Story Interpretation

     The figure below contains the story, The Lost Pocket. This is a very simple story taken from an old second grade reader (a politically incorrect reader it should be noted).

     The bottom of the figure annotates the linguistic form of the first three sentences of the story. The first two sentences are imperative sentences; the syntactic form typically associated with commands. The third sentence uses the modal term 'may' which is typically associated with giving permission,

     Thus the linguistic form of the sentence would suggest that Mother is commanding Mary to put on her red dress. Similarly, the linguistic form of the third sentence would suggest that Mother is giving Mary permission to go to the store for her.

     But note, commands are typically given when it is assumed that the person is unlikely to be motivated to do the action without someone in authority giving an explicit command. And permission is typically given when someone is motivated to do the act, but doesn't have the authority to do so without the permission. Mary's reaction to the command to put on her red dress suggests that Mary was quite motivated to do so.

     If this is true then why did Mother command Mary to put on the red dress? Did Mother think that Mary didn't like to wear that dress? And Mary didn't remark at all on receiving permission to go to the store. Was Mary not really yearning to go to the store for Mother?

     Or was Mary quite motivated to put on her red dress and rather indifferent about going to the store for Mother? If so, was Mother badly out of touch with Mary's true motivation or was Mother doing something else?

     One point of view is that in order to really understand linguistic utterances we must go beyond a linguistic analysis. On this view, linguistic utterances, must be viewed as actions--speech acts. We must determine what speech acts are being performed, not merely the linguistic meaning of the sentences. Perhaps the Mother's utterances are really an attempt to persuade Mary to do this errand for her. Mother allows Betty to do something she wants, putting on the red dress; and, in gratitude Mary does something her Mother wants, going to the store for her.

     Thus, understanding the "literal meaning" is not enough; how this literal meaning is being used is what must be inferred. If someone says, "It is stuffy in here;" they may not be all that interested in informing you of that fact but more interested in requesting you to do something about it. Thus, none of us would be surprised if someone opened a window in response to such utterance.


Understanding, Interpreting and Remembering Events

© Charles F. Schmidt