza, 3 Quarks Daily

“A spicy stew.”
—Chris Scott, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Its sheer range is astonishing. If you wish to know why metaphors are both inescapable and inadequate,
why and how people swear, how English expresses concepts of space and time, or why we often avoid
saying what we mean, I find it hard to imagine a better guide. As always, Pinker displays an apparently
effortless talent for illuminating complex ideas with pointed, witty examples. . . . He has fun with ideas and
draws ideas from fun. An impressive achievement, all in all, on many levels.”
—Mark Abley, Montreal Gazette

“[An] awesome combination of analytical and imaginative thinking . . . Pinker writes lucidly and elegantly,
and leavens the text with scores of perfectly judged anecdotes, jokes, cartoons, and illustrations.”
—Rita Carter, Daily Mail

“Pinker is fascinating, authoritative, intense. His book is packed with ideas that have been fully thought out
and carefully rendered to prompt us each to marvel at the determinants of human nature.”
—Anne Brataas, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“A fascinating explanation of how we think and why we do what we do. . . . While you might have to wrap
your brain around tenses, Extreme Nativism, and polysemy before you can figure out why you’re
constantly swearing like a drunken sailor, it’s abso-fucking-lutely worth it.”
—Courtney Ferguson, The Portland Mercury

“The Stuff of Thought is an excellent book . . . easily his most accessible and fun book to read . . . [and]
on a scientific level, the book does something quite amazing: it bridges the chasm that many academics
have over language itself.”
—Daniel Schneider, Monsters and Critics

“[A] stimulating volume . . . From politics to poetry, children’s wonderful malapropisms to slang, Pinker’s
fluency in the nuances of words and syntax serves as proof of his faith in language as ‘a window into
human nature.’ ”
—Donna Seamon, Booklist

“A book on semantics may not sound especially enticing, but with Pinker as your guide, pondering what
the meaning of ‘is’ is can be mesmerizing.”

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and Harvard College Professor at
Harvard University. He is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind
Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate. He lives in Boston and Truro, Massachusetts.

For Rebecca

Published by the Penguin Group
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Published in Penguin Books 2008
Copyright © Steven Pinker, 2007 All rights reserved
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted works:
“This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Copyright © 1988, 2003 by the Estate of Philip
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris (Free Press).
Copyright © 1998 by Judith Rich Harris. Reprinted with permission.
eISBN : 978-1-101-20260-9
1. Language and languages—Philosophy. 2. Thought and thinking. I. Title.
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There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and
a theory of causality, too. Our language has a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of
intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother
tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in
their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively
human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by
our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than
language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign
credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our
speech—our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies—
can therefore give us insight into who we are.
That is the premise of the book you are holding, the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience of readers who are interested in
language and mind. The first, The Language Instinct, was an overview of the language faculty: everything you always wanted to know
about language but were afraid to ask. A language is a way of connecting sound and meaning, and the other two books turn toward
each of those spheres. Words and Rules was about the units of language, how they are stored in memory, and how they are
assembled into the vast number of combinations that give language its expressive power. The Stuff of Thought is about the other
side of the linkage, meaning. Its vistas include the meanings of words and constructions and the way that language is used in social
settings, the topics that linguists call semantics and pragmatics.
At the same time, this volume rounds out another trilogy: three books on human nature. How the Mind Works tried to reverseengineer the psyche in the light of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. The Blank Slate explored the concept of human
nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. This one broaches the topic in still another way: what we can learn about our
makeup from the way people put their thoughts and feelings in words.
As in my other books on language, the early chapters occasionally dip into technical topics. But I have worked hard to make them
transparent, and I am confident that my subject will engage anyone with an interest in what makes us tick. Language is entwined with
human life. We use it to inform and persuade, but also to threaten, to seduce, and of course to swear. It reflects the way we grasp
reality, and also the image of ourselves we try to project to others, and the bonds that tie us to them. It is, I hope to convince you, a
window into human nature.

In writing this book I have enjoyed the advice and support of many people, beginning with my editors,
Wendy Wolf, Stefan McGrath, and Will Goodlad, and my agent, John Brockman. I have benefited
tremendously from the wisdom of generous readers who reviewed the entire manuscript—Rebecca
Newberger Goldstein, David Haig, David Kemmerer, Roslyn Pinker, and Barbara Spellman—and from
the mavens who commented on chapters in their areas of expertise: Linda Abarbanell, Ned Block, Paul
Bloom, Kate Burridge, Herbert Clark, Alan Dershowitz, Bruce Fraser, Marc Hauser, Ray Jackendoff,
James Lee, Beth Levin, Peggy Li, Charles Parsons, James Pustejovsky, Lisa Randall, Harvey
Silverglate, Alison Simmons, Donald Symons, J. D. Trout, Michael Ullman, Edda Weigand, and Phillip
Wolff. Thanks, too, to those who answered my queries or offered suggestions: Max Bazerman, Iris Berent,
Joan Bresnan, Daniel Casasanto, Susan Carey, Gennaro Chierchia, Helena Cronin, Matt Denio, Daniel
Donoghue, Nicholas Epley, Michael Faber, David Feinberg, Daniel Fessler, Alan Fiske, Daniel Gilbert,
Lila Gleitman, Douglas Jones, Marcy Kahan, Robert Kurzban, Gary Marcus, George Miller, Martin Nowak,
Anna Papafragou, Geoffrey Pullum, S. Abbas Raza, Laurie Santos, Anne Senghas, G. Richard Tucker,
Daniel Wegner, Caroline Whiting, and Angela Yu. This is the sixth book of mine that Katya Rice has
agreed to copyedit, and like the others it has benefited from her style, precision, and curiosity.
I thank Ilavenil Subbiah for the many examples of subtle semantic phenomena she recorded from everyday speech, for designing
the chapter ornament, and for much else besides. Thanks also to my parents, Harry and Roslyn, and to my family: Susan, Martin,
Eva, Carl, Eric, Rob, Kris, Jack, David, Yael, Gabe, and Danielle. Most of all, I thank Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, my bashert, to
whom this book is dedicated.

The research for this book was supported by NIH Grant HD-18381 and by the Johnstone Family Chair at
Harvard University.


On September 11, 2001, at 8:46 A.M., a hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade
Center in New York. At 9:03 A.M. a second plane crashed into the south tower. The resulting infernos
caused the buildings to collapse, the south tower after burning for an hour and two minutes, the north
tower twenty-three minutes after that. The attacks were masterminded by Osama bin Laden, leader of the
Al Qaeda terrorist organization, who hoped to intimidate the United States into ending its military
presence in Saudi Arabia and its support for Israel and to unite Muslims in preparation for a restoration of
the caliphate.
9/11, as the happenings of that day are now called, stands as the most significant political and
intellectual event of the twenty-first century so far. It has set off debates on a vast array of topics: how best
to memorialize the dead and revitalize lower Manhattan; whether the attacks are rooted in ancient Islamic
fundamentalism or modern revolutionary agitation; the role of the United States on the world stage before
the attacks and in response to them; how best to balance protection against terrorism with respect for civil
But I would like to explore a lesser-known debate triggered by 9/11. Exactly how many events took
place in New York on that morning in September?
It could be argued that the answer is one. The attacks on the buildings were part of a single plan
conceived in the mind of one man in service of a single agenda. They unfolded within a few minutes and
yards of each other, targeting the parts of a complex with a single name, design, and owner. And they
launched a single chain of military and political events in their aftermath.
Or it could be argued that the answer is two. The north tower and the south tower were distinct
collections of glass and steel separated by an expanse of space, and they were hit at different times and
went out of existence at different times. The amateur video that showed the second plane closing in on the
south tower as the north tower billowed with smoke makes the twoness unmistakable: in those horrifying
moments, one event was frozen in the past, the other loomed in the future. And another occurrence on that
day—a passenger mutiny that brought down a third hijacked plane before it reached its target in
Washington—presents to the imagination the possibility that one tower or the other might have been
spared. In each of those possible worlds a distinct event took place, so in our actual world, one might
argue, there must be a pair of events as surely as one plus one equals two.
The gravity of 9/11 would seem to make this entire discussion frivolous to the point of impudence. It’s a
matter of mere “semantics,” as we say, with its implication of picking nits, splitting hairs, and debating the
number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. But this book is about semantics, and I would not
make a claim on your attention if I did not think that the relation of language to our inner and outer worlds
was a matter of intellectual fascination and real-world importance.
Though “importance” is often hard to quantify, in this case I can put an exact value on it: three and a half
billion dollars. That was the sum in dispute in a set of trials determining the insurance payout to Larry
Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center site. Silverstein held insurance policies that
stipulated a maximum reimbursement for each destructive “event.” If 9/11 comprised a single event, he

stood to receive three and a half billion dollars. If it comprised two events, he stood to receive seven
billion. In the trials, the attorneys disputed the applicable meaning of the term event. The lawyers for the
leaseholder defined it in physical terms (two collapses); those for the insurance companies defined it in
mental terms (one plot). There is nothing “mere” about semantics!
Nor is the topic intellectually trifling. The 9/11 cardinality debate is not about the facts, that is, the
physical events and human actions that took place that day. Admittedly, those have been contested as
well: according to various conspiracy theories, the buildings were targeted by American missiles, or
demolished by a controlled implosion, in a plot conceived by American neoconservatives, Israeli spies, or
a cabal of psychiatrists. But aside from the kooks, most people agree on the facts. Where they differ is in
the construal of those facts: how the intricate swirl of matter in space ought to be conceptualized by
human minds. As we shall see, the categories in this dispute permeate the meanings of words in our
language because they permeate the way we represent reality in our heads.
Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it is also about the relation of words to other
human concerns. Semantics is about the relation of words to reality—the way that speakers commit
themselves to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and
situations in the world. It is about the relation of words to a community—how a new word, which arises in
an act of creation by a single speaker, comes to evoke the same idea in the rest of a population, so
people can understand one another when they use it. It is about the relation of words to emotions: the way
in which words don’t just point to things but are saturated with feelings, which can endow the words with a
sense of magic, taboo, and sin. And it is about words and social relations—how people use language not
just to transfer ideas from head to head but to negotiate the kind of relationship they wish to have with
their conversational partner.
A feature of the mind that we will repeatedly encounter in these pages is that even our most abstract
concepts are understood in terms of concrete scenarios. That applies in full force to the subject matter of
the book itself. In this introductory chapter I will preview some of the book’s topics with vignettes from
newspapers and the Internet that can be understood only through the lens of semantics. They come from
each of the worlds that connect to our words—the worlds of thought, reality, community, emotions, and
social relations.

