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Make Me a Sandwich: A Joke About Verbs

When Nora says, "Make me a sandwich," Bert responds, "Poof! You're a sandwich!" It's a funny joke (sometimes), but does Bert have a point about the grammar and meaning of the sentence? Neal Whitman explains.

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty ,
November 14, 2014
Episode #442

Of course, Bert is correct that you can avoid the ambiguity of Make me a sandwich by saying Make a sandwich for me. By using me as the object of the preposition for, instead of as an indirect object, you kill the “Poof! You’re a sandwich!” punchline before it’s even a possibility. Even so, Make me a sandwich is shorter than Make a sandwich for me, and is just as grammatical as other sentences with ditransitive verbs, such as Fix me a sandwich. Moreover, there will always be sentences with multiple meanings, in whatever language you speak, and it doesn’t make sense to declare that only one of those meanings is grammatical when that happens. In fact, Make a sandwich for me is ambiguous, too. Does it mean “Make a sandwich for me to eat,” or does it mean “I’m too busy to make a sandwich to pack in our child’s lunch right now, so could you do it for me?”

Furthermore, which misunderstanding is more likely? Someone making your favorite sandwich when you wanted them to make your son's or daughter’s favorite sandwich, or someone making your favorite sandwich when what you really wanted was for them to turn you into a sandwich? Personally speaking, that’s only happened to me once or twice.

That was written by Neal Whitman who has a PhD in linguistics, blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to the online resource Visual Thesaurus.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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