Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Comparison’ Category

Softly and Slowly

Posted by Neal on June 18, 2010

I’ve been hearing about the unfortunate choice of words by Carl-Henric Svanberg, the Swedish chair of BP, after meeting with President Obama: “We care about the small people.” I didn’t know what was the big deal about it, such that it’s been getting media attention comparable to that given to BP’s out-of-control Gulf of Mexico gusher, but Lane Greene (writer of The Economist‘s new language blog, called Johnson) explained it well: The phrase “conveys either an aristocratic hauteur or a vision of tiny fishermen straight out of a David Lynch film, neither one of which BP’s chairman intended.”

All this discussion about a phrase that didn’t work so well when translated from Swedish to English reminded me of an email my dad sent me a couple of weeks ago. By the way, Dad (a retired chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry) has an opinion about this mother of all oil spills, too: It’s way, way past time to blow the well up, with nukes if necessary, and the only reason we haven’t heard more about this option (which has been used before) is that BP is still more concerned with protecting its investment in the well.

Where was I? Oh, right, Dad’s email. He wrote:

I am reading an English translation of a novel titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by a deceased Swedish author named Stieg Larsson and translated by a guy named Reg Keeland (nationality unknown). I came across a sentence that sounded weird to me:

What he found was a wiry old man who moved softly and spoke even more slowly.

The weird thing about it was the adverb phrase even more slowly, which implies that there must have been some degree of slowness already mentioned, but the only other adverb in the sentence is softly. My hypothesis was that slowly and softly were translations of a single Swedish adverb, which was appropriate in Swedish for both moving and speaking. I kicked the question over to reader Ingeborg Nordén, who speaks Swedish, and she responded:

According to the online dictionary I checked, the Swedish adverb sakteliga can indeed mean both “softly” and “slowly”. The original author probably used that word twice in the sentence your father quoted … and the translator must have been uncertain about dealing with an “even more” which wouldn’t feel right in English.

So has anyone read this book in the original Swedish? Are we right?

Meanwhile, what could the translator have done to make this work in English? In English, we can compare different adjectives; for example, “You ain’t as green as you are young”, but it’s a bit harder to do it with different adverbs. It sounds awkward to say things like, “He speaks as well as he writes poorly.” And it’s pretty dicey when you compare adjectives with adverbs, too: “If only we swam as well as we look good.” Larsson’s sentence would turn into something like, “a wiry old man who moved softly and spoke even more slowly than he spoke softly.” It sounds pretty bad, but perhaps better than, “who moved softly to degree X, and spoke slowly to degree Y, Y greater than X.”

Posted in Books, Comparison | 11 Comments »

They Swim As Good As They Look

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2009

While I was out and about today, I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt promoting her high school swim team. On the front, it said:

If only we swam as good as we look!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Comparison, Conditionals, Diachronic, Prescriptive grammar, Semantics | 11 Comments »

A Horse as Small as a Dog is Big

Posted by Neal on September 8, 2005

From yesterday’s article by John Rogers of the Associated Press, on the death of Bob Denver, best known as Gilligan of Gilligan’s Island:

[Gilligan] was as lovable as he was inept.

That reminded me of a followup that I’ve been meaning to write for a previous post that talks about comparable and incomparable adjectives. An article by Christopher Kennedy and Louise McNally noted that adjectives whose measurement scales measure the same property can be compared. For example, He’s as wide as he is big is OK, since wide and big measure linear extent. In contrast, He’s as wide as he is punctual is questionable, since wide and punctual measure different properties. My counterexample was John Mellencamp’s song lyric “You ain’t as green as you are young,” where adjectives measuring greenness and youth are compared.

Fellow blogger Blar was on the case. In a comment, he wrote:

Does the phrase “as * as the day is long” count as a comparison with gradable adjectives that map onto different dimensions? The problem with using different dimensions in the ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples is that the original versions use absolute numbers, not relative position on the scale. That is, they are implying that The Bus is high on the scale of width and Marino and Elway are high on the scale of time excelling, but they are not doing this by saying that The Bus is tall and Manning is old. They are suggesting (with some hyperbole) that the number of inches of width (or the number of years of excelling) is the same number as the number of inches of height (or the number of years of life). It is easier to use different dimensions if you are comparing the relative position on the two scales and if the comparison is metaphorical, as in “as happy as the day is long”. The Mellencamp example is an interesting one, because it fits in between the purely metaphorical “…as the day is long” and the highly concrete and quantitative ‘The Bus’ and Manning examples.