Let’s look at the bone of contention in the world’s most expensive debate in semantics, the three-and-ahalf-billion-dollar argument over the meaning of “event.” What, exactly, is an event? An event is a stretch of
time, and time, according to physicists, is a continuous variable—an inexorable cosmic flow, in Newton’s
world, or a fourth dimension in a seamless hyperspace, in Einstein’s. But the human mind carves this
fabric into the discrete swatches we call events. Where does the mind place the incisions? Sometimes,
as the lawyers for the World Trade Center leaseholder pointed out, the cut encircles the change of state of
an object, such as the collapse of a building. And sometimes, as the lawyers for the insurers pointed out,
it encircles the goal of a human actor, such as a plot being executed. Most often the circles coincide: an
actor intends to cause an object to change, the intent of the actor and the fate of the object are tracked
along a single time line, and the moment of change marks the consummation of the intent.
The conceptual content behind the disputed language is itself like a language (an idea I will expand in
chapters 2 and 3). It represents an analogue reality by digital, word-sized units (such as “event”), and it
combines them into assemblies with a syntactic structure rather than tossing them together like rags in a
bag. It’s essential to our understanding of 9/11, for example, not only that bin Laden acted to harm the
United States, and that the World Trade Center was destroyed around that time, but that it was bin
Laden’s act that caused the destruction. It’s the causal link between the intention of a particular man and a
change in a particular object that distinguishes the mainstream understanding of 9/11 from the conspiracy
theories. Linguists call the inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them “conceptual
semantics.”1 Conceptual semantics—the language of thought—must be distinct from language itself, or
we would have nothing to go on when we debate what our words mean.
The fact that rival construals of a single occurrence can trigger an extravagant court case tells us that
the nature of reality does not dictate the way that reality is represented in people’s minds. The language of
thought allows us to frame a situation in different and incompatible ways. The unfolding of history on the
morning of September 11 in New York can be thought of as one event or two events depending on how
we mentally describe it to ourselves, which in turn depends on what we choose to focus on and what we
choose to ignore. And the ability to frame an event in alternative ways is not just a reason to go to court
but also the source of the richness of human intellectual life. As we shall see, it provides the materials for
scientific and literary creativity, for humor and wordplay, and for the dramas of social life. And it sets the
stage in countless arenas of human disputation. Does stem-cell research destroy a ball of cells or an
incipient human? Is the American military incursion into Iraq a case of invading a country or of liberating a
country? Does abortion consist of ending a pregnancy or of killing a child? Are high tax rates a way to
redistribute wealth or to confiscate earnings? Is socialized medicine a program to protect citizens’ health
or to expand government power? In all these debates, two ways of framing an event are pitted against
each other, and the disputants struggle to show that their framing is more apt (a criterion we will explore in
chapter 5). In the past decade prominent linguists have been advising American Democrats on how the
Republican Party has outframed them in recent elections and on how they might regain control of the
semantics of political debate by reframing, for example, taxes as membership fees and activist judges
as freedom judges.2
The 9/11 cardinality debate highlights another curious fact about the language of thought. In puzzling
over how to count the events of that day, it asks us to treat them as if they were objects that can be tallied,
like poker chips in a pile. The debate over whether there was one event or two in New York that day is like
a disagreement over whether there is one item or two at an express checkout lane, such as a pair of
butter sticks taken out of a box of four, or a pair of grapefruits selling at two for a dollar. The similar
ambiguity in tallying objects and tallying events is one of the many ways in which space and time are
treated equivalently in the human mind, well before Einstein depicted them as equivalent in reality.
As we shall see in chapter 4, the mind categorizes matter into discrete things (like a sausage) and
continuous stuff (like meat), and it similarly categorizes time into discrete events (like to cross the street)
and continuous activities (like to stroll). With both space and time, the same mental zoom lens that allows

us to count objects or events also allows us to zoom in even closer on what each one is made of. In
space, we can focus on the material making up an object (as when we say I got sausage all over my
shirt); in time, we can focus on an activity making up an event (as when we say She was crossing the
street). This cognitive zoom lens also lets us pan out in space and see a collection of objects as an
aggregate (as in the difference between a pebble and gravel), and it allows us to pan out in time and see
a collection of events as an iteration (as in the difference between hit the nail and pound the nail). And in
time, as in space, we mentally place an entity at a location and then shunt it around: we can move a
meeting from 3:00 to 4:00 in the same way that we move a car from one end of the block to the other.
And speaking of an end, even some of the fine points of our mental geometry carry over from space to
time. The end of a string is technically a point, but we can say Herb cut off the end of the string, showing
that an end can be construed as including a snippet of the matter adjacent to it. The same is true in time:
the end of a lecture is technically an instant, but we can say I’m going to give the end of my lecture now,
construing the culmination of an event as including a small stretch of time adjacent to it.3
As we shall see, language is saturated with implicit metaphors like EVENTS ARE OBJECTS and TIME
IS SPACE. Indeed, space turns out to be a conceptual vehicle not just for time but for many kinds of
states and circumstances. Just as a meeting can be moved from 3:00 to 4:00, a traffic light can go from
green to red, a person can go from flipping burgers to running a corporation, and the economy can go
from bad to worse. Metaphor is so widespread in language that it’s hard to find expressions for abstract
ideas that are not metaphorical. What does the concreteness of language say about human thought?
Does it imply that even our wispiest concepts are represented in the mind as hunks of matter that we
move around on a mental stage? Does it say that rival claims about the world can never be true or false
but can only be alternative metaphors that frame a situation in different ways? Those are the obsessions
of chapter 5.

The aftermath of 9/11 spawned another semantic debate, one with consequences even weightier than the
billions of dollars at stake in how to count the events on that day. This one involves a war that has cost far
more money and lives than 9/11 itself and that may affect the course of history for the rest of the century.
The debate hinges on the meaning of another set of words—sixteen of them, to be exact:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa.
This sentence appeared in George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003. It referred to
intelligence reports suggesting that Saddam may have tried to buy five hundred tons of a kind of uranium
ore called yellowcake from sources in Niger in West Africa. For many Americans and Britons the
possibility that Saddam was assembling nuclear weapons was the only defensible reason to invade Iraq
and depose Saddam. The United States led the invasion in the spring of that year, the most despised
American foreign policy initiative since the war in Vietnam. During the occupation it became clear that
Saddam had had no facilities in place to manufacture nuclear weapons, and probably had never explored
the possibility of buying yellowcake from Niger. In the words of placards and headlines all over the world,
“Bush Lied.”
Did he? The answer is not as straightforward as partisans on both sides might think. Investigations by
the British Parliament and the U.S. Senate have established that British intelligence did believe that
Saddam was trying to buy yellowcake. They showed that the evidence for the British intelligence officers’
belief at the time was not completely unreasonable but that it was far short of conclusive. And they
revealed that the American intelligence experts had doubts that the report was true. Given these facts,
how are we to determine whether Bush lied? It isn’t a question of whether he was unwise in putting
credence in British intelligence, or of whether he made a calculated risk based on uncertain information.
It’s a question of whether he was dishonest in how he conveyed this part of his rationale for the invasion to
the world. And this question hinges on the semantics of one of those sixteen words, the verb learn.4
Learn is what linguists call a factive verb; it entails that the belief attributed to the subject is true. In that
way it is like the verb know and unlike the verb think. Say I have a friend Mitch who mistakenly believes
that Thomas Dewey defeated Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. I could truthfully say Mitch
thinks that Dewey defeated Truman, but I couldn’t say Mitch knows that Dewey defeated Truman,
because Dewey did not, in fact, defeat Truman. Mitch may think he did, but you and I know he didn’t. For
the same reason I couldn’t honestly say that Mitch has admitted, discovered, observed, remembered,
showed, or, crucially, learned that Dewey defeated Truman. There is, to be sure, a different sense of
learn, roughly “be taught that,” which is not factive; I can say When I was in graduate school, we learned
that there were four kinds of taste buds, though I now know, thanks to a recent discovery, that there are
five. But the usual sense, especially in the perfect tense with have, is factive; it means “acquire true
People, then, are “realists” in the philosophers’ sense. They are tacitly committed, in their everyday use
of language, to certain propositions’ being true or false, independent of whether the person being
discussed believes them to be true or false. Factive verbs entail something a speaker assumes to be
indisputably true, not just something in which he or she has high confidence: it is not a contradiction to say
I’m very, very confident that Oswald shot Kennedy, but I don’t know that he did. For this reason factive
verbs have a whiff of paradox about them. No one can be certain of the truth, and most of us know we can
never be certain, yet we honestly use factive verbs like know and learn and remember all the time. We
must have an intuition of a degree of certitude that is so high, and so warranted by standards we share
with our audience, that we can vouch for the certainty of a particular belief, while realizing that in general
(though presumably not this time) we can be mistaken in what we say. Mark Twain exploited the
semantics of factive verbs when he wrote, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but
that they know so many things that aren’t so.”5 (He also allegedly wrote, “When I was younger, I could

remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon . . . I will
remember [only] the things that never happened.”)
So did Bush lie? A strong case could be made that he did. When Bush said that the British government
had “learned” that Saddam had sought uranium, he was committing himself to the proposition that the
uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did. If he had reason to
doubt it at the time—and the American intelligence community had made its skepticism known to his
administration—the sixteen words did contain a known untruth. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld,
speaking in Bush’s defense, said that the statement was “technically accurate,” and National Security
Advisor Condoleezza Rice added that “the British have said that.” But note the switch of verbs: Bush
didn’t state that the British had said that Saddam sought yellowcake, which would be true regardless of
what Saddam did; he stated that they had learned it, which could be true only if Saddam had in fact gone
shopping. The logic of factivity, then, is what Bush’s critics implicitly appeal to when they accused him of
Lying is an impeachable offense for a president, especially when it comes to the casus belli of a
terrible war. Could semantics really be that consequential in political history? Is it plausible that the fate of
an American president could ever hinge on fine points of a verb? We shall return to that question in
chapter 4, where we will see that it depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.
Words are tied to reality when their meanings depend, as factive verbs do, on a speaker’s commitments
about the truth. But there is a way in which words are tied to reality even more directly. They are not just
about facts about the world stored in a person’s head but are woven into the causal fabric of the world
Certainly a word meaning depends on something inside the head. The other day I came across the
word sidereal and had to ask a literate companion what it meant. Now I can understand and use it when
the companion is not around (it means “pertaining to the stars,” as in a sidereal day, the time it takes for
the Earth to make a complete rotation relative to a star). Something in my brain must have changed at the
moment I learned the word, and someday cognitive neuroscientists might be able to tell us what that
change is. Of course most of the time we don’t learn a word by looking it up or asking someone to define
it but by hearing it in context. But however a word is learned, it must leave some trace in the brain. The
meaning of a word, then, seems to consist of information stored in the heads of the people who know the
word: the elementary concepts that define it and, for a concrete word, an image of what it refers to.
But as we will see in chapter 6, a word must be more than a shared definition and image. The easiest
way to discover this is to consider the semantics of names.6 What is the meaning of a name, such as
William Shakespeare? If you were to look it up in a dictionary, you might find something like this:
Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), n.: English poet and dramatist considered one of the
greatest English writers. His plays, many of which were performed at the Globe Theatre in
London, include historical works, such as Richard II, comedies, including Much Ado about
Nothing and As You Like It, and tragedies, such as Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. He
also composed 154 sonnets. [Syn.: Shakespeare, Shakspeare, William Shakspere, the
And the definition would typically be accompanied by the famous engraving of a doe-eyed balding man
with a very small mustache and a very big ruff. Presumably that is not too far from your understanding of
the name.
But is that what William Shakespeare really means? Historians agree that there was a man named
William Shakespeare who lived in Stratford-on-Avon and London in the late sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries. But for 250 years there have been doubts as to whether that man composed the
plays we attribute to him. This might sound like the theory that the CIA imploded the World Trade Center,
but it has been taken seriously by Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, and many modern-day
scholars, and it rests on a number of damning facts. Shakespeare’s plays were not published as serious
literature in his lifetime, and authorship in those days was not recorded as carefully as it is today. The man

himself was relatively uneducated, never traveled, had illiterate children, was known in his hometown as a
businessman, was not eulogized at his death, and left no books or manuscripts in his will. Even the
famous portraits were not painted in his lifetime, and we have no reason to believe that they resembled
the man himself. Because writing plays was a disreputable occupation in those days, the real author,
identified by various theories as Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, and even Queen
Elizabeth, may have wanted to keep his or her identity a secret.
My point isn’t to persuade you that William Shakespeare was not the great English poet and dramatist
who wrote Hamlet, As You Like It, and 154 sonnets. (Mainstream scholars say he was, and I believe
them.) My point is to get you to think about the possibility that he wasn’t, and to understand the
implications for the idea that the meanings of words are in the head. For the sake of argument, imagine
that forensic evidence proved beyond doubt that the Shakespearean oeuvre was written by someone
else. Now, if the meaning of William Shakespeare were something like the dictionary entry stored in the
head, we would have to conclude either that the meaning of the term William Shakespeare had changed
or that the real author of Hamlet should be posthumously christened William Shakespeare, even though
no one knew him by that name in his lifetime. (We would also have to give full marks to the hapless
student who wrote in an exam, “Shakespeare’s plays were written by William Shakespeare or another
man of that name.”) Actually, it’s even worse than that. We would not have been able to ask “Did
Shakespeare write Hamlet?” in the first place, because he did by definition. It would be like asking “Is a
bachelor unmarried?” or “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” or “Who sang ‘Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees’?”
And the conclusion, “William Shakespeare did not in fact write Hamlet,” would be self-contradictory.
But these implications are bizarre. In fact we are speaking sensibly when we ask whether Shakespeare
wrote Hamlet; we would not be contradicting ourselves if we were to conclude that he did not; and we
would still feel that William Shakespeare means what it always meant—some guy who lived in England
way back when—while admitting that we were mistaken about the man’s accomplishments. Even if every
biographical fact we knew about Shakespeare were overturned—if it turned out, for example, that he was
born in 1565 rather than 1564, or came from Warwick rather than Stratford—we would still have a sense
that the name refers to the same guy, the one we’ve been talking about all along.
So what exactly does William Shakespeare mean, if not “great writer, author of Hamlet,” and so on? A
name really has no definition in terms of other words, concepts, or pictures. Instead it points to an entity in
the world, because at some instant in time the entity was dubbed with the name and the name stuck.
William Shakespeare, then, points to the individual who was christened William by Mr. and Mrs.
Shakespeare around the time he was born. The name is connected to that guy, whatever he went on to
do, and however much or little we know about him. A name points to a person in the world in the same
way that I can point to a rock in front of me right now. The name is meaningful to us because of an
unbroken chain of word of mouth (or word of pen) that links the word we now use to the original act of
christening. We will see that it’s not just names, but words for many kinds of things, that are rigidly yoked
to the world by acts of pointing, dubbing, and sticking rather than being stipulated in a definition.
The tethering of words to reality helps allay the worry that language ensnares us in a self-contained web
of symbols. In this worry, the meanings of words are ultimately circular, each defined in terms of the
others. As one semanticist observed, a typical dictionary plays this game when it tells the user that “ to
order means to command, that to direct and instruct ‘are not so strong as command or order,’ that
command means ‘to direct, with the right to be obeyed,’ that direct means ‘to order,’ that instruct means
‘to give orders’; or that to request means ‘to demand politely,’ to demand [means] ‘to claim as if by right,’
to claim [means] ‘to ask for or demand,’ to ask [means] ‘to make a request,’ and so on.” 7 This cat’s
cradle is dreaded by those who crave certainty in words, embraced by adherents of deconstructionism
and postmodernism, and exploited by the writer of a dictionary of computer jargon:
endless loop, n. See loop, endless.
loop, endless, n. See endless loop.
The logic of names, and of other words that are connected to events of dubbing, allay these concerns by
anchoring the web of meanings to real events and objects in the world.
The connectedness of words to real people and things, and not just to information about those people

and things, has a practical application that is very much in the news. The fastest-growing crime in the
beginning of this century is identity theft. An identity thief uses information connected with your name, such
as your social security number or the number and password of your credit card or bank account, to
commit fraud or steal your assets. Victims of identity theft may lose out on jobs, loans, and college
admissions, can be turned away at airport security checkpoints, and can even get arrested for a crime
committed by the thief. They can spend many years and much money reclaiming their identity.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has lost his wallet, or inadvertently divulged information on
his computer, and now has a doppelgänger using his name (say, Murray Klepfish) to borrow money or
make purchases. Now you have to convince a bureaucrat that you, not the impostor, are the real Murray
Klepfish. How would you do it? As with William Shakespeare, it comes down to what the words Murray
Klepfish mean. You could say, “ ‘Murray Klepfish’ means an owner of a chain of discount tire stores who
was born in Brooklyn, lives in Piscataway, has a checking account at Acme Bank, is married with two
sons, and spends his summers on the Jersey Shore.” But they would reply, “As far as we are concerned,
‘Murray Klepfish’ means a personal trainer who was born in Delray Beach, gets his mail at a post office
box in Albuquerque, charged a recent divorce to a storefront in Reno, and spends his summers on Maui.
We do agree with you about the bank account, which, by the way, is severely overdrawn.”
So how would you prove that you are the real referent of the name Murray Klepfish? You could provide
any information you wanted—social security number, license number, mother’s maiden name—and the
impersonator can either duplicate it (if he stole that, too) or contest it (if he augmented the stolen identity
with his own particulars, including a photograph). As with picking out the real Shakespeare after his
familiar biographical particulars had been cast into doubt, ultimately you would have to point to a causal
chain that links your name as it is used today to the moment your parents hailed your arrival. Your credit
card was obtained from a bank account, which was obtained with a driver’s license, which was obtained
with a birth certificate, which was vouched for by a hospital official, who was in touch with your parents
around the time of your birth and heard from their lips that you are the Klepfish they were naming Murray.
In the case of your impostor, the chain of testimony peters out in the recent past, well short of the moment
of dubbing. The measures designed to foil identity theft depend upon the logic of names and the
connection of words to reality: they are ways to identify unbroken chains of person-to-person transmission
through time, anchored to a specific event of dubbing in the past.

