I was listening to one of our many kids’ CDs in the car the other day. That’s (many (kids’ CDs)), not ((many kids’) CDs), BTW. Anyway, it was from the Ralph’s World series, and the first track is a really catchy song that starts off like this:
Everybody does what they do best the best
I usually dwell on this line during the rest of the song, and end up thinking about it several times in the few days after I play the CD. No, it’s not the plural they with the singular everybody antecedent that gets to me—I got over that grammar issue years and years ago. What I think about is the 4-way ambiguity in this line, with two readings that are tautologies and two that are probably not true, but are interesting to think about. Allow me to explain…
When you say, “Swimming is what I do best,” you could mean that you are better at swimming than you are at any of the other activities you engage in. I’ll call this the Personal Best (PB) reading. Or, you could mean that you swim better than all the other people who swim. I’ll call this the Better Than Everyone Else (BTEE) reading. And now, when you say, “Everybody does what they do best the best,” you’re doubling the ambiguity, ending up with four readings.
First, there’s the PB-PB reading: The activity that you do better than any other activity is, naturally, the activity that you do better than ay other activity. Then there’s the BTEE-BTEE reading: The thing you do better than anyone else, you do better than anyone else. These are the boring readings, but maybe Ralph just wanted to emphasize one of these two undeniable facts. On the other hand…
Here’s where it gets interesting. (Well, more interesting, at any rate.) We have the PB-BTEE reading: The activity you do better than any other activity is also the activity that you do better than anyone else. That’s quite a claim. Just think, no matter how mediocre or even downright bad you are at the activities you engage in, if you can just find the one that you are least bad at, it will turn out to be something you can do better than anyone else! It would also mean that no two people can have the same activity as their personal best. If swimming is my personal best activity, then I’m better at it than anyone else; but if swimming is also my friend’s personal best activity, then he’d have to be better at it than anyone else, too. One of us would have to go. I’m guessing Ralph probably didn’t intend this reading.
Lastly, there’s the BTEE-PB reading: First of all, it kind of assumes that for each person, there does exist some activity that they do better than anyone else, and claims furthermore that this activity will also be the one that they do better than any other activity they engage in. So if you swim better than anyone else, it must also be true that you swim better than you play chess, get dates, tell jokes, or anything else. This is probably true for a lot of people, but it seems to discount those people who are so irritatingly good at everything they do—so good that you figure that there has to be more than one activity that they can do better than anyone else.
So where does that leave us? I still don’t know which meaning Ralph intended, though I guess it’s probably one of the boring ones. I’m sure I’ll find myself thinking about it again pretty soon, though, since the CD does have some great music on it.