Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

New Species Need Few Competitors

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2011

Gotta blog this now, so I can recycle page G3 of the Sunday paper:

Stigall said new species, which need space and few competitors to establish themselves, didn’t have a chance to develop in an environment domianted by invaders.
(Spencer Hunt, “Driven to extinction? Researcher believes invasive species might have caused biodiversity disaster 370 million years ago.” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 16, 2011, p. G3)

Let’s simplify this sentence and compare it to another one:

Neal’s fastest time in the 100-yard dash can be beaten by few competitors.
New species need few competitors (in order) to establish themselves.

Now let’s paraphrase each sentence by starting with There are few competitors that. You can do it with the first one, but not with the second:

There are few competitors who can beat Neal’s fastest time.
#There are few competitors that new species need in order to establish themselves.

The meaning is totally changed. With the original sentence (well, the adaptation of the original one), we could conclude that if there are zero competitors, so much the better for new species. But with the attempted paraphrase, we can conclude that zero competitors is no good; there has to be some minimum number of them in order for new species to survive.

What’s going on? It’s another quantifier/state-of-affairs ambiguity. The intended meaning of the adapted original sentence is: “New species need a state of affairs in which there are few competitors in order to establish themselves.”

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6 Responses to “New Species Need Few Competitors”

  1. Jan Freeman said

    If the original read “which need adequate space and few competitors,” though, would you have noticed it? How about “adequate space with few competitors”? Why or why not? (I can’t provide an analysis — I don’t have sufficient Latin for the judgin,’ as it were — but you can, right?)

    • Neal said

      I probably would have, I’ve been on the lookout for these so long.

      Your attention to the space part brings up a question: If I’m saying the sentence means new species need the state of affairs in which there are few competitors, then why not also say they need not merely (adequate) space, but the state of affairs in which there is (adequate) space? Doesn’t that mean the same thing?

      In one part of my poster, I noted that this kind of “SOA” reading is most easily identified with negatives: no one, nothing, no new taxes, etc., and is most difficult to identify with bare plural nouns and mass nouns (e.g. space).

      Now… with few competitors … you’re right; it’s much harder, maybe even impossible, for me to read this as “There are few competitors such that new species need adequate space with these competitors in it.” There are such things as “scope islands” that block this kind of wide scope of quantifiers. I don’t know if with PPs have been identified as such, but I do know that modifier phrases are often scope islands.

  2. Faldone said

    Context is everything. The term few competitors does not have the same meaning in your two examples. In the example about Neal’s prowess as a runner it means ‘only a small number of individuals’ whereas in the example of the new species it means ‘the condition wherein there are few competing species.’ The rules are not the same for these differing readings.

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