Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

They Always Forget the Winner’s Name

Posted by Neal on July 17, 2008

I read this headline on the front page of the sports section yesterday:

People always seem to forget Home Run Derby winner’s name

I had never heard of the Home Run Derby, but it sounded like some kind of baseball-related annual event. And, apparently, year after year people had trouble remembering the name of whoever won it. A bit strange, I thought. Maybe it was one of those pieces of baseball lore involving a curse, like the Curse of the Bambino, or the Cubs’ Billy Goat Curse. I was curious, so I started reading the story. It began:

Justin Morneau received 70 text messages after winning Monday’s All-Star Home Run Derby, he said, with many making reference to the trophy presentation, when the event’s sponsor referred to him as “Jason.”

“It happens a lot,” Morneau said Tuesday, with a smile and a shrug. “People call me Jason all the time.” (link)

So it wasn’t that people always forgot the name of the Home Run Derby winner; they always (or often, anyway) forgot the name of Justin Morneau, who happened to be this year’s winner. Yes, I’d been caught by the old de dicto / de re ambiguity.

De dicto means “of what is said”, which is the interpretation I’d given the headline: They said Home Run Derby winner, so I thought they had in mind that particular role, regardless of who was filling it. De re means “of the thing”, or in this case, the actual person, Justin Morneau. This, of course, was the intended interpretation.

De dicto / de re is a particular kind of scope ambiguity, involving an element that makes reference to different times (or even different possible worlds), and a quantifier. In this case, it’s the always that makes reference to different times. To know whether something is always true, you need to know if it’s true at all particular times under consideration. The quantifier here is the, which combines with Home Run Derby winner to identify the sole individual who fits that description (assuming that we’re talking about this year).

When the Home Run Derby winner is taken to have wide scope over the always, we get the intended de re reading:

There exists a unique individual X, such that:

  1. X won the Home Run Derby
  2. for all relevant times T, at time T people forget X’s name.

On the other hand, when always is taken to have wide scope over the Home Run Derby winner, we get the strange de dicto reading:

For all relevant times T, there exists a unique individual X, such that:

  1. X wins the Home Run Derby at time T
  2. people forget X’s name at time T.

Actually, there’s one more circumstance that made this ambiguity possible. If the headline had said

People always seem to forget Justin Morneau’s name

there would have been no ambiguity, since no matter what time you’re talking about, Justin Morneau refers to the same individual. In semantic terms, it’s a rigid designator. In contrast, the non-rigid designator the Home Run Derby winner, like Speaker of the House, the Tomato Queen, and the dread pirate Roberts, refers to different individuals at different times.

Of course, when I say Justin Morneau refers to the same individual at any given time, I’m ignoring details like what it refers to during times preceding Morneau’s birth. Likewise for interpreting sentences such as I dreamed Justin Morneau had never been born or In my world, Justin Morneau is not a baseball player, but a prehistoric mammal-like reptile whose fossilized remains were found in my backyard, and the question of what happens if Justin Morneau tries to cross the same river twice. For now, I’ll just leave matters with Jason Moreau as the winner of this year’s Home Run Derby.

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3 Responses to “They Always Forget the Winner’s Name”

  1. The Ridger said

    I would imagine, however, that people do forget the HRD winner’s name, seeing as it’s such a hokey contest. I know I don’t even pay attention to it.

    Which has nothing to do with your analysis, of course.

  2. As a far-away (Netherlands) Minnesota Twins fan, I am always looking for new sites with Twins news.
    I hope that Morneau and Mauer stays healthy all season.

  3. [...] looked up from my computer. “Oh, you got caught in a de dicto / de re [...]

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