Naming a child is the only opportunity that most people get to anoint an entity in the world with a word of
their choosing. Apart from creative artists like Frank Zappa, who named his children Moon Unit and
Dweezil, traditionally most people select a prefabricated forename like John or Mary rather than a sound
they concoct from scratch. In theory a forename is an arbitrary label with no inherent meaning, and people
interpret it as simply pointing to the individual who was dubbed with it. But in practice names take on a
meaning by association with the generation and class of people who bear them. Most American readers,
knowing nothing else about a man other than that his name is Murray, would guess that he is over sixty,
middle-class, and probably Jewish. (When a drunken Mel Gibson let loose with an anti-Semitic tirade in
2006, the editor Leon Wieseltier commented, “Mad Max is making Max mad, and Murray, and Irving, and
Mort, and Marty, and Abe.”) 8 That is because of another curiosity of names we will explore in chapter 6.
Names follow cycles of fashion, like the widths of ties and the lengths of skirts, so people’s first names
may give away their generational cohort. In its heyday in the 1930s, Murray had an aura of Anglo-Saxon
respectability, together with names like Irving, Sidney, Maxwell, Sheldon, and Herbert. They seemed to
stand apart from the Yiddish names of the previous generation, such as Moishe, Mendel, and Ruven,
which made their bearers sound as if they had a foot in the old country. But when the Murrays and Sids
and their wives launched the baby boom, they gave their sons blander names like David, Brian, and
Michael, who in their turn begat biblically inspired Adams, Joshuas, and Jacobs. Many of these Old
Testament namesakes are now completing the circle with sons named Max, Ruben, and Saul.
Names follow trends because people in a community have uncannily similar reactions to the ones in the
namepool (as parents often find when they take a child to school and discover that their unique choice of
a name was also the unique choice of many of their neighbors). A name’s coloring comes in part from the
sounds that go into it and in part from a stereotype of the adults who currently bear it. For this reason, the
faux-British names of first-generation Americans became victims of their own middle-class respectability
a generation later. In a scene from When Harry Met Sally set in the 1970s, a pair of baby boomers get
into an argument about Sally’s sexual experience:
HARRY: With whom did you have this great sex?
SALLY: I’m not going to tell you that!
HARRY: Fine. Don’t tell me.
SALLY: Shel Gordon.
HARRY: Shel. Sheldon? No, no. You did not have great sex with Sheldon.
SALLY: I did too.
HARRY: No, you didn’t. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. If you need a root canal,
Sheldon’s your man. But humpin’ and pumpin’ is not Sheldon’s strong suit. It’s the name.
“Do it to me, Sheldon.” “You’re an animal, Sheldon.” “Ride me, big Sheldon.” It doesn’t work.
Though postwar parents probably didn’t have great sex in mind, they must have recoiled from the name’s
nebbishy connotation even then: beginning in the 1940s, Sheldon, like Murray, sank like a stone and
never recovered.9 The reaction to the name is now so uniform across the English-speaking world that
humorists can depend on it. The playwright Marcy Kahan, who recently adapted Nora Ephron’s
screenplay to the British stage, notes, “I included the Sheldon joke in the stage play, and all three actors
playing Harry got a huge laugh of recognition from it, every night, without fail.”10
The dynamics of baby naming have become a talking point in newspapers and conversation now that
the fashion cycles have accelerated. One of the most popular American names for baby girls in 2006 was
unheard of only five years before: Nevaeh, or “heaven” spelled backwards. At the other end of the curve,
people are seeing their own names, and the names of their friends and relations, becoming stodgy more
quickly.11 I don’t think I ever felt so old as when a student told me that Barbara, Susan, Deborah, and
Linda, some of the most popular names for girls of my generation, made her think of middle-aged

In naming a baby, parents have free rein. Obviously they are affected by the pool of names in circulation,
but once they pick one, the child and the community usually stick with it. But in naming everything else, the
community has a say in whether the new name takes. The social nature of words is illustrated in Calvin’s
presumably ill-fated attempt to pass a physics exam:

The way in which we understand “your own words”—as referring only to how you combine them, not to
what they are—shows that words are owned by a community rather than an individual. If a word isn’t
known to everyone around you, you might as well not use it, because no one will know what you’re talking
about. Nonetheless, every word in a language must have been minted at some point by a single speaker.
With some coinages, the rest of the community gradually agrees to use the word to point to the same
thing, tipping the first domino in the chain that makes the word available to subsequent generations. But
as we shall see, how this tacit agreement is forged across a community is mysterious.
In some cases necessity is the mother of invention. Computer users, for instance, needed a term for
bulk e-mail in the 1990s, and spam stepped into the breach. But many other breaches stay stubbornly
unstepped into. Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s we have needed a term for the members of an
unmarried heterosexual couple, and none of the popular suggestions has caught on—paramour is too
romantic, roommate not romantic enough, partner too gay, and the suggestions of journalists too
facetious (like POSSLQ, from the census designation “persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters,”
and umfriend, from “This is my, um, friend”). And speaking of decades, we are more than halfway through
the first one of the twenty-first century, and no one yet knows what to call it. The zeroes? The aughts? The

nought-noughts? The naughties?
Traditional etymology is of limited help in figuring out what ushers a word into existence and whether it
will catch on. Etymologists can trace most words back for centuries or more, but the trail goes cold well
before they reach the actual moment at which a primordial wordsmith first dubbed a concept with a sound
of his or her choosing. With recent coinages, though, we can follow the twisted path to wordhood in real
Spam is not, as some people believe, an acronym for Short, Pointless, and Annoying Messages. The
word is related to the name of the luncheon meat sold by Hormel since 1937, a portmanteau from SPiced
hAM. But how did it come to refer to e-mailed invitations to enlarge the male member and share the illgotten gains of deposed African despots? Many people assume that the route was metaphor. Like the
luncheon meat, the e-mail is cheap, plentiful, and unwanted, and in one variant of this folk etymology,
spamming is what happens when you dump Spam in a fan. Though these intuitions may have helped
make the word contagious, its origin is very different. It was inspired by a sketch from Monty Python’s
Flying Circus in which a couple enter a café and ask the waitress (a Python in drag) what’s available. She
Well, there’s egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg bacon and
spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam; spam egg spam
spam bacon and spam; spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam; spam

spam spam egg and spam; spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam
spam spam, or Lobster Thermidor: a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provençale
manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pâté, brandy and with a fried egg
on top and spam.
You are probably thinking, “This sketch must be stopped—it’s too silly.” But it did change the English
language. The mindless repetition of the word spam inspired late-1980s hackers to use it as a verb for
flooding newsgroups with identical messages, and a decade later it spread from their subculture to the
populace at large.12
Though it may seem incredible that such a whimsical and circuitous coinage would catch on, we shall
see that it was not the first time that silliness left its mark on the lexicon. The verb gerrymander comes
from a nineteenth-century American cartoon showing a political district that had been crafted by a
Governor Elbridge Gerry into a tortuous shape resembling a salamander in an effort to concentrate his
opponent’s voters into a single seat. But most silly coinages go nowhere, such as bushlips for “insincere
political rhetoric” (after George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign slogan “Read my lips: No new taxes”), or
teledildonics for computer-controlled sex toys. Every year the American Dialect Society selects a “word
most likely to succeed.” But the members of the society are the first to admit that their track record is
abysmal. Does anyone remember the information superhighway, or the Infobahn?13 And could anyone
have predicted that to blog, to google, and to blackberry would quickly become part of everyone’s
The dynamics of taking from the wordpool when naming babies and giving back to it when naming
concepts are stubbornly chaotic. And as we shall see, this unpredictability holds a lesson for our
understanding of culture more generally. Like the words in a language, the practices in a culture—every
fashion, every ritual, every common belief—must originate with an innovator, must then appeal to the
innovator’s acquaintances and then to the acquaintance’s acquaintances, and so on, until it becomes
endemic to a community. The caprice in the rise and fall of names, which are the most easily tracked bits
of culture, suggests we should be skeptical of most explanations for the life cycles of other mores and
customs, from why men stopped wearing hats to why neighborhoods become segregated. But it also
points to the patterns of individual choice and social contagion that might someday make sense of them.