His observation fits the data well, including the data he went out and collected later, and put in a subsequent comment:

“…King was as much despised as he was respected.”

“But the ataman was as crafty as he was cruel.”

“During our conversation in my hotel room, Dawkins was as gracious as he was punctiliously dressed in a crisp white shirt and soft blazer.”

“Roisart’s mouth was tight, and he was as concerned as his brother was angry.”

There are many, many more. “Was as generous as he was * ” shows hits for rich, successful, mean, talented, technically brilliant, brave, sometimes enigmatic, tall, and several other adjectives.

In fact, I think we can add one more restriction to his two: To compare adjectives that measure different properties, (1) the comparison must be of positions on the scales, not absolute numbers; (2) it must be metaphorical; and (3) the position on the scale must be high, not low or in the middle. That is, when you say,

He’s as rich as he is mean,

you have to mean that he is very rich and very mean. You can’t mean that he’s not at all rich or mean.

That last restriction seems to be at work even when you compare antonymous adjectives, too. A few weeks ago when I was thinking about the Mellencamp example, I asked my wife to imagine that my glass was completely full, and hers completely empty. In that case, I wondered, could you say this?

Your glass is as full as mine is empty.

“I guess I could on an SAT test,” she said.

“OK,” I said, “and how about if they were each half-full?”

“No, not unless you were making a joke about optimists and pessimists.”

And if my glass was 75% full and hers was 25% full (i.e. 75% empty)? No. Not a chance.

And for another example of antonymous adjectives that have to obey this restriction, here’s the song lyric I said in that other post that I’d talk about. It’s another one from Ralph Covert (other lyrics are discussed here and here), called “Animal Friends“:

Dinosaur babies and cows and pigs
And a horse as small as a dog is big

Wha…? The only way I could get a comparison where X is as big as Y is small would be, once again, one where we’re talking very big and very small. So we could say something like, “A horse as big as a flea is small” to talk about a very big horse. But a horse as small as a dog is big? Covert has constructed some quite clever nonsense here.

Posted in Comparison, Kids' entertainment, Semantics | 7 Comments »

It’s Not Easy Bein’ as Green as You Are Young

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2005

I’ve been reading an article by Christopher Kennedy and Louise McNally in the June 2005 issue of Language, about how the semantics of gradable adjectives affects how they can be used in comparative constructions. In particular, K and M talk about the measurement scales that are built into the semantics of various gradable adjectives, and near the beginning of the article, they discuss three parameters for any such scale: the set of measurement degrees, the ordering relation on this set, and the dimension (i.e., the property that’s being measured). Most of the article focuses on semantic consequences that depend on the first of those parameters, but K&M talk a little bit about the other two. Regarding dimension, they say (351-352):

As shown by the examples in 16, it is possible to construct potentially quite complex comparisons out of distinct gradable adjectives as long as they map their arguments onto scales that share the same dimension. Thus, wide and tall in 16a both involve orderings along a dimension of linear extent, and long and old in 16b involve orderings with respect to temporal extent.

  1. They call him ‘The Bus’ because he’s kind of as wide as he is tall.
  2. [This comparison] is unfair both to him and the quarterbacks like Dan Marino and John Elway who excelled for almost as long as Manning is old.

In contrast, comparatives formed out of adjectives that do not use the same dimension are anomalous.

  1. ??They call him ‘The Bus’ because he’s kind of as wide as he is punctual.
  2. ??These quarterbacks excelled for almost as long as Peyton’s Manning is talented.

Their examples illustrated the point well, but I had this feeling that I’d heard a comparison somewhere of adjectives that didn’t have the same dimension, which was nonetheless OK. Yesterday, I finally remembered it when John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” played on the radio. The comparison was in this verse:

You don’t have to be so excitin’
Just tryin’ to give myself a little bit of fun, yeah
You always look so invitin’
You ain’t as green as you are young

The first time I heard this verse, I had to perform some meaning-preserving operations on it until I could figure out what it meant. “You ain’t as green as you are young,” eh? So in other words, you’re younger than you are inexperienced (green). Or looking at it from the other direction, you’re more experienced than you are old. Ah, now I get it: You’ve been around a bit, and more than one should expect for someone your age. Now according to K and M, this comparison shouldn’t work at all. The dimension for the adjective young is age, while the dimension for green is naivete.

