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Saturday, March 18, 2023

Is the ham green?

A break for something non-serious. Although Rick and Paul still might believe me wrong:

"I do not like green eggs and ham." What color is the ham on the dish that Sam-I-Am does not like?

The cover shows both as green--he does not green eggs together with green ham. But in my mind, I always have read green to modify eggs, while ham is unmodified--he does not like green eggs together with ham, regardless of the color of the ham.

If we focus on author intent, presumably Geisel signed off on the cover and his intent is that both food products are green. But is that the best interpretation of that language? What do ordinary rules of English and statutory construction tell us?Green_Eggs_and_Ham

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 18, 2023 at 12:35 PM in Howard Wasserman | Permalink


Luckily, we don't have this interpretive problem in Spanish, Dutch, or Deutsch:

In all three languages, the 'and' in the title was replaced by 'with'

To wit:

Huevos verdes con jamón - Groene eieren met ham - Grünes Ei mit Speck

But see the Latin version: Virent ova! Viret perna! (2003, Latin, ISBN 0865165556)

Further translingual tidbit: In the German version the eggs go to singular and Speck is actually bacon, not ham. The latter would be Schinken. Then, there would be the problem of the adjective endings having to match gender and singular or plural of the noun.

Concluding observation: Non-Doctor Geisel likely intended to entertain and educate little humans with limited language capacity and vocabulary and wasn't intent on puzzling legal types.

Posted by: Wolfgang P. Hirczy de Mino | Mar 23, 2023 5:44:34 PM

I appreciate the additional details though was generally making a wider point about book covers generally.

This sort of flows into Asher's points, which overall, I think are well taken.

These "rules" take a variety of things into consideration. If it was so obvious, we wouldn't have as many disputes. The opinion handed down today, for instance, at one point noted two arguments were reasonably possible, but one was better.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 21, 2023 4:14:01 PM

Of course I should add that, if there were some hard grammatical rule that green only modified eggs, we would have a case where the illustrations contradict the words. Even then, I would still say green modifies ham and that, bracketing *actual* authorial intentions, which are a red herring here, a reasonable reader would understand the communicative intent of the author to be that the ham was green, and take the author to be ignorant of the (hypothetical and nonexistent) grammatical rule, just as we constantly correct typos and grammatical errors in others' communications to us and work out what we think they mean.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Mar 19, 2023 6:30:26 PM

The illustrations are part of the text, so I don't think there's any question. If there were no illustrations, my answer would be that the very posing of the question tells us that "the ordinary rules of English" (and of statutory interpretation, which are just bastardized judge-made approximations of those rules) tell us nothing either way, or you couldn't pose the question. It's probably the case that in phrases of this form, the modifier is understood more often than not to only modify the first noun, but that isn't grammatically baked in and innumerable counterexamples could be marshaled. All we could really do absent the illustrations is hunt for contextual hints about the color of the ham, or, if worst came to worst, go with the marginal tendency of readers and speakers to read modifiers in a construction like this to only modify the first noun.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Mar 19, 2023 6:26:22 PM

Geisel did all of his own illustrations, so it seems likely that he intended both eggs and ham to be green.

Posted by: Steve L. | Mar 18, 2023 7:50:36 PM

I presume Geisel had more control over the covers and illustrations of his books than even a star actor has over the video box cover. And the cover reflects the illustrations inside the book, over which i again presume Geisel had some control.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 18, 2023 6:17:07 PM

"If we focus on author intent, presumably Geisel signed off on the cover and his intent is that both food products are green."

Maybe, he did sign off, but covers often mislead.

If we went by the covers of videotapes at Blockbuster, we would think, for instance, such and such well-known actor had a bigger role than they did in many films. Also, the plot of the film is different from what it really is.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 18, 2023 6:10:10 PM

Or perhaps he does not like eggs and ham that have been modified with green mold, separately or together?

Posted by: N.D. | Mar 18, 2023 1:00:06 PM

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