The shifting associations to the name for a person are an example of the power of a word to soak up
emotional coloring—to have a connotation as well as a denotation. The concept of a connotation is often
explained by the conjugational formula devised by Bertrand Russell in a 1950s radio interview: I am firm;
you are obstinate; he is pigheaded. The formula was turned into a word game in a radio show and
newspaper feature and elicited hundreds of triplets. I am slim; you are thin; he is scrawny. I am a
perfectionist; you are anal; he is a control freak. I am exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous; she is
a slut. In each triplet the literal meaning of the words is held constant, but the emotional meaning ranges
from attractive to neutral to offensive.
The affective saturation of words is especially apparent in the strange phenomena surrounding
profanity, the topic of chapter 7. It is a real puzzle for the science of mind why, when an unpleasant event
befalls us—we slice our thumb along with the bagel, or knock a glass of beer into our lap—the topic of our
conversation turns abruptly to sexuality, excretion, or religion. It is also a strange feature of our makeup
that when an adversary infringes on our rights—say, by slipping into parking space we have been waiting
for, or firing up a leaf blower at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning—we are apt to extend him advice in
the manner of Woody Allen, who recounted, “I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words.”
These outbursts seem to emerge from a deep and ancient part of the brain, like the yelp of a dog when
someone steps on its tail, or its snarl when it is trying to intimidate an adversary. They can surface in the
involuntary tics of a Tourette’s patient, or in the surviving utterances of a neurological patient who is
otherwise bereft of language. But despite the seemingly atavistic roots of cursing, the sounds themselves
are composed of English words and are pronounced in full conformity with the sound pattern of the
language. It is as though the human brain were wired in the course of human evolution so that the output of
an old system for calls and cries were patched into the input of the new system for articulate speech.
Not only do we turn to certain words for sexuality, excretion, and religion when we are in an excitable
state, but we are wary of such words when we are in any other state. Many epithets and imprecations are
not just unpleasant but taboo: the very act of uttering them is an affront to listeners, even when the
concepts have synonyms whose use is unexceptionable. The tendency of words to take on awesome
powers may be found in the taboos and word magic in cultures all over the world. In Orthodox Judaism,
the name of God, transcribed as YHVH and conventionally pronounced Yahweh, may never be spoken,
except by high priests in the ancient temple on Yom Kippur in the “holy of holies,” the chamber housing the
ark of the covenant. In everyday conversation observant Jews use a word to refer to the word, referring to
God as hashem, “the name.”
While taboo language is an affront to common sensibilities, the phenomenon of taboo language is an
affront to common sense. Excretion is an activity that every incarnate being must engage in daily, yet all
the English words for it are indecent, juvenile, or clinical. The elegant lexicon of Anglo-Saxon
monosyllables that give the English language its rhythmic vigor turns up empty-handed just when it comes
to an activity that no one can avoid. Also conspicuous by its absence is a polite transitive verb for sex—a
word that would fit into the frame Adam verbed Eve or Eve verbed Adam . The simple transitive verbs for
sexual relations are either obscene or disrespectful, and the most common ones are among the seven
words you can’t say on television.
Or at least, the words you couldn’t say in 1973, when the comedian George Carlin delivered his historic
monologue arguing against the ban of those words in broadcast media. In a conundrum that reminds us of
the rationale for unfettered free speech, a radio network that had broadcasted the monologue was
punished by the Federal Communications Commission (in a case that ultimately reached the Supreme
Court) for allowing Carlin to mention on the radio exactly those words that he was arguing ought to be
allowed to be mentioned on the radio. We have a law that in effect forbids criticism of itself, a paradox
worthy of Russell and other connoisseurs of self-referential statements. The paradox of identifying taboo
words without using them has always infected attempts to regulate speech about sexuality. In several
states, the drafters of the statute against bestiality could not bring themselves to name it and therefore

outlawed “the abominable and detestable crime against nature,” until the statutes were challenged for
being void for vagueness. To avoid this trap, a New Jersey obscenity statute stipulated exactly which
kinds of words and images would be deemed obscene. But the wording of the statute was so
pornographic that some law libraries tore the page out of every copy of the statute books.14
Taboos on language are still very much in the news. While sexual and scatological language is more
available than ever on cable, satellite, and the Internet, the American government, prodded by cultural
conservatives, is trying to crack down on it, especially within the dwindling bailiwick of broadcast media.
Legislation such as the “Clean Airwaves Act” and the “Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act” imposes
draconian fines on broadcast stations that fail to censor their guests when they use the words on Carlin’s
list. And in an unscripted event that shows the unavoidable hypocrisy of linguistic taboos, the Broadcast
Decency Enforcement Act was passed on the day in 2004 that Vice President Dick Cheney got into an
argument with Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor and Cheney told the senator to be fruitful and
multiply, but not in those words.
No curious person can fail to be puzzled by the illogic and hypocrisy of linguistic taboos. Why should
certain words, but not their homonyms or synonyms, be credited with a dreadful moral power? At the
same time, no matter how illogical it may seem, everyone respects taboos on at least some words.
Everyone? Yes, everyone. Suppose I told you there was an obscenity so shocking that decent people
dare not mention it even in casual conversation. Like observant Jews referring to God, they must speak of
it at one degree of separation by using a word that refers to the word. An elect circle of people are
granted a special dispensation to use it, but everyone else risks grave consequences, including legally
justifiable violence.15 What is this obscenity? It is the word nigger—or, as it is referred to in respectable
forums, the n-word—which may be uttered only by African Americans to express camaraderie and
solidarity in settings of their choosing. The shocked reaction that other uses evoke, even among people
who support free speech and wonder why there is such a fuss about words for sex, suggests that the
psychology of word magic is not just a pathology of censorious bluenoses but a constituent of our
emotional and linguistic makeup.

In recent years the Internet has become a laboratory for the study of language. It not only provides a
gigantic corpus of real language used by real people, but also acts as a superefficient vector for the
transmission of infectious ideas, and can thereby highlight examples of language that people find
intriguing enough to pass along to others. Let me introduce the last major topic of this book with a story
that circulated widely by e-mail in 1998:
During the final days at Denver’s Stapleton airport, a crowded United flight was canceled. A
single agent was rebooking a long line of inconvenienced travelers. Suddenly an angry
passenger pushed his way to the desk and slapped his ticket down on the counter, saying,
“I HAVE to be on this flight, and it HAS to be first class.” The agent replied, “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll
be happy to try to help you, but I’ve got to help these folks first, and I’m sure we’ll be able to
work something out.” The passenger was unimpressed. He asked loudly, so that the
passengers behind him could hear, “Do you have any idea who I am?” Without hesitating,
the gate agent smiled and grabbed her public address microphone. “May I have your
attention, please?” she began, her voice bellowing through the terminal. “We have a
passenger here at the gate WHO DOES NOT KNOW WHO HE IS. If anyone can help him
find his identity, please come to the gate.” With the folks behind him in line laughing
hysterically, the man glared at the agent, gritted his teeth, and swore, “[Expletive] you!”
Without flinching, she smiled and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to stand in line for that
The story seems too good to be true, and is probably an urban legend.16 But its two punch lines make a
nice teaser for oddities of language that we will explore in later chapters. I have already touched on the
puzzle behind the second punch line, namely that certain words for sex are also used in aggressive
imprecations (chapter 7). But the first punch line introduces the final world that I wish to connect to words,
the world of social relations (chapter 8).
The agent’s comeback to “Do you have any idea who I am?” springs from a mismatch between the
sense in which the passenger intended his rhetorical question—a demand for recognition of his higher
status—and the sense in which she pretended to take it—a literal request for information. And the payoff
to the onlookers (and the e-mail audience) comes from understanding the exchange at a third level—that
the agent’s feigned misunderstanding was a tactic to reverse the dominance relation and demote the
arrogant passenger to well-deserved ignominy.
Language is understood at multiple levels, rather than as a direct parse of the content of the
sentence.17 In everyday life we anticipate our interlocutor’s ability to listen between the lines and slip in
requests and offers that we feel we can’t blurt out directly. In the film Fargo, two kidnappers with a hostage
hidden in the back seat are pulled over by a policeman because their car is missing its plates. The
kidnapper at the wheel is asked to produce his driver’s license, and he extends his wallet with a fifty-dollar
bill protruding from it, saying, “So maybe the best thing would be to take care of that here in Brainerd.”
The statement, of course, is intended as a bribe, not as a comment on the relative convenience of
different venues for paying the fine. Many other kinds of speech are interpreted in ways that differ from
their literal meaning:
If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.
We’re counting on you to show leadership in our Campaign for the Future.
Would you like to come up and see my etchings?
Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.
These are clearly intended as a request, a solicitation for money, a sexual come-on, and a threat. But why
don’t people just say what they mean—“If you let me drive off without further ado, I’ll give you fifty bucks,”
“Gimme the guacamole,” and so on?

