Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

No One Would Be Better

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2011

Of course you’ve read, at some point, lists of sentences taken (supposedly) from letters of recommendation whose authors were unable to gracefully refuse to write them. Instead, the letter-writers damn with faint praise, with sentences like, “John always came to class on time.” Or they offer carefully ambiguous phrasings like, “I can’t recommend him highly enough.” The ambiguity there is easily enough pinned down: Is it impossible to recommend him highly enough because he is so good that no recommendation can do him full justice, or because of ethical considerations (you cannot do it because you know he’s not suited for the job).”

How about this one? “No one would be better for this position than Jen Smith.” Yeah, I get it: The hidden meaning is that Jen Smith is so incompetent that having no one at all take the job would be preferable to hiring Ms. Smith. But where does that ambiguity come from? It’s not one of the kinds I’ve written about enough to have created a category of posts for it: attachment ambiguity, scope ambiguity, de dicto/de re. There is something to say about it pragmatically: If the author had wanted to unambiguously convey that Jane Smith was the best candidate, they could have done so by writing, “Jane Smith is without question the best candidate for this job.” The fact that they wrote something that could be interpreted two ways indicates that they didn’t wish to send that message. Still, we’re left with the question of how this sentence is able to encode both these messages.

The same kind of ambiguity comes up in proverbs such as No news is good news and Half a loaf is better than no loaf, and unremarkable sentences like Well, a peanut butter sandwich ‘s better than nothing, or I suggest no liquids after 11:00 PM. Under ordinary quantifier semantics, these sentences would mean that there is no such thing as good news; that there exists no loaf that half a loaf is better than; that a peanut butter sandwich is the worst thing that exists; and that there are no liquids that I suggest after 11:00 PM.

I’ve wondered for years how this ambiguity is represented in formal semantics, and have figured that it’s so pervasive that someone must have covered it somewhere. It doesn’t happen just with no. It also happens with quantifiers such as too many, as in Too many cooks spoil the broth. That sentence doesn’t mean that there are too many broth-spoiling cooks in town (though it could); it means that when you have too many cooks, you end up with spoiled broth. But after studying semantics for years and still never coming across anything on this kind of ambiguity, I figure it’s time to offer my own analysis, and that’s what I’ll be doing in Pittsburgh this Saturday, at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference. My poster is titled “‘No news is good news': The quantifier/SOA ambiguity in English”.

SOA stands for “state of affairs”, which is what I take the meanings of the above examples to involve: the state of affairs in which there is no one hired, there is no news, there is half a loaf or a peanut butter sandwich, there are no liquids after 11:00 PM, or there are too many cooks. All these SOAs are SOAs in which something or other exists (instead of, say, SOAs in which something happens or someone does something), and in fact, this kind of ambiguity only occurs with noun phrases that fit comfortably in sentences fitting the template There+be — in other words, with indefinite or existential NPs. For example, you can’t say, “There are most women in this class.” And when you replace no or too many with most

Most news is good news.
Most cooks spoil the broth.

– you don’t have an SOA reading anymore. These sentences mean that most of the news in the world is good, and that more than half of all the cooks out there spoil broth.

If you’re attending the conference, stop by and check out the poster. If you’re not, or if you’re just impatient, you can click on the poster below to see it now.

Click to access full poster

It took me a long time to buckle down and do the poster, though, because there was one piece of data that I kept trying to cover, but could only do so at the cost of letting this quant/SOA ambiguity occur with all NPs, not just indefinites. Can you think of the common saying that caused me so much grief? No fair if you’ve already examined the poster! Stay tuned for the answer in the next post.

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8 Responses to “No One Would Be Better”

  1. Glen said

    One of your examples from the poster suggests a possible test (for some cases):

    “More taxes means higher unemployment.”

    Note that under the quantitative meaning, you would have to use a plural verb (‘mean’). The use of the singular verb (‘means’) is a clue that ‘more taxes’ is perceived as a unit (state of affairs).

    Or take your example “Too many chefs spoil the broth.” In this case, the verb is plural. But in my grammar at least, it would be okay to use the singular (‘spoil’). On the other hand, if I really meant there are too many chefs who spoil the broth, I could not make that substitution. Similarly, I would be okay with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” because I perceive ‘all work and no play’ as a unit (state of affairs).

    • Neal said

      You have indeed come across one of the real giveaway cases of SOA readings (assuming you know you’re not dealing with dialects that have the -s suffix for we, you, or they subjects). I didn’t go into it in the poster because it’s only a diagnostic when the NP is a subject, it’s plural, and the predicate is singular. Furthermore, all I can say about it at the moment is that singular agreement is allowed, not when it’s required or forbidden. I also suspect that sometimes you get plural agreement because a writer who might otherwise use a singular suffix second-guesses themself, and goes for plural agreement.

  2. malkie said

    One of my favourites is: “You will be lucky if you can get James to work for you.”

  3. Eliza (Kitis) said

    A small point: Wouldn’t “No one would be better for this position than Jen Smith.” need stress on ‘no one’ to mean the incompetency interpretation? If so, don’t you assume existential presupposition, noone is no quantifier any more. In Greek to translate it (this interpretation) you need to add the determiner (the) and it’s still awkward, or you need a periphrasis. Same with ‘a peanut butter sandwich ‘s better than nothing’ with the stress on ‘nothing’, and on ‘better’ in the other case. In Greek, the normal translation would demand an indefinite pronoun. But I have never thought about all this. There’s a lot of literature on Gr data in the field though.

    • Neal said

      It’s true that to get the incompetency interpretation, you need to stress no one (at least for me). However, that intonation could also mean that you are strongly expressing your conviction that there is no one out there that would be better than Jen Smith, so something still needs to be said about the semantics. In fact, even if stress did disambiguate the meanings, you’d still need to explain how doing so led to the incompetency interpretation.

  4. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    Is this the same phenomenon that differentiates between “cannot” and “can not”? (This has always been a pet peeve of mine….)

    Also, your poster link is dead.

  5. […] I didn’t remember meeting Ji Won at LSA 2011; she reminded me that she had come to look at my poster, and I see in my notes that indeed she did. Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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