Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Outside the United States or Canada

Posted by Neal on October 2, 2008

On Monday I went to give blood. On several occasions, I’ve noticed linguistically interesting phrases while I was participating in a blood drive, and it happened again this time. I was going through the health questionnaire (now on computer), confirming that I had never, even once, paid money to have sex with someone; giving the right answer for the “close contact with someone who has been vaccinated for smallpox” question; and remarking on the fact that a lot of email scammers are not eligible to give blood. (Not for being email scammers per se, but for living in Nigeria.) Then I came to this question:

In the past three years, have you ever been outside the United States or Canada for a period exceeding three months?

This one had never given me pause before, but this time I had to think a little. Well, I thought, I’ve been in the United States for a lot longer than the past three years. Except for that weekend trip we took to Niagara Falls a couple of months ago. During that weekend, I was outside the United States, but since that’s less than three months, I don’t need to worry about it.

However, I thought, for all these years except for the weekend in Niagara Falls, I have been outside Canada, right here in the United States! So maybe I should answer yes?

No, don’t be ridiculous, I thought. They mean, have I been outside the region comprising the United States and Canada. If they’d intended it that other way, nobody in the world could ever truthfully answer no, and the question would be useless. (Unless a baby less than three months old were to answer, but they’re not old enough to give blood.) So I answered no like I always do and finished the questionnaire.

But since then I’ve been wondering: Why is that question ambiguous? At first I thought it might be the same kind of ambiguity that uncooperative jerks can exploit in exchanges like this:

Regular guy: Do you want to save this, or throw it away?
Uncooperative jerk: Yes.

In other words, yes, it is true that he wants to save it or throw it away. On second thought, though, I think the uncooperative answers to the “outside Canada or the United States” and “save or throw away” questions are goofy in different ways. In the “save or throw away” question, what we have is a scope ambiguity between the or and the question operator (the part of the meaning that makes the utterance a question, which I’ll represent as Q). The goofy reading gives Q wide scope:

Q

OR
you want to save this

you want to throw this away

In other words, “Is it the case that you want to save or throw away this thing? Answer yes or no.” The intended reading would (presumably) give OR the wide scope:

OR

Q
you want to save this

Q

you want to throw this away

As for the fact that I have the Q twice, it’s because OR takes two arguments, and in this case, they’re both questions. Notice, in fact, that you can paraphrase the intended reading like this: Do you want to save this, or do you want to throw it away?, with the two questions fully spelled out. You can’t do that with the goofy reading. In fact, if you want to make the question impossible for uncooperative jerks to misinterpret, the way to do it is with this paraphrase.

This does bring up a side question: How do you answer coordinated questions? If they’re coordinated with an and, you provide an answer for each one. Thus, Who are you and what do you want? requires an answer to the who question and an answer to the what question. But if they’re coordinated with an or, you don’t just get to choose one of the questions to answer. Indeed, you can’t coordinate just any two standalone questions with an or. For example, you can’t say *Who are you or what do you want? The only standalone questions that you can coordinate with an or are yes/no questions, like Do you want to save this, or do you want to throw it away? And even here, the answerer doesn’t choose to give a yes-or-no answer to just one of the questions. They have to answer as many as it takes until either they give a yes or run out of questions to answer. Thus, Save it is a sufficient answer. Well, I don’t want to save it is not, until they follow it with either so let’s throw it away or but I don’t want to throw it away either.

Giving wide scope to the OR doesn’t always result in the intended interpretation, the way it does with the “now or later” question. With the “outside the US or Canada” question, the interpretation with the wide-scoping OR is goofy. Not goofy in the way I interpreted it up above, but goofy nonetheless. Schematically, it would be:

OR

Q
you’ve lived outside the US

Q

you’ve lived outside Canada

That is, “Which is it? Have you lived outside the US, or have you lived outside Canada?” This interpretation of the question presupposes that there are only two possibilities: outside the US, or outside Canada. If it’s not possible to live outside both, then that would mean that the entire world consisted of just the US and Canada, in which case it would make just as much sense to ask if you’ve lived inside the US or Canada.