With the veiled bribe and the veiled threat, one might guess that the technicalities of plausible
deniability are applicable: bribery and extortion are crimes, and by avoiding an explicit proposition, the
speaker could make a charge harder to prove in court. But the veil is so transparent that it is hard to
believe it could foil a prosecutor or fool a jury—as the lawyers say, it wouldn’t pass the giggle test. Yet we
all take part in these charades, while knowing that no one is fooled. (Well, almost no one. In an episode of
Seinfeld, George is asked by his date if he would like to come up for coffee. He declines, explaining that
caffeine keeps him up at night. Later he slaps his forehead and realizes, “ ‘Coffee’ doesn’t mean coffee!
‘Coffee’ means sex!” And of course this can go too far in the other direction. In a joke recounted by Freud
in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, a businessman meets a rival at a train station and asks
him where he’s going. The second businessman says he’s going to Minsk. The first one replies, “You’re
telling me you’re going to Minsk because you want me to think you’re going to Pinsk. But I happen to know
that you are going to Minsk. So why are you lying to me?”)
If a speaker and a listener were ever to work through the tacit propositions that underlie their
conversation, the depth of the recursively embedded mental states would be dizzying. The driver offers a
bribe; the officer knows that the driver is offering him a bribe; the driver knows that the officer knows; the
officer knows that the driver knows that the officer knows; and so on. So why don’t they just blurt it out?
Why do a speaker and a hearer willingly take on parts in a dainty comedy of manners?
The polite dinnertime request—what linguists call a whimperative—offers a clue. When you issue a
request, you are presupposing that the hearer will comply. But apart from employees or intimates, you
can’t just boss people around like that. Still, you do want the damn guacamole. The way out of this
dilemma is to couch your request as a stupid question (“Can you . . . ?”), a pointless rumination (“I was
wondering if . . .”), a gross overstatement (“It would be great if you could . . .”), or some other blather that is
so incongruous the hearer can’t take it at face value. She does some quick intuitive psychology to infer
your real intent, and at the same time she senses that you have made an effort not to treat her as a
factotum. A stealth imperative allows you to do two things at once—communicate your request, and signal
your understanding of the relationship.
As we shall see in chapter 8, ordinary conversation is like a session of tête-à-tête diplomacy, in which
the parties explore ways of saving face, offering an “out,” and maintaining plausible deniability as they
negotiate the mix of power, sex, intimacy, and fairness that makes up their relationship. As with real
diplomacy, communiqués that are too subtle, or not subtle enough, can ignite a firestorm. In 1991, the
nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court was nearly derailed by accusations that he
had made sexual overtures to a subordinate, the lawyer Anita Hill. In one of the stranger episodes in the
history of the Senate’s exercise of its power of advice and consent, senators had to decide what Thomas
meant when he spoke to Hill about a porn star named Long Dong Silver and when he asked the rhetorical
question “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?” It’s presumably not what the Framers had in mind when
they formulated the doctrine of the separation of powers, but this kind of question has become a part of
our national discourse. Ever since the Thomas-Hill case put sexual harassment on the national stage, the
adjudication of claims of harassment has been a major headache for universities, businesses, and
government agencies, particularly when a putative come-on is conveyed by innuendo rather than a bald
These tidbits from the news and from the net show some of the ways in which our words connect to our
thoughts, our communities, our emotions, our relationships, and to reality itself. It isn’t surprising that
language supplies so many of the hot potatoes of our public and private life. We are verbivores, a species
that lives on words, and the meaning and use of language are bound to be among the major things we
ponder, share, and dispute.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that these deliberations are really about language itself.
As I will show in chapter 3, language is above all a medium in which we express our thoughts and
feelings, and it mustn’t be confused with the thoughts and feelings themselves. Yet another phenomenon
of language, the symbolism in sound (chapter 6), offers a hint at this conclusion. Without a substrate of
thoughts to underlie our words, we do not truly speak but only babble, blabber, blather, chatter, gibber,

jabber, natter, patter, prattle, rattle, yammer, or yadda, yadda—an onomatopoeic lexicon for empty
speech that makes plain the expectation that the sounds coming out of our mouths are ordinarily about
The rest of this book is about that something: the ideas, feelings, and attachments that are visible
through our language and that make up our nature. Our words and constructions disclose conceptions of
physical reality and human social life that are similar in all cultures but different from the products of our
science and scholarship. They are rooted in our development as individuals, but also in the history of our
language community, and in the evolution of our species. Our ability to combine them into bigger
assemblies and to extend them to new domains by metaphorical leaps goes a long way toward
explaining what makes us smart. But they can also clash with the nature of things, and when they do, the
result can be paradox, folly, and even tragedy. For these reasons I hope to convince you that the three and
a half billion dollars at stake in the interpretation of an “event” is just part of the value of understanding the
worlds of words.


The discovery of a world hidden in a nook or cranny of everyday life is an enduring device in children’s
fiction. The best-known example is Alice stumbling down a rabbit hole to find a surreal underworld, and
the formula continues to enchant in endless variations: the wardrobe passageway to Narnia, the wrinkle in
time, the subtle knife, Whoville in a speck of dust.1
In nonfiction as well, the revelation of a microcosm is a recurring source of fascination. In 1968, the
designers Charles and Ray Eames made a film called Powers of Ten, which began with a view of galaxy
clusters a billion light-years across, and zoomed by tenfold leaps to reveal our galaxy, solar system,
planet, and so on, down to a picnicker asleep in a park, to his hand, his cells, his DNA, a carbon atom,
and finally the atomic nucleus and its particles sixteen orders of magnitude smaller. This magnificent
unfurling of physical reality can be seen in a companion book by the film’s scientific consultants, Philip
and Phyllis Morrison, and the idea has recently been adapted to one of the most enjoyable ways to waste
time on the Web: zooming smoothly from a photograph of the Earth taken from space through seven
orders of magnitude of satellite photographs down to a pigeon’s-eye view of your street and house.
This chapter is about my own stumbling upon a microcosm—the world of basic human ideas and their
connections—in the course of trying to solve what I thought was a mundane problem in psycholinguistics.
It is a hidden world that I had glimpsed not by training a telescope on its whereabouts from the start but
because it kept peeking out from under the phenomena I thought I was studying. By taking you through the
layers of mental organization that must be exploded to make sense of the problem, I hope to offer you a
view of this inner world.2
The rabbit hole that leads to this microcosm is the verb system of English—what verbs mean, how they
are used in sentences, and how children figure it all out. This chapter will try to show you how cracking
these problems led to epiphanies about the contents of cognition that serve as leitmotifs of this book. Why
leap into the world of the mind through this particular opening? One reason, I confess, is personal: I simply
find verbs fascinating. (A colleague once remarked, “They really are your little friends, aren’t they?”) But as
every enthusiast knows, other people can’t be counted on to share one’s passion, and I like to think I have
a better reason to introduce you to my little friends.
Science proceeds by studying particulars. No one has ever gotten a grant to study “the human mind.”
One has to study something more tractable, and when fortune smiles, a general law may reveal itself in
the process. In the first chapter I introduced four ideas:
• The human mind can construe a particular scenario in multiple ways.
• Each construal is built around a few basic ideas, like “event,” “cause,” “change,” and “intend.”
• These ideas can be extended metaphorically to other domains, as when we count events as if they were objects or
when we use space as a metaphor for time.
• Each idea has distinctively human quirks that make it useful for reasoning about certain things but that can lead to
fallacies and confusions when we try to apply it more broadly.

These claims may strike you as reasonable enough, but not particularly meaty—just four out of hundreds
of platitudes that could be listed as true of our thought processes. In this chapter I hope to show that they

are more than that. In solving the problem of how children learn verbs, each of these hypotheses served
as a puzzle piece that took a long time to find but then fit perfectly into its slot, together completing an
attractive picture of the whole. This offers some confidence that the themes of this book are real
discoveries about the mind, not just innocuous comments about it.
My plan is as follows. First I will take you on a plunge from the intergalactic perspective to the quark’seye view, showing how a general curiosity about how the mind works can lead to an interest in verbs and
how children learn them.
Then we will bump up against a paradox—a case in which children seem to learn the unlearnable. Isaac
Asimov once wrote, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is
not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny. . . .’” The following section presents a discovery—the mind’s
ability to flip between frames—that was the crucial opening to solve the paradox.
The remaining parts of the solution bring us face to face with two of the basic concepts in our mental
inventory, moving and changing. The same line of reasoning, applied to other verbs, illuminates the other
major elements our thoughts are built from: the concepts of having, knowing, and helping, and the
concepts of acting, intending, and causing.
From there we step back up to reflect on what it all means. We will consider whether the signs of
intelligent design in the English language imply a corresponding intelligence in every English speaker—a
question that will recur throughout the book as we try to use language as a window into human nature. I will
then suggest an inventory of basic human thoughts, ones that will be unpacked in later chapters. Finally, I
will show how design quirks in these basic thoughts give rise to fallacies, follies, and foibles in the way
that people reason about the conundrums of modern life.

