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The nuns in the 1965 movie "The Sound of Music" are singing about Maria, who is difficult to deal with:

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Being non-native (and only seeing a still frame of the scene) I thought it meant "How does Maria solve problems?". Somewhat similar to "What would Jesus do?".

Can "solve a problem like [someone]" also be understood in this way?

Edits:

  • I am aware of the context. It would be silly to think the singing nuns hold up Maria (Julie Andrews) as a role model.
  • I checked my Quirk/Greenbaum grammar but have trouble finding anything conclusive concerning this usage of [like] and its validity. I do have to admit, that I didn't look very thoroughly. I am a bit like Maria, in this way.
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    'How do you solve a problem like Maria (solves problems)?' Is a possible reading but that's more likely to be rendered as '... like Maria does?' – Mitch Aug 7 at 21:06
  • Where is the problem? "... solve a problem like s.o." is the default interpretation. "... solve a problem like s.o. does" is an extended interpretation assuming the does has been elided. So, "How do you solve a problem like Maria (does)?" is not the intended meaning there. – Kris Aug 8 at 4:54
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    It's very contextual. Consider, "How would you bake a cake like Maria?". (FWIW, I assumed the "like Maria would" meaning when seeing the subject line, but thought it would be fun to consider that Maria is like the problem - it turned out that was backwards compared to the intended reading. But I've never seen the film.) – Toby Speight Aug 8 at 7:57
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    It's clearly implied from context that Maria is the problem, but the language is ambiguous. I had the same problem with a line from the song She's a Maniac: "And she's dancing like she's never danced before." This could (and likely should) be interpreted as she's dancing better than she ever had previously, but it could also be (wrongly) interpreted to mean that she's dancing in the manner of someone who has never previously danced (thus, probably not very well). Sometimes you have to read the context to understand what's intended. – Darrel Hoffman Aug 8 at 13:55
  • Nobody is discussing intonation. Although not a full answer by itself, it is especially important outside of song. Music often ignores or significantly changes tonal emphasis, delays and accents. But most of the comparative examples in both comments and answers can be said with a different intonation to imply the correct/intended meaning. Using the example from the previous comment, if pauses are placed between words and the voice raised with exclamation at the end of "... never danced before!", the ambiguity is largely removed. Tonal changes can still confuse non-native speakers. – C Perkins Aug 9 at 13:34
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You're right: "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" is syntactically ambiguous.

The phrase "like Maria" can modify either a preceding noun phrase ("a problem") or a preceding verb phrase ("solve a problem").

Both of these usages are recognized as valid by traditional prescriptive grammars (Fowler 1926 describes "He talks like an expert" as an "unexceptionable" usage of like, where "like is equivalent to a prepositional adverb"—p. 325 in republished 2009 edition). Prescriptive grammars have traditionally condemned a third use of like, the use "as a conjunction" where it is followed by a clause (e.g. "like Maria does") rather than by a noun phrase. However, as the comments point out, that construction would allow you to express "How do you solve problems the way that Maria solves problems" without ambiguity.

Many modern linguists analyze like as a preposition when it takes a bare noun phrase like "Maria" as its complement (although like is not always a preposition, and even when it is, it doesn't always behave exactly the same way as other prepositions). The same kind of ambiguity is seen with many prepositional phrases, as illustrated by the joke "One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know," which relies on this ambiguity. You can see further examples and discussion in the answers to Does “I am eating vegan cheese in my underpants” really imply that the vegan cheese is inside my underpants? (the "shot an elephant in my pajamas" joke is mentioned in JoeTaxpayer's answer there).

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    Context is key, but would you consider the popularity of this musical to have coined an idiom of it? Compare it to the line, "How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?" in the same song. You can't, Maria can't, and Maria is a problem that cannot be solved or moreover solve for herself. Hypothetical arguments in The Sound of Music [english.stackexchange.com/questions/7522/… – livresque Aug 8 at 1:46
  • See also my comment at OP. – Kris Aug 8 at 4:55
  • Just because it isn’t quite clear in the answer: there are of course still cases where like is still analysed as an adjective (“I cannot remember a like instance”) and adverb (“Like as not, her let’s broken” and the ubiquitous “He was like totally into me” usage); only the uses described here (with a noun phrase or similar as complement) are considered prepositional. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 8 at 5:38
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Your first examples of "like" as an adjective strikes me as archaic (and I'm 61 - BrE), the second is old-fashioned and (I think) only applies to the phrase "like as not". The third on the other hand strikes me as modern slang (but that may be my age showing). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Aug 8 at 8:41
  • @MartinBonner I’m not sure I’d call the first one archaic, but definitely old-fashioned. The second one is still alive and kicking, but only dialectally (for some reason, I hear it in a Yorkshire accent – not sure if that has any basis in fact), and the third is definitely a more recent phenomenon. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 8 at 9:00
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While the sentence in isolation can be interpreted that way, if you actually listen to the whole song, as well as the dialogue surrounding it, you would understand that Mother Superior considers Maria to be a problem, not a problem solver. So it wouldn't make sense for her to ask how Maria would solve problems.

