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There's an Olive Garden commercial which has the line:

At Olive Garden, the cheese keeps coming 'til you say "when".

I certainly understand what it's saying: only when I tell them to stop with the cheese will they stop. But something about the sentence feels a little wrong.
To me, the following sounds better:

At Olive Garden, the cheese doesn't [stop] 'til you say "when".

which would mean:

The cheese keeps coming until you say when [it should stop].

But the original version, using a parallel interpretation, would mean something completely nonsensical.

The cheese keeps coming until you say when [it should keep coming].

But I'm not sure whether the parallel is valid.

Is the original sentence technically 'correct'? (Aside from being understandable). It feels wrong to me, but I can't pinpoint the reason.

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    Not sure how you got to where you got. When someone is pouring a beverage into your glass, they say "Say when" meaning "I will keep pouring until you tell me to stop (or the glass is full)". The beverage will keep coming until you say when. will keep coming = won't stop. Sep 13 at 16:42
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    The original sentence is correct. To "say when" is an idiom. It's not literal. It means "tell me when to stop". The meaning never changes.
    – Billy Kerr
    Sep 13 at 16:44
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    Actually, "say when" means "until you tell me to do the opposite of what I'm doing" and it can mean start or stop, depending on the context. I won't put the burgers on the grill until you say when. Sep 13 at 16:48
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    @TimR yes, you are correct, it depends on context, however in the context of serving food/drink it generally means "tell me when to stop", as in "Here, have some more wine. Just say when". But I think the main problem here is the OP doesn't realise that it's an idiom. Idioms often confuse learners, especially if they don't know it's an idiom/expression with a hidden/non-literal meaning. They try to parse it as if it's literal, and then wonder why it doesn't make any logical sense.
    – Billy Kerr
    Sep 13 at 17:01
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    "Say when" is short for "Say when to stop". So "X keeps coming until you say when to stop" is perfectly clear and normal sentence.
    – Davor
    Sep 14 at 8:56

6 Answers 6

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[The original wording] feels wrong to me, but I can't pinpoint the reason.

If you don't mind, I'm going to rephrase the examples slightly.

(1) At Olive Garden, the cheese keeps coming 'til you say "when [to stop]".
(2) At Olive Garden, the cheese doesn't stop 'til you say "when [to stop]".
(3) At Olive Garden, the cheese keeps coming 'til you say "when [to keep coming]".

Essentially, (1) is the original phrasing, (2) has equivalent meaning but with different phrasing, and (3) is a phrasing that feels logical to you based on the second construction... but you understand leads to the wrong meaning.

If I had to guess a reason why (1) "feels wrong" to you while (3) "feels logical" despite being wrong... I would guess that it is because you are assuming that the omitted phrase should match the earlier verb in the sentence. While that is a common form of construction (and usually more clear) it is not strictly necessary.

However, in attempting to do the verb-matching for (3) you have ignored the negation present in (2). If one keeps the negation of (2) when doing a matched-verb example like (3), the result should actually be:

(4) At Olive Garden, the cheese keeps coming 'til you say "when [to not keep coming]".

Which hopefully feels more "right" and comfortable to you on account of the matched verbs, while conveying the correct meaning. And if you'll also notice... both (1) and (4) are equivalent as-spoken [when omitting the bracketed phrases] and in meaning!

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"Say when" or "till you say when" is an idiom. The idiomatic use is understood from context. In any situation in which a person is being offered something and invited to indicate how much they want (by saying "stop") the idiomatic use is understood.

So here, no native speaker would try to analyse the parallel sense, because the situation is clearly the idiomatic one. "Say when" means "Indicate the point at which you want to stop".

It is not unusual for native speakers to engage in word play, by literally saying "when" to indicate that the server should stop, instead of saying "stop" etc. Again, "when" doesn't mean stop in any normal context, but it is understood in a casual and joking sense.

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    I might add that saying "when" (originally as a joke) has become so common that it's not even a joke anymore and is just a thing people say when they are satisfied with how much they have been served. Including cases where they have not even been asked to "say when". Sep 14 at 2:54
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    @ToddWilcox: clearly you've never met my dad. He kept pouring milk into my glass even though I said "stop". Only after literally saying the word "when" did he stop pouring milk. Of course, my dad was just trying to be funny. And I had a lot of milk to drink that day. I'm pretty sure my brother was squirting ketchup onto my dad's plate at a later time, and my brother didn't stop until my dad said "when". My dad had a lot of ketchup to eat that day. Revenge is best served with fries (or chips, depending on how far east you are from me). Sep 14 at 19:45
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    For me (Canadian by birth, but now 30+ years in Canada followed by 30+ in the US), "Saying When" has been an idiomatic way of saying "Ok, enough" for as long as I can remember (like before I started grade school)
    – Flydog57
    Sep 14 at 20:50
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    At least in the Midwest, from my experience, the term "say when" literally means "To speak the word 'when'"; though someone who wasn't being obtuse would also stop in response to any utterance that wasn't a clear request to keep going, the word 'when' would be considered a normal utterance for that purpose.
    – supercat
    Sep 14 at 22:40
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    @supercat because as Greg said, it's a major 'dad joke' and the midwest is the ultimate dad joke land (so much so that it has permeated to the point where people who aren't even try to do dad jokes use it)
    – eps
    Sep 15 at 22:05
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Is the original sentence technically ‘correct’?