But answering “Yes, I’ve lived outside Canada [in the US]“, or “Yes, I’ve lived outside the US [in Canada]” is not the kind of uncooperative answer I had in mind, which was simply a yes or a no. Based on comparison to the “now or later” question, a yes-or-no answer points to a wide-scoping Q instead of a wide-scoping OR. The problem now is that the intended reading calls for a yes-or-no answer, too. The difference is that my goofy interpretation calls for a yes if I’ve lived outside either place, while the intended interpretation calls for a yes if I’ve lived outside both places.

So we have an or that is supposed to be interpreted as an and. Where had I seen that before? Ah, right: in the scope of a negation! It’s one of DeMorgan’s laws: ~(p V q) ~p & ~q. But where is the negation in the “outside the US or Canada” question?

I figured it out: It’s implicit in the word outside, meaning “not inside”. The intended reading would have the NOT scoping around the OR, like this:

Q

NOT
OR
inside the US

inside Canada

In other words, : “Is it the case that you have not lived inside the US or Canada? Answer yes or no.” My goofy interpretation, on the other hand, would have the OR scoping around the NOT. The Q would still take wide scope over everything:

Q

OR
NOT
inside the US

NOT

inside Canada

That is, “Is it the case that you have lived outside the US or outside Canada? Answer yes or no.”

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9 Responses to “Outside the United States or Canada”

  1. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    While I may be considered an “uncooperative jerk” for answering yes to a yes or no question, it’s never because my answer is one of the two choices provided. It’s because my answer is both of the choices provided (at the same time). For example, “Do you want to watch TV, or go on the computer?” “Yes. [I want to watch TV and go on the computer.]”

    Just saying.

  2. Glen said

    If I had written the question on the blood drive questionnaire, I would have used “and” instead of “or.”

  3. Viola said

    Ugh! Those blood drive forms drive me bananas! Glen has a point. The word “and” should have been used, otherwise it’s confusing…especially for the creative and analytical folks.

    I have to laugh at Gordon, because my husband does the same thing when being asked an “or” question. I don’t think he’s being a jerk. He just thinks if you’re going to give the word “or” and put it in a two-part question, somehow you’re putting him on the spot to make a choice. Both parts sound great to him. (Why not have your cake and eat it too?) It negates being responsible about making a choice when, in fact, he shouldn’t really have to make that choice if he feels like he’s being bombarded in a twenty-question manner. It brings to my mind that that kind of communication is ineffective, and when he gives a “both” answer, we jointly laugh because I realize I’m doing the twenty-question thingy, and he’d prefer to keep things simple.

  4. Neal said

    Gordon and Viola:
    An answer of both is perfectly fine and informative. It overrides the presupposition that there are only two possibilities, but presuppositions often have to be overriden, like when someone asks “How was your surgery?” and you have to remind them that it’s not happening until next week. I don’t consider a yes answer as uncooperative if it’s a playful way of saying “both”, and if the answerer quickly indicates that their answer really means both, as you (Gordon) point out — not that the answer to one of the questions is yes, and that the questioner must ask you again, in the right way, in order to get the answer you know they’re looking for.

    Glen and Viola:
    Yes, and would have been clearer. OTOH, the wording they used never caused me any confusion until I happened to be in just the right frame of mind to misunderstand it, so I think their wording can indeed have the meaning they intended.

  5. Ellen K. said

    I think the thinking behind the “or” wording is that each point in the region is either in the U.S. or in Canada, but not both.

  6. Ran said

    That one always trips me up, too. Not to the point of almost giving the wrong answer (I fear I’m not literal-minded enough for that: I know that the answer they want is “no” for every question except the first, so I answer each question in terms of whether the correct answer is the one they want, in which case I say “no”, or whether they’re about to have to ask me a further series of questions, in which case I say “yes”), but in my head I always go, “Hey, wait a sec, that doesn’t mean what they mean it to mean!”

  7. Jeff said

    An adult who lives in Canada but regularly travels to the United States for work, or one who crosses the border every weekend to go fishing, ought to be able to answer “yes” to the question as it was originally phrased (“been outside,” as opposed to “lived outside”), as long as there’s at least one border crossing every three months.

    I only recently discovered your blog, and it quickly joined the short list of sites I frequent. Thank you for providing a forum in which observations like this one are socially acceptable.

  8. will said

    Hawai?

    Maybe Hawai’i?

  9. Ivan said

    SO MEXICO IS NOT IN THE NORTH RIGHT?

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