Given the overall context, it's clear that the question means "How do you solve the problem of an impertinent nun, such as Maria."

  • See also my comment at OP. – Kris Aug 8 at 4:55
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    If it helps, another rewording could be "How do you solve a Maria-like problem?" – Tyler W Aug 8 at 5:28
  • @Kris The default interpretation depends on the verb. If you asked "How do you paint like Rembrandt?", the elided "does" would be assumed – Barmar Aug 8 at 16:09
  • @Barmar but "how do you paint a masterpiece like Rembrandt?" is back to ambiguous. Maybe the 17th century Dutch got into bodypainting early. – Jacob Krall Aug 9 at 17:59
  • @JacobKrall Referring to a person as a "masterpiece" seems unnatural, but you could have that ambiguity with "How do you tattoo a person like <name of tattoo artist>", especially since many tattoo artists are also tattooed. – Barmar Aug 9 at 18:02
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The nuns are using a simile. They are likening Maria to a problem that needs to be solved.

You could say:

How do you solve a problem like Global Warming?

Implicitly, "Global Warming" is a problem, and the question is then "how would we solve a problem like that one?"

The rest of the song goes on to list a series of intractable problems, such as how to pin down a moonbeam. This implies that "Maria" is like an intractable problem that has no solution.

  • Very good, similes are common in figurative speech, which are an important aspect of poetry and music. – Barmar Aug 9 at 17:03
  • "intractable problem that has no solution" -- isn't that redundant? – Barmar Aug 9 at 17:04
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    Just using the word "like" doesn't make it a simile. In this case, "like" means "such as", not "resembling". They're not saying that Maria is like a problem; they're saying that she is a problem. – David Richerby Aug 9 at 19:37
  • @DavidRicherby - Good point, though I would still content that Maria is not literally a problem, and that the language here is metaphorical. Maria causes a problem. – superluminary Aug 27 at 11:01
  • If interactions with Maria are, in general, problematic, it's perfectly reasonable to say that Maria is a problem, rather than being more specific about what aspect of Maria causes problems. – David Richerby Aug 27 at 11:05
2

Both meanings are valid. To "solve a problem like" generally means, "how to solve a problem in the same category of." So, for example, "How do you solve a problem like children not doing their homework?" In that case, the behavior is the problem. On the other hand, "How would you solve a problem like Steve?" often implies, "How would you solve a problem like Steve would?"

Personally, I've always taken the song to mean that the problem is Maria.

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    Except that, 99 times out of a hundred, you'd say "How would you solve problems like Steve?", if you wanted to know how to emulate Steve's problem-solving. – David Richerby Aug 9 at 19:40
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One of the terrible things about English, and also one of the most wonderful, is that it can be incredibly ambiguous.

A popular example is the proverb "Time flies like an arrow.", which can be understood in many different ways.

For instance, which word in that sentence is the verb? "Time", "flies", or "like"? The sentence is grammatically equivalent to "Fruit flies like a banana.", or "Time greyhounds like a racehorse.".

Most people of course would see the obvious and intended meaning, but some of us like to notice the inappropriate, but grammatically correct interpretations.

For further discussion, see: Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana - Wikipedia

  • "..but some of us like to notice the inappropriate, but grammatically correct interpretations." – Thanks for your understanding ;) – Christian Macht Aug 9 at 18:34
  • Er, the whole point of "fruit flies like a banana" is that it means both "bananas are enjoyed by fruit flies" and "fruit moves through the air like bananas do". – David Richerby Aug 9 at 19:41
  • @DavidRicherby, "Fruit" can be a transitive verb too, in this case as an imperative: "Fruit flies in the same way you would fruit a banana." – Ray Butterworth Aug 9 at 22:45
  • @Ray I don't think you can do that. – Mitch Aug 10 at 12:15
1

This is indeed an ambiguous sentence. You can disambiguate either meaning: "How do you solve a problem like Maria does?" vs "How do you solve a problem such as Maria?" but of course either would not fit well within the confines of the song's lyrics, both with regard to scanning and to catchiness.

