Short-circuiting: How constructions constrain what ‘can’ can mean in context
Bert Cappelle (Université de Lille 3),
Ambiguity, as is well known, can be exploited to create humour. However, ambiguity in itself is not a sufficient notion to explain why certain sentences with ambiguous words make us laugh. Based on witty uses of modal verbs in the television series The Simpsons, I demonstrate how the humorous effect can be accounted for by the concept of short-circuiting, which is the process of directly accessing conventionalized meaning. More specifically, humour may arise when a short-circuited interpretation appears not to apply. I also show how the existence of short-circuited interpretations invites us to adopt a constructionist approach to modal verbs.