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Mind Your Language?

October 14, 2010

The other day I was watching an old movie and one character said to another :  What are you crazy?

For some reason, over the next few days I kept hearing that phrase.  Suddenly, everyone was asking everyone if they were crazy.  I heard it on TV shows, radio shows.  I even heard couples asking it of each other while shopping.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see it in writing anywhere and that is what has led to the question du jour.  Specifically, what does this question mean and what is the proper way of asking it?

Are we supposed to say What?  Are you crazy? As in what is that nonsense you are spouting?  Are you crazy to say something like that?

Or is it What are you?  Crazy?  As in what sort a life form are you, the crazy kind?

It all has to do with the pacing of the utterance and where (and if) the speaker pauses while asking the question.  The best rendering of the phrase is from someone with a New York accent so that it comes across as Whaddayoucrazy with no question mark.  But that doesn’t shed any light on what it really means.

Anyway, this question got me thinking about some of the other ways in which phrases are confused over time.  Actually, I don’t think they get confused over time.  What actually happens is that someone hears the phrase incorrectly and repeats it and it goes viral.

For example, you may have heard George Carlin’s rant about “the proof is in the pudding.”  He would get all wound up about people saying “the proof is in the pudding,” when the actual phrase is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” 

And if you think about it, there is a major difference between the two.

Well, I have a rant, too, and it’s about the ongoing debate about carrots and sticks.  I used to think that this was my personal peeve but it appears that it is a bit of a fault line among the grammar types. 

I was reminded of the phrase when recently one of our government ministers was talking about planned changes to the child support payment laws to minimize non payment of child support by one spouse or the other.  He trumpeted that the new legislation would have “both a carrot and a stick.”

How is that going to work? I said to myself. 

Because everyone knows that the genesis of the term is the concept of dangling a carrot in front of donkey while he is pulling a cart.  The donkey’s mentality is such that he thinks that if he walks faster he will catch up with the carrot on the stick and get to eat it.  

End of discussion.  Or it should be.

But I think what has happened is that if you say it fast, “carrot on a stick” can sound just like “carrot and a stick.”  And the idea of a carrot as a reward must have led to the idea of the stick being a penalty.  And now, virtually all schemes designed to change peoples’ behaviour are described as having a “carrot and a stick.” 

But I’m kind of partial to the idea of the carrot on the stick as opposed to the carrot and the stick.  For a number of reasons.

First, when I was an agent of global capitalism, our HR model was described as a “carrot on a stick” approach.  And it was.  They dangled this “carrot” of money and promotion and title and other perquisites and emoluments and the idea was that eager employees would run fast in the hope of reaching them. 

Management, benevolent and avuncular as ever, must have been highly amused at the thought of us, donkeys that we were, actually thinking that we might someday catch the carrot. 

Second, although I understand the concept of “the carrot and the stick” as being a motivational tool in that it provides both a reward and punishment, the whole thing makes no sense.  What sort of a reward is a carrot?  And, nowadays at least, who can realistically be punished with a stick?

I recognize that we are talking metaphors here but one rule for good metaphors is that they make sense.  Carrot on a stick passes this test because you can imagine a donkey actually getting fooled.  And employers treating their employees like beasts of burden isn’t at all hard to imagine.  Plus you can alter it and it still makes sense.  You could say “Sugar cube on a fishing rod” or “Apple on a barge pole,” and the idea would still work.

Not so with carrot and stick.  Would you know what someone was trying to say if they announced:  “Our new policy has a sugar cube and fishing rod?”   I think not.

And it you try to put it in terms of realistic rewards and punishments it gets even crazier. 

So I leave it to you whether it’s What, are you crazy, or What are you, crazy.  But I insist that it’s carrot on a stick.


28 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2010 11:58 pm

    I’m with you, Tom…grammar is important!

    “Let’s eat, Grandma!” is vastly different than “Let’s eat Grandma!”


  2. October 15, 2010 12:01 am

    I don’t like either option. We’re either being prodded and manipulated, or just manipulated minus the prodding, by the agents of global capitalism.

    What are you crazy?

    Let’s make them give us something more. I propose: A carrot and a shtick.

    • October 15, 2010 12:10 am

      Or, as long as we’re going down this road (and you did mention New York) let’s go all New York Jewish Diamond Industry on it:

      A carat and a shtick

      Come on, Tom, I think we can go to the Catskills with this act if we just work on it a little. 🙂

  3. October 15, 2010 2:01 am

    For incentive, I had a boss that used to say, ” for a reward you may keep your job”. Also, “what are you going to do for an encore”?