Even so, there is a strong positive correlation between youth and naivete, so maybe we could say that inorder to be compared, adjectives must use scales whose dimensions are saliently related to each other (possibly by being identical, but not necessarily). I wonder if a strong negative correlation for the dimension scales would work, too. Could we say the following?:

You ain’t as green as you are old

At first, I thought not, but I don’t know: If it were followed by, And that’s just as it should be. If you were as green as you are old, it’d mean your learning ability must be profoundly impaired, I might take it.

Or maybe we just say you ain’t as green as you are young flies because it’s a song lyric, and can get away with stuff that ordinary prose can’t. That strikes me as something of a cop-out, but in its favor, I will say that once I’d rephrased Mellencamp’s lyric as “you’re more experienced than you are old,” as I did above, it sounded pretty strange–worse than the original phrasing, even though the meaning was clearer.

After being reminded of the green/young comparison, I remembered another unusual adjective comparison in a song lyric, but it’ll have to wait for another post, since this one is probably already longer than it is interesting.

Posted in Comparison, Music, Semantics | 5 Comments »

Half Less!

Posted by Neal on December 2, 2004

Also during our Thanksgiving visit, I noticed that Grandma drinks different orange juice than Doug and Adam do. It’s Tropicana Light and Healthy, and it proudly states on the carton:

1/2 less calories and sugar than orange juice!

Now I’m not going to comment on the implication that this Light and Healthy stuff is not really orange juice (they said, “than orange juice,” not “than other orange juice”). Nor am I going to comment on the use of less instead of fewer with the count noun calories–although the interesting question arises of whether less or fewer is more appropriate when you’re coordinating a count noun and a mass noun, as occurs in calories and sugar.

What caught my attention on this label was just the fact that half less doesn’t make any sense! Well, it does, but it shouldn’t. Two factors are causing me trouble. First, suppose we were dealing with a whole number instead of a fraction, say three. Three times more than is OK; three times as much as is OK; but three times less than isn’t OK in my dialect, on semantic grounds. However, I know that for some speakers, three times less than is meaningful, having the same meaning as 1/3 as much as, so let’s suppose that’s the dialect used on the juice carton.

But now, applying the same reasoning to 1/2 less than as we did for three times less than, it should mean “two times more than”! Whoa–this Light and Healthy OJ has twice the calories and sugar of regular! Clearly, that’s not what they mean; we need some clear rules for interpreting comparative phrases like these, that will get us logically to the intended reading.

The easy cases are the ones constructed as many/much as. If you have “X (times) as much as” some amount Y, you have X*Y units. This is true whether X is a natural number (as in three times as much) or a fraction (as in two-thirds as much).

More complicated are the phrases with more than. If you have a natural number X, and say, “X times more than” some amount Y, you mean X*Y units. Thus, three times more than Bob has means 3*Y, where Y = the amount Bob has. But if X is a fraction, and you say, “X more than” an amount Y, then you mean (1+X)*Y; thus, two-thirds more than Bob has means (1+ 2/3)*Y, where Y = the amount Bob has.

Now we come to the phrases with less than. If you have a natural number X and say, “X times less than” an amount Y (assuming you speak the dialect in which this is grammatical), then you mean Y/X units. Thus, three times less than Bob has means Y/3 units, where Y = the usual. And what if X is a fraction? The rule seems to be that if you say, “X less than” an amount Y, you mean (1-X)*Y. Thus, two-thirds less than Bob has means (1 – 2/3)*Y, or just (1/3)*Y.

So now, returning to 1/2 less calories and sugar, if we take the above rules to be part of the grammar, the phrase should be OK, right? Well, the semantics works out now, I guess, but it still sounds bad. I think at this point it’s just a prosodic problem: half more and half less just don’t sound right, even though two-thirds more and two-thirds less sound OK. If we pronounced 1/2 as one second, I think it might work, except of course for that pesky unit-of-time meaning for second that would confuse things.

So why did the copywriters, so conscious of how words sound, use this phrasing that’s ungrammatical on semantic grounds for many speakers, and prosodically bad for (I’d say) almost all of them? Why, when the impeccable 1/2 as many is available? I’m guessing they didn’t want to risk a passing shopper catching just a glimpse of the message, missing the fraction, and reading, “as many calories and sugar as orange juice!”

Posted in Comparison, Food-related, Semantics, You're so literal! | 9 Comments »


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