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    It's not actually very ambiguous. Although it could mean "How do you solve a problem like Maria does?", that is a very strange question to ask: it's simultaneously completely vague about what sort of problem we're talking about, while being specific that there is just one problem. One would normally ask "How do you solve problems like Maria does?" – David Richerby Aug 10 at 8:25
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The direct answer to your question "Can "solve a problem like [someone]" also be understood in this way?" is, yes it can. And not only in poetic useage such as a song lyric.

Consider George, a software engineer with a particular talent for problem-solving, but with unfortunate personal habits - to put it bluntly, he stinks.

We are envious of George's skills. "I wish I could solve a problem like George (does)!"

But George is a problem in the workplace. We want his skills, but no-one wants to work in the same room. And there are others like him. The boss thinks "I wish I could solve a problem like George (is)".

Both useages are correct and current. Occasionally, as in the above contrived example, there can be ambiguity. In which case it behoves the writer to use a different construction. But not, I think, in "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"

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I believe it is important to keep in mind that the sentence in question is part of a song. Music, like poetry, is an art form that requires interpretation. Taking a single sentence from a song and trying to interpret it strictly on the basis of English language rules is bound to add confusion, especially for a non-native speaker. Furthermore, this is a song from a musical, and that particular genre of theatre and film absolutely relies on the synergistic combination of music, lyrics, script, scene, and acting to fully convey its message.

Consider the song "People Will Say We're in Love", from another musical production from the same era, called Oklahoma!. https://youtu.be/VEwVAV3VPw4

The lyrics ask, "why do people think we are in love?" and then list many ways that the couple could avoid doing things that make others gossip about them this way. Taken out of context, the lyrics mostly imply that these two people do not like each other, yet there are some phrases that imply the opposite. For example, she calls him, "Sweetheart" just after telling him to return some personal possessions of hers. And he says, "Your hand feels so grand in mine" just after admonishing her, "Don't keep your hand in mine." However, from watching the performance, it is quite clear that they are indeed in love and trying to pretend otherwise. Watch how she looks at him with passion or how he holds her hand while singing those lyrics, and the meaning of the words is completely different. (Much like real life, one might say.)

The lyrics alone also do not readily show that the song is a duet, which adds a great deal of context to the words. In the spoken script, just preceding the song, the male and female leads are having a conversation about an upcoming picnic, which the woman plans to attend with someone else. The man wants her to attend the picnic with him, and she says it will cause people to "talk" (gossip). They begin to discuss how folks love to gossip and, in the style of a musical, this conversation morphs into a song. Much more about their true relationship is implied by their flirtatious acting during the song than the lyrics themselves provide. By the end of the song, they are holding hands, smiling, and cheek-to-cheek, while the male lead sings, "Don't dance all night with me...People will say we're in love." Contradictory? Yes! And that is exactly the point.

The Sound of Music is a film and theatre production of the same era and genre as Oklahoma! so there are many style similarities. In order to fully understand the song lyrics, you must also understand the full context of the scene with Maria and the nuns, including what has happened just before the song begins.

We already know that Maria is out in the hills enjoying nature (and singing, of course!). The nuns are quietly discussing the new "recruits" and the subject of Maria comes up. They talk about her lack of discipline and yet she is also likable. As with all musicals, this conversation segues into a song (https://youtu.be/yYvyh3IIdDk). At the end, Maria herself comes running into the abbey, hair a mess, late for prayer again, and stops short in front of the sisters who stop singing. She tidies herself and tries to walk away with decorum, then the nuns resume singing the final "impossible problem" line: "how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?"

The entire scene must be taken together, along with prior scenes which establish that Maria herself IS the problem that the nuns do not know how to solve. It is certainly not standard English to write or speak the way this sentence is written, but in a musical for stage or film, the rules do not always apply. In fact, it is in large part, the breaking of rules -- like solemn nuns randomly breaking into song -- that makes the musical theatre genre so unique and engaging.

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    Oklahoma! is not just "of the same era and genre" as The Sound of Music, it's by the same writers (Rodgers & Hammerstein) – Kevin Troy Aug 9 at 3:52
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    "It is certainly not standard English to write or speak the way this sentence is written." - Yes it is. In isolation the sentence is ambiguous, but standard English permits ambiguity. In practice in a conversation or letter there would almost always be enough context to make the meaning clear, whether explicit in that conversation or implicit from the shared experiences of those conversing. – nnnnnn Aug 9 at 14:37

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