Most English-speaking adults know intuitively that the word blackmail can be either a noun or a verb—and that the word shows up in conversation less frequently than does either black or mail. We also know, from direct experience or Law and Order reruns, quite a bit about how blackmail works. There are the tools of the trade (an incriminating photograph, letter, or recorded conversation), the usual suspects (a jilted lover, a resentful employee), and the victims (wealthy politicians, wealthy anyone). And since the more a sentence fits our expectations about it, the easier it is for us to comprehend, we’re generally faster to understand a sentence like The jilted lover used a photograph to blackmail the wealthy politician than a sentence like The doting grandmother used a fork to blackmail the sleepy child.
But some psychologists and linguists have suggested that as well as storing knowledge about the likelihood of anyone blackmailing a sleepy child, we may also have—and indeed favor—knowledge about the types of people or objects that absolutely cannot be blackmailed: namely non-sentient beings.
A few years ago, Tessa Warren and Kerry McConnell, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, presented undergraduates with sentences of three different types: those that were both possible and plausible (e.g., The man used a strainer to dry the thin spaghetti yesterday evening), those that were possible but not plausible (The man used a blow dryer to dry the thin spaghetti yesterday evening), and sentences that were both impossible and implausible (The man used a photo to blackmail the thin spaghetti yesterday evening). Although a separate group of undergraduates had rated the latter two sentence types as equally implausible, the impossible sentences were quicker to disrupt participants than were the merely implausible ones. The researchers take this as evidence that we store selectional restrictions limiting who or what can appear as a direct object for any given verb and, furthermore, that we apply these restrictions earlier than we apply our everyday knowledge about the world. In a sense, the argument goes, we can understand the “wrongness” of blackmailing a nonliving creature before we’ve considered the event in its entirety.
To me, an interesting question is why selectional restrictions would be helpful for readers or listeners. On the one hand, they could help in immediately noting mismatches between a verb and its direct object: why waste precious mental resources on the rest of the sentence when it so obviously will prove meaningless? But on the other hand, speed often comes with inflexibility, and the world is a funny place. We’re used to adapting to otherwise extraordinary circumstances: plenty of studies suggest that contextualizing even the strangest sentence is enough to make it seem perfectly fine to us. (For proof, see the episode of the television show Black Adder called “Beer.”)
Say, for instance, that you are watching a play geared toward teaching a young audience about the food pyramid. Actors are dressed as apples, bananas, broccoli, and fistfuls of raw spaghetti. Of the two actors dressed as spaghetti, one is rather heavy. The other is thin. Might the thin spaghetti then be a sentient, blackmailable being? Has our impossible sentence suddenly become possible? Has it become, if not plausible, at least … okay?
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