Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ask The Verb: My brain is already melting

The questions continue to come in. I can't promise to answer them all, let alone quickly, but I'll try. Here's the next one …
Dear Mr. Verb-

My husband Bruce has been teaching himself Russian for the past year and has found some Russian email penpals who want to improve their English, so everyone benefits.

One penpal wrote the following in an email, in English: "I like to ask my grandma about that." Bruce thought this might be a misstatement of "I would like to ask my grandma about that", but no, the penpal said it was meant as it was written: he enjoys regularly asking his grandma about whatever it is he asks her.

As a card-carrying English major I agreed with Bruce that this sentence sounds slightly awkward to us, though grammatically it seems well formed, particularly if restated slightly ("I like to ask my grandma about these things"). It seems even better stated as "I like asking my grandma about that", which is where the question of a gerund comes in.

Apparently some verbs of preference or affinity take a gerund form after the first verb: I adore asking my grandma (never I adore to ask), I dislike asking my grandma (never I dislike to ask). But despite my card-carrying status, I cannot find a linguistic rationale for the perceived awkwardness of "I like to ask my grandma about that".

In Russian one can imagine this sentence being used with an imperfective verb to enhance the repetitive/unfinished nature of the action, and the syntax would reflect this. English doesn't have this, so we're left with an ambiguity in what is otherwise a sincere effort to communicate the speaker's delight in asking his grandma about something.

Are we wrong to perceive awkwardness in the sentence? Or is there a deeper complexity at work?

Many thanks for your enlightened response.

Wow, what a nice, carefully crafted letter. Thank you. I'm not quite sure about that sentence and be forewarned: This is a corner of the world I really know nothing about. First, with a speaker of a Slavic language, I would automatically have my aspectual radar scanning, so might get hypersensitive in this situation.

Out of context, it does sound odd to me, because like to V is a repeated action, and that sounds like it might be a single piece of information, something you wouldn't ask about repeatedly. "Does she read Tolstoy? I like to ask her about that." That doesn't work pragmatically or semantically. Even with a general topic ("What does she remember from the old days? I like to ask her about that."), it seems vaguely odd, unless you have a situation where repeatedly asking about the same thing is appropriate: "She meets the most amazing people every day and always has great stories about them. I like to ask her about that." Your first reformulation is along those lines, I think. For me, it doesn't seem like I like asking changes the above.

I turned to Monica for advice on this one:
Monica sez: Well, I agree with Mr. Verb — it all depends on context. And my first thought about what was weird about the sentence was exactly what Mr. V wrote — that the weirdness may come from the conflict between the habitual (which is the unmarked interpretation of present tense in English*), which implies doing something more than once, and the singular "that" - there's just a pragmatic problem with asking habitually about a single thing. ("Gramma, is it Tuesday?" "Gramma, is it Tuesday?" "Gramma, is it Tuesday?")

* This was just to let me footnote that this does of course vary between stative and active (or "dynamic" or whatever you want to call them) verbs. But let's not go there. Please.
So, this probably isn't really satisfying, but I'll keep chewing. In the meantime, people who actually know something about the area are invited to chime in!


Sky Onosson said...

For me, this would be completely well-formed if restated as "I like to ask my grandma about stuff/things". I wonder if this is what the Russian penpal meant? If so, maybe it's just an awkward use of "that" with a generic meaning?

Disclaimer: I am not one of those people who know about these kinds of things.

Rick S said...

Mr. V, I think you're exactly right. Pragmatics is the key. Consider a couple more examples within their discourse context:

1. What does "schadenfreude" mean? Well, here's an example: My mom gets embarassed about having been a tomboy as a kid. When we visit Grandma, I like to ask her about that.

2. Grandma suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, and can't remember recent events, but she derives great joy from talking about her youth in the Old Country. When I visit, I like to ask her about that.

We usually use "ask about" when inquiring for a particular piece of information, and doing so repetitively (as implied by "like to") would usually be considered annoying or bizarre. But when the purpose is something else (say, to be deliberately annoying, or to please someone who enjoys answering) the repetition can make sense.

"Ask about" works--barely--when prompting for stories on a general topic, but a more likely phrasing for that would be "I like to talk to my grandma about that" which implies an exploratory dialog covering a range of facts.

Or so I see it. (Same disclaimer)

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks to both of you. I haven't figured out anything more about this.

The Ridger, FCD said...

The key is "that" - what does it mean? Secondary is the use of "ask" when I think "talk with" would be better.

Shannon said...

I teach ESL and while as an American I don't find this rule true personally, I've seen stated in a few places (all referring to British English) that "I like to _verb_" is used to refer to something that we do because we feel it is proper or correct to do -- so "I like to wake up early in the morning.", whereas "I like _verb-ing_" we use to refer to something we enjoy doing, "I like eating bacon on Sunday."

If there is even a slight bit of overflow of this idea into American English, this might explain why it sounds odd but is not actually wrong.