  4. October 15, 2010 4:32 am

    “…It all has to do with the pacing of the utterance and where (and if) the speaker pauses …”

    I think about this all the time. At The Economist, we don’t allow italicizing or bolding or underlining for emphasis, so we have to build it into the word order and structure. That is often very hard. (Which may be why so much of our humor is misunderstood, especially by Americans.)

    On blogs, people seem to italicize a lot, with emoticons and the rest. This is a nod to the difficult of placing proper emphasis (and thus tone).

    • October 15, 2010 7:15 am

      No question, written communication is fraught with opportunties for misunderstanding. From the time of Terry’s orders to Custer (and earlier I’m sure) all the way to the latest unfriending on Facebook people have been making grammatical errors or misinterpreting grammar, punctuation and words.

  5. October 15, 2010 6:35 am

    I agree that “carrot on a stick” is the right option, but I see “carrot and stick as correct too. The carrot and stick are working together as a unit. Without the stick the carrot lays on the ground. Without the carrot he stick is not enticing. The “and” brings them together. If the carrot were reward and the stick punishment, as you suggest, shouldn’t it be “carrot OR stick”?

    I also go with “what are you, crazy?”

  6. October 15, 2010 7:03 am

    As in “I’m going to get a carrot and a stick so I can make a carrot on a stick.” Sounds like the philosophy behind some legislation!

    I bet you hear some good renditions of “What are you, crazy?” in Brooklyn!

  7. October 15, 2010 7:58 am

    I can see either of the carrot stick pairings you’ve proposed – at least they recognize some level of need for both. I just dont get people who phrase it as an either or situation. Why arent they asking themselves why they’re using the phrase and what it means?

    • October 15, 2010 8:38 am

      Yes, “carrot or the stick” is the choice you make when presented with a “carrot and a stick.”

  8. October 16, 2010 6:16 am

    WIFE: No, he didn’t say he lived in an alley. He said he lived in Raleigh with an R.

    HUSBAND: What R? You crazy?

    • October 16, 2010 9:27 am

      Good one. Or:
      HUSBAND: What are you cooking?
      WIFE: Roux.
      HUSBAND: How do you spell that?
      WIFE: R-O-U-X.
      Husband: Not R-U? Crazy.

  9. October 16, 2010 9:07 am

    I prefer the declarative: “You are crazy” rather than the interrogative. It makes me feel like I’m managing my time better.

    • October 16, 2010 9:28 am

      To use another popular phrase, I’d say you’re “cutting to the chase.”

      • dafna permalink
        October 17, 2010 4:10 pm

        i’m with vodka and GB, does anyone actually respond to this rhetorical question?
        “why yes, now that you mention it, i’m totally bonkers… thanks for asking.”
        it’s not really a question.
        if one were actually interested in a response, a “hey, you crazy!” would be far more enticing.

  10. October 16, 2010 8:04 pm

    There is nothing more annoying than bad grammar.

    When I hear “what, are you crazy?” I hear it in a Brooklyn accent, which makes it perfect. Try hearing it as if Tommy from Goodfellas is saying it.

  11. October 17, 2010 4:28 am

    I always thought the phrase was “carrot or a stick,” with the meaning implying either reward or punishment. Here is a link pointing to that explanation:

    As mentioned in this article, “This saying belongs to the same general family as “you can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.” It is never used except when such contrast is implied.”

    A great book for lovers of grammar and punctuation and a personal favorite of mine is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss.

    • October 17, 2010 9:43 am

      I saw that article when I was “researching” this post. I’m hoping that my contribution will turn the tide of scholarly thought! 🙂

  12. October 17, 2010 9:11 pm

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. U R A CACK. “Carrot on a stick passes this test because you can imagine a donkey actually getting fooled.” How do I love carrot on a stick? Let me count the ways … SGCx

  13. October 19, 2010 10:02 am

    excellent! creates a whole new language! one of my favourite misrepresentations is “it’s 6 and a half dozen of another” of course this is completely incorrect and makes my family say “whaddacrazy” 🙂 loved the blog…the comments were just as funny.

    • October 19, 2010 10:18 am

      Thanks! There are loads of phrases that are misunderstood and repeated–I’ve heard “doggy dog world,” for “dog eat dog world,” and “mute point,” for “moot point.”

      • October 20, 2010 7:12 am

        I’ve heard them both and they just make me cry.

        On the other hand, from some video, “Snoop Doggy Dog world” got a good laugh out of me.

  14. November 5, 2010 11:54 am

    I thought of you today as I read a Seventh Circuit Ct. of Appeals decision. Our very own Judge Easterbrook (not a man to be trifled with) writes:

    “Section 8 is a subsidy program, a carrot rather than a stick.”


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