A fine distinction from Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:

Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.

From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’

‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.

I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.

21 Responses to A fine distinction from Philip K. Dick

  1. 2015ttstart says:

    I remember the question of how many Swedish berries we were allowed to have. Was it a couple, a few, or (very rarely), a bunch?

    Another one: being “at” a house when you are actually at a house near the one where you say you are.

    Clearly, ethics in development.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Jesse, this reminds of when I overheard someone say into his phone, ‘I’m just passing the shop now’, when he was about half a mile from the nearest shop and obviously in no rush at all. A common enough little lie, I suspect.

  2. astraya says:

    Mother: “Johnny, are you spitting in the goldfish bowl?” Johnny: “No mum, but I’m gettin’ close!”

  3. Thomas Denney says:

    We get even better with age, which is why police and attorneys must rephrase the question several times to make sure there is no “plausibly deniable” prevarication.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Good point, Thomas. There’s a strong parallel with legal language in that ambiguity can be misinterpreted, often wilfully, for personal gain. One example that struck me recently was when a woman in Ohio had her parking citation dismissed because of a missing comma in the legislation.

      • Thomas Denney says:

        Ah, yes, when it comes to legislation, its up to them to get it right. I applaud her for going up against the government. But when it comes to commas, my favorite example is the little book, Eats Shoots and Leaves. Add commas and you’re no longer talking about a panda.

      • Stan Carey says:

        ‘Eats(,) shoots and leaves’, with assorted variants, was of course a joke in general use before Truss chose it as a book title. I like the phrase as an illustration of ambiguity; I don’t much care for the book.

  4. cynthiamvoss says:

    The hyper-literalness of kids definitely keeps me on my toes. And also explains why sometimes I feel like I can’t speak to other adults in a normal way lol. You get so used to having things you say nitpicked and/or misinterpreted by the kids all day long that you don’t remember how to interact with normal people :-)

  5. I am 57 years old and I still totally do this. Unfortunately I cannot at the moment think of an example (maybe, for those who know what I mean, it could be applied to hiding the afikomen at the Passover seder), but it would be along the lines of someone asking me, “Do you have my ____?” And without even crossing my fingers behind my back, I can honestly say “no.” I mean, you can search me, because I truly don’t have it…at least, not ON me. I stashed it somewhere, of course…

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an interesting example. In some circumstances this kind of tweaking of the cooperative principle can be part of a social game or at least harmless to the parties concerned.

  6. 2015ttstart says:

    Speaking of theblueblird11’s comment: This reminds me of telling the “helpful” truth, or the “unhelpful” truth.

    There’s something to be said for simply not supplying ALL the information you have.

  7. Rain, Rain says:

    Lawyers whose clients are being deposed instruct them not to volunteer information; a classic example is that the proper answer to the question, “Do you have the time?” is: “Yes.”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Good thing I chose that example then.

      • Rain, Rain says:

        Oops. Not sure what happened to the rest of my comment… well, it’s gone to data heaven. Anyway, it went like this: something, something, something… and horrifying counterexamples aside, close parsings of legal utterances and texts are a feature of the legal system, not a bug. That’s why, in the parking ticket story you mentioned above, the judge was perfectly right to interpret (not misinterpret) the parking statute as he did. The law clearly and unambiguously referred to a “motor vehicle camper,” which is really a thing, and the judge correctly recognized that a pickup truck is not one of those things. His interpretation didn’t make nonsense of the law, so it was permissible, and furthermore the time-honored Rule of Lenity counsels judges to interpret criminal laws (of which traffic laws are a minor branch) in favor of the accused, to the extent reasonably possible.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Yes, agreed. And sometimes it takes an absurdity to spot an oversight in the legislation. At least in this case it was relatively trivial.

  8. […] (vaguely) related reading, see the semantic scope of Martian, a fine distinction from Philip K. Dick, and other posts on language acquisition […]

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