Let me now take you, in a few turns of the zoom lens, from a wide concern with human nature to a closeup look at how children learn verbs.
The first, galaxy-wide view is of the human mind and its remarkable powers. It’s easy for us humans,
safe inside our well-functioning minds, to be jaded about the mundane activities of cognition and to attend
instead to the extraordinary and the lurid. But the science of mind begins with a recognition that ordinary
mental activities—seeing, hearing, remembering, moving, planning, reasoning, speaking—require our
brains to solve fractious engineering problems.3 Despite the immense hazard and cost of manned space
flight, most plans for planetary exploration still envision blasting people into the solar system. Partly it’s
because of the drama of following an intrepid astronaut in exploring strange new worlds rather than a
silicon chip, but mainly it’s because no foreseeable robot can match an ordinary person’s ability to
recognize unexpected objects and situations, decide what to do about them, and manipulate things in
unanticipated ways, all while exchanging information with humans back home. Understanding how these
faculties of mind work is a frontier of modern science.
Among these magnificent faculties, pride of place must go to language—ubiquitous across the
species, unique in the animal kingdom, inextricable from social life and from the mastery of civilization
and technology, devastating when lost or impaired.4
Language figures in human life in many ways. We inform, we request, we persuade, we interrogate, we
orate, and sometimes we just schmooze. But the most remarkable thing we do with language is learn it in
the first place.5 Babies are born into the world not knowing a word of the language being spoken around
them. Yet in just three years, without the benefit of lessons, most of them will be talking a blue streak, with
a vocabulary of thousands of words, a command of the grammar of the spoken vernacular, and a
proficiency with the sound pattern (what tourist isn’t momentarily amazed at how well the little children in
France speak French!). Children deploy the code of syntax unswervingly enough to understand
improbable events like a cow jumping over the moon and a dish running away with the spoon, or to share
their childlike aperçus like “I think the wind wants to get in out of the rain” or “I often wonder when people
pass me by do they wonder about me.”6
To become so fluent in a language, children must have analyzed the speech around them, not just
memorized it. We see this clearly when children say things that sound wrong to adult ears but that reveal
acute hypotheses about how the ingredients of language may combine. When children make errors like
“All the animals are wake-upped,” “Don’t tickle me; I’m laughable,” or “Mommy, why did he dis it appear?”
they could not have been imitating their parents. They must have extracted the mental equivalent of
grammatical rules that add suffixes to words and arrange verbs and particles in phrases.
The triumph of language acquisition is even more impressive when we consider that a talking child has
solved a knotty instance of the problem of induction: observing a finite sample of events and framing a
generalization that embraces the infinite set from which the events are drawn.7 Scientists engage in
induction when they go beyond their data and put forward laws that make predictions about cases they
haven’t observed, such as that gas under pressure will be absorbed by a liquid, or that warm-blooded
animals have larger body sizes at higher latitudes. Philosophers of science call induction a “scandal”
because there are an infinite number of generalizations that are consistent with any set of observations,
and no strictly logical basis for choosing among them.8 There is no guarantee that a law discovered this
year will continue to hold next year, no limit to the number of smooth curves that can connect a set of
points on a graph, and, upon glimpsing a black sheep in Scotland, no strictly logical reason for choosing
among the conclusions that all sheep in Scotland are black, that at least one sheep in Scotland is black,
and that at least one sheep in Scotland is black on at least one side. As Mark Twain wrote, science is
fascinating because “one gets such wholesale returns on conjecture out of such a trifling investment in
fact.” Yet the returns keep coming. Philosophers of science argue that theories are not just peeled off the
data but constrained beforehand by reasonable assumptions about the way the universe works, such as

that nature is lawful and that simpler theories that fit the data are more likely to be true than complex ones.
As children learn their mother tongue, they, too, are solving an induction problem. When listening to
their parents and siblings, they can’t just file away every sentence and draw on that list in the future, or they
would be as mindless as parrots. Nor can they throw together all the words they have found in any order
they please. They have to extract a set of rules that will allow them to understand and express new
thoughts, and do it in a way that is consistent with the speech patterns used by those around them. The
induction problem arises because ambient speech offers countless opportunities for the child to leap on
seductive yet false generalizations. For instance, as children learn how to ask questions, they should be
able to go from He ate the green eggs with ham to What did he eat? and What did he eat the green
eggs with? But from He ate the green eggs and ham they should not be able to ask What did he eat the
green eggs and? To take another example: the sentences Harriet appeared to Sam to be strong and
Harriet appealed to Sam to be strong differ by only the curl of the tongue in a single consonant. Yet their
meanings (in particular, who is supposed to be the strong one) are completely different. A child hearing
one sentence should not generalize its interpretation to the other just because they sound so similar.
In cracking the code of language, then, children’s minds must be constrained to pick out just the right
kinds of generalizations from the speech around them. They can’t get sidetracked by how sentences
sound but must dig into the grammatical structure hidden in the words and their arrangement. It is this line
of reasoning that led the linguist Noam Chomsky to propose that language acquisition in children is the
key to understanding the nature of language, and that children must be equipped with an innate Universal
Grammar: a set of plans for the grammatical machinery that powers all human languages.9 This idea
sounds more controversial than it is (or at least more controversial than it should be) because the logic of
induction mandates that children make some assumptions about how language works in order for them to
succeed at learning a language at all.10 The only real controversy is what these assumptions consist of: a
blueprint for a specific kind of rule system, a set of abstract principles, or a mechanism for finding simple
patterns (which might also be used in learning things other than language).11 The scientific study of
language acquisition aims to characterize the child’s built-in analyzers for language, whatever they turn out
to be.
Language itself is not a single system but a contraption with many components. To understand how
children learn a language, it’s helpful to focus on one of these components rather than try to explain
everything at once. There are components that assemble sounds into words, and words into phrases and
sentences. And each of these components must interface with brain systems driving the mouth, the ear,
one’s memory for words and concepts, one’s plans for what to say, and the mental resources for updating
one’s knowledge as speech comes in.
The component that organizes words into sentences and determines what they mean is called syntax.
Syntax itself encompasses several mechanisms, which are tapped to different extents by different
languages. They include putting words in the right order, enforcing agreement between elements like the
subject and the verb, and keeping track of special words that have their fingers in two places in the
sentence at once (such as the what in What do you want?—it serves as both the element being
questioned and the thing that is wanted).
One of the key phenomena of syntax is the way that sentences are built around their verbs. The
phenomenon goes by many technical names (including subcategorization, diathesis, predicate-argument
structure, valence, adicity, arity, case structure, and theta-role assignment), but I’ll refer to it using the
traditional term verb constructions.12
Most people already know something about verb constructions in the form of a dim memory of the
distinction between intransitive and transitive verbs. Intransitive verbs like snore appear without a direct
object, as in Max snored; it sounds odd to say Max snored a racket. Transitive verbs like sprain require a
direct object, as in Shirley sprained her ankle; it sounds odd to say Shirley sprained. The transitive and
intransitive constructions are the tip of an iceberg. English also has verbs that require an oblique object
(an object introduced by a preposition), as in The swallow darted into a cave, verbs that require an object
and an oblique object, as in They funneled rum into the jugs, and verbs that require a sentence
complement, as in She realized that she would have to get rid of her wolverines. A book by the linguist
Beth Levin classifies three thousand English verbs into about eighty-five classes based on the

constructions they appear in; its subtitle is A Preliminary Investigation.
A verb, then, is not just a word that refers to an action or state but the chassis of the sentence. It is a
framework with receptacles for the other parts—the subject, the object, and various oblique objects and
subordinate clauses—to be bolted onto. Then a simple sentence held together by a verb can be inserted
into a more inclusive sentence, which can be inserted into a still more inclusive sentence, and so on
without limit (as in the old sign “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not
sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”).
The information packed into a verb not only organizes the nucleus of the sentence but goes a long way
toward determining its meaning. We see this most clearly in sentences that differ only in their choice of
verb, like Barbara caused an injury and Barbara sustained an injury, where Barbara is involved in the
event in completely different ways. The same is true for Norm in Norm gave a pashmina and Norm
received a pashmina. You can’t figure out what a sentence means by guessing that the subject is the
doer and the object is the done-to; you also have to check with the verb. The entry for the verb give in the
mental dictionary indicates in some way that its subject is the giver and its object the gift. The entry for
receive says in some way that its subject is the recipient and its object the gift. The difference between
Harriet appearing to Sam to be brave and appealing to Sam to be brave shows that the different
schemes for casting actors into roles can be quite intricate.
A good way to appreciate the role of verb constructions in language is to ponder jokes that hinge on an
ambiguity between them: same words, different constructions. An old example is this exchange: “Call me
a taxi.” “OK, you’re a taxi.”13 According to a frequently e-mailed list of badly translated hotel signs, a
Norwegian cocktail lounge sported the notice “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.” In
The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter (a.k.a. Hannibal the Cannibal) taunts his pursuer by saying, “I
do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” And in his autobiography the
comedian Dick Gregory recounts an episode from the 1960s: “Last time I was down South I walked into
this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, We don’t serve colored people here. I
said, That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”14
The constructions that a verb may appear in depend in part on its meaning. It’s no coincidence that
snore is intransitive, snoring being an activity that one accomplishes without anyone’s help, and that kiss
is transitive, since a kiss ordinarily requires both a kisser and a kissee. According to a long-standing
assumption in linguistics (accepted both in Chomsky’s theory and in some of its rivals, like Charles
Fillmore’s Case Grammar), the way that the meaning of a verb affects the constructions it appears in is by
specifying a small number of roles that the nouns can play. 15 (These roles go by many names, including
semantic roles, case roles, semantic relations, thematic relations, and theta roles.) A verb with just an
actor (like the snorer in snore) likes to be intransitive, naturally enough, with the actor as the subject. A
verb with an agent and an acted-upon entity (like a kisser and a kissee) likes to be transitive, with the
agent as the subject and the acted-upon as the object. And verbs that talk about things moving from place
to place (like the verb move itself) also take one or more oblique objects, like a from-phrase for the
source of the movement and a to-phrase for its goal.
Nonetheless, it has long been known that the fit between the scenario behind a verb and the
constructions it may appear in is highly inexact. Ultimately it’s the verb itself, not the underlying concept,
that has the final say. For instance, a given concept like “eating” can underlie both a transitive verb, as in
devour the pâté (you can’t say Olga devoured), and an intransitive one, as in dine (you can’t say Olga
dined the pâté). And in thousands of cases a verb refuses to appear in constructions that would seem to
make perfect sense, given the verb’s meaning. Based on meaning alone, one would expect that it would
be natural to say Sal rumored that Flo would quit, or The city destroyed, or Boris arranged Maria to
come. But while these sentences are perfectly understandable, they sound odd to an English speaker’s
In order for children to acquire an English speaker’s ears, they must somehow learn this whole system:
what each verb means, which constructions it naturally appears in, and which roles are played by the
various nouns that accompany it in a sentence. This is the rabbit hole that I invite you to explore—one that
leads to the world of human ideas and the dramas they engage in.
Before we descend into this world, I owe you an explanation of what it means to claim that “you can’t