Yes, for idiomatic usage. “Say when” has an understood “… to stop.” Sometimes the other person will respond with “When.” to mean “That’s enough.” in a slightly cheesy, joking manner that projects a faux literal interpretation of the instruction.

“Keeps coming” and “doesn’t stop” have roughly equivalent meanings, both informal. Some marketers may prefer positive phrasing that hints at abundance.

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  • I don't think saying the word "when" implies any kind of joke or humor. It's a single syllable easily understood utterance which can be responded to practically reflexively.
    – supercat
    Sep 14 at 22:43
  • @supercat I think saying "when" is very casual and informal (much like Olive Garden). In a classy restaurant, I'd say "That's enough, thank you" or simply "Thank you".
    – user71659
    Sep 15 at 20:44
  • @user71659: In a more formal place, I would not expect to be asked to "say 'when'", but when asked in such fashion I would view "when" as a proper response, especially if followed with a "thank you" once dispensing stops.
    – supercat
    Sep 15 at 20:54
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Mandatory YouTube clip

The commercial shows various dishes with cheese being the main ‘player’

"At Olive Garden our cheese will make you melt and leave you bubbling with joy"

This line is of course metaphorical. Many cheeses melt when they reach a high enough temperature, and in English we say people melt when they see or hear something so pleasant (or so cute) it induces a teary-eyed reaction and feelings of warmth and tenderness. Likewise, very hot cheese bubbles, and if a person is especially excited, enthusiastic and/or particularly joyful that sense of anticipation and happiness can be described as bubbling.

The rich cheese theme continues with:

‘…the best part is it keeps coming until you say “when”. Olive Garden, we're all family here.’

In writing, the idiomatic meaning of when can be in scare quotes, this avoids any possible ambiguity, and makes the meaning clearer. The cheese will not stop coming until you (the client) tell it when to stop.

say when

said when you are pouring a drink for someone and you want them to tell you when to stop pouring

  • She started pouring the water and told me to "say when."
    Source: Cambridge Dictionary
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This is a case of ellipsis — omitting superfluous words from a sentence without breaking it. Like if you anwser "tomorrow" to "When can you start?", you mean "I can start tomorrow".

Your cheese case could actually work as "the cheese keeps coming 'til you say", as the context implies there's something you can say to have it stop. But as other answers point out, "say when" is a well-known idiom, itself involving ellipsis, so it's used here.

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The quotation marks around 'when' indicate that the sentence literally means "The cheese keeps coming until you say the word 'when'". I'm sure that waitstaff would stop dispensing cheese in response to many other possible utterances, but I think the phraseology is intended to avoid any implication that the restaurant would keep dispensing cheese until customers demanded that they stop, or that the restaurant would dispense cheese until the customers were willing to concede that they couldn't reasonably demand more.

The "say 'when'" idiom treats the quantity of cheese as something akin to the volume adjustment on the sound system for a reception or other such event. The sound engineer may ask the client to stand in the middle of the venue, and then increase the volume until the client indicates it's satisfactory, but the sound engineer would hardly view the continued rotation of the volume knob as any kind of burden. Rather, the task would be to find whatever volume setting would best please the customer.

Likewise, the implication with Olive Garden would be to suggest that their goal was to establish whatever balance between cheese and other ingredients would best suit the customer's palate, even for customers where the balance would tilt heavily toward the "cheese" side, and that Olive Garden had no desire to give any customer more or less cheese than the customer would want.

I think the notion of "say 'when'" rather than "say 'stop'" is to avoid any perceived need for the customer to precede an imperative with "please". A customer may respond to a question like "Would you like cream" with "Yes, please" or "No, thank you", but not "Please yes". The response to "Say 'when'" is a response to an implied question, rather than an imperative, thus not requiring a preceding "please". A polite customer may respond to "Say when" with "Thank you" as soon as a suitable amount has been dispensed, or may say "When", and follow that with "Thank you" after dispensing ceases.

Incidentally, the "say when" construct also implies that the waiter intends to be 'directly controllable' in other ways without need for social niceties. Saying 'slower, please' or 'more toward the shrimp, please' would be preferable to 'Could you please slow down a little bit?' or 'Could you please shift more toward the shrimp?'

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