say this” or “such-and-such is ungrammatical.” These judgments are the most commonly used empirical
data in linguistics: a sentence under a certain interpretation and in a certain context is classified as
grammatical, ungrammatical, or having various degrees of iffiness. 16 These judgments aren’t meant to
accredit a sentence as being correct or incorrect in some objective sense (whatever that would mean),
nor are they legislated by some council of immortals like the Académie Française. Designating a
sentence as “ungrammatical” simply means that native speakers tend to avoid the sentence, cringe when
they hear it, and judge it as sounding odd.
Note too that when a sentence is deemed ungrammatical, it might still be used in certain
circumstances. There are special constructions, for example, in which English speakers use transitive
verbs intransitively, as when a parent says to a child Justin bites—I don’t want you to bite. There are also
circumstances in which we can use intransitive verbs transitively, as when we say Jesus died a long,
painful death. And we all stretch the language a bit when we paint ourselves into a syntactic corner or
can’t find any other way to say what we mean, as in I would demur that Kepler deserves second place
after Newton, or That really threatened the fear of God into the radio people. Calling a sentence
ungrammatical means that it sounds odd “all things being equal”—that is, in a neutral context, under its
conventional meaning, and with no special circumstances in force.
Some people raise an eyebrow at linguists’ practice of treating their own sentence judgments as
objective empirical data. The danger is that a linguist’s pet theory could unconsciously warp his or her
judgments. It’s a legitimate worry, but in practice linguistic judgments can go a long way. One of the
perquisites of research on basic cognitive processes is that you always have easy access to a specimen
of the species you study, namely, yourself. When I was a student in a perception lab I asked my advisor
when we would stop generating tones to listen to and start doing the research. He corrected me: listening
to the tones was research, as far as he was concerned, since he was confident that if a sequence
sounded a certain way to him, it would sound that way to every other normal member of the species. As a
sanity check (and to satisfy journal referees) we would eventually pay students to listen to the sounds and
press buttons according to what they heard, but the results always ratified what we could hear with our
own ears. I’ve followed the same strategy in psycholinguistics, and in dozens of studies I’ve found that the
average ratings from volunteers have always lined up with the original subjective judgments of the

Put yourself in the booties of a child who is in the midst of figuring out how to speak the language as it is
spoken by parents, friends, and siblings. You have learned a few thousand words, and have an inkling (not
conscious, of course) of the difference between subjects, verbs, objects, and oblique objects. The verbs
keep coming in, and as you learn them you have to figure out how you can use them. Just knowing what a
verb means isn’t enough, because, as we saw, verbs with similar meanings can appear in different
constructions (like dine and devour, or hinted and rumored); you have to pay attention to which
participants accompany the verb in the sentence.
For instance, say you’ve heard load in a sentence for the first time, such as Hal is loading hay into the
wagon. Say you have an idea of what the words mean, and from watching what’s going on, you can see
that Hal is pitching hay into a wagon. A safe bet is to file away the information that load can appear in a
sentence with a subject, which expresses the loader (Hal); an object, which expresses the contents being
moved (the hay); and an object of into, which expresses the container (the wagon). You can now say or
understand new examples with the same verb in the same construction, like May loaded some compost
into the wheelbarrow. (Linguists call this the content-locative construction, because the contents being
moved are focused upon in the object of the sentence.) But that’s as far as you go—you don’t venture into
saying May loaded (meaning she loaded something into something else), or May loaded into the
So far so good. In a little while you hear load in a new construction, like Hal loaded the wagon with hay.
Once again hay is being pitched into the wagon, and as far as you can see, the sentence has the same
meaning as the familiar sentence Hal loaded hay into the wagon. You can add an addendum in your
mental dictionary to the entry for load: the verb can also appear in a construction with a subject (the
loader), an object (the container, such as a wagon), and an object of with (the contents, such as the hay).
Linguists call this the container-locative construction, because now it’s the container that’s being focused
As you continue to hoover up verbs over the months and years, you encounter other verbs that behave
like load: they appear in two synonymous constructions but differ in whether it is the content or the
container that shows up as the direct object:
Jared sprayed water on the roses.
Jared sprayed the roses with water.
Betsy splashed paint onto the wall.
Betsy splashed the wall with paint.
Jeremy rubbed oil into the wood.
Jeremy rubbed the wood with oil.
This is starting to look like a pattern (what linguists call an alternation), and now you face a critical choice.
Do you keep accumulating these pairs of verbs, filing them away pair by pair? Or do you make a leap of
faith and assume that any verb that appears in one of these constructions can appear in the other one?
That generalization could be put to work by coining a rule that more or less says, “If a verb can appear in a
content-locative construction, then it can also appear in a container-locative construction, and vice versa.”
With this rule (which we can call the locative rule) in hand, you could hear someone say brush paint onto
the fence and then surmise that brush the fence with paint is fine, without having actually heard it.
Likewise, if you hear Babs stuffed the turkey with breadcrumbs, you can assume that Babs stuffed
breadcrumbs into the turkey is also OK.
It’s a small step toward mastering the language, but a step in the right direction. English is crawling with
families of constructions that admit verbs interchangeably, and if children can dig out the patterns and
extend them to new verbs, they can multiply their learning speed by the average number of constructions

per verb. This could be an important path to becoming a fluent and open-ended speaker of the language,
as opposed to one who simply regurgitates a small number of formulas.
There is only one problem. When the locative rule is applied willy-nilly, it cranks out many errors. For
example, if you apply it to Amy poured water into the glass, you get Amy poured the glass with water,
which English speakers reject (as I’ve verified in questionnaires).18 You can also get into trouble when you
apply it in the other direction, to verbs like fill: though the input, Bobby filled the glass with water, is fine,
the output, Bobby filled water into the glass, is not (again, a survey bears this out).19 And these aren’t
isolated exceptions. Many other verbs resist being fed into the maw of the locative rule. Here are four
other unhappy campers, two of them verbs that like only the content-locative, and two that like only the
container-locative. (Following the usual convention in linguistics, I’ve put an asterisk next to the sentences
that sound odd to native speakers.)
Tex nailed posters onto the board.
*Tex nailed the board with posters.
Serena coiled a rope around the pole.
*Serena coiled the pole with a rope.
Ellie covered the bed with an afghan.
*Ellie covered an afghan onto the bed.
Jimmy drenched his jacket with beer.
*Jimmy drenched beer into his jacket.
That’s funny. . . . Why should the second sentence in each pair sound so odd? It’s not that the iffy
sentences are unintelligible. No one could be in doubt as to the meaning of Amy poured the glass with
water or Jimmy drenched beer into his jacket. But language is not just whatever set of ways people can
think of to get a message across. Children, in the long run, end up with a fastidious protocol that
sometimes rules out perfectly good ways of communicating. But why? How do children succeed in
acquiring an infinite language when the rules they are tempted to postulate just get them into trouble by
generating constructions that other speakers choke on? How do they figure out that certain stubborn
verbs can’t appear in perfectly good constructions?
An equivalent puzzle arises if you invert the way you think about the problem and make the child the
master and the language the slave. How did the English language come down to us with all those
exceptional verbs, given that they should have been whipped into conformity by the first generation of
children faced with learning them?
There are three ways out of this paradox, but none of them is palatable. The first is that we (and the
hypothetical child we have been imagining) have framed the rule too broadly. Maybe the real locative rule
is restricted to a subset of verbs sharing an overlooked trait, and children somehow figure out the
restriction and append it as a codicil to the rule. But if there is such a trait, it’s far from obvious, because
the verbs that submit to the rule and the ones that resist it are quite close in meaning. For example, pour,
fill, and load are all ways of moving something somewhere, and they all have the same cast of characters:
a mover, some contents that move, and a container that is the goal of the movement. Yet pour allows only
the content-locative (pour water), fill allows only the container-locative (fill the glass), and load goes both
ways (load the hay, load the wagon).
The second option is that children don’t coin these rules at all. Maybe they really do file away in memory
just those combinations of verbs and constructions they have heard in the speech of their elders, and
conservatively stick to just those combinations. Under this theory, they would be like Marvin in the
eponymous comic strip on the following page.

Well, that would certainly solve the problem. Children would never be tempted to say pour the cup with