Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Something Catastrophic Didn’t Happen … Too Bad Something Else Catastrophic Did.

Posted by Neal on August 22, 2004

Glen of Agoraphilia sent me another example of a scope ambiguity a few days ago. Here’s what he wrote:

In the L.A. Times yesterday, I found the following in an article about health insurance:

“In fact, most Californians probably have a family member, friend or co-worker who lacks health insurance, though they may not always be aware of it. ‘You may not know it if they haven’t talked about it or if something catastrophic hasn’t happened,’ Brown said.”

Hmmm. I’m betting this is another case, like “not all are” versus “all are not,” where my grammar must be more restrictive than other English speakers. When I hear, “something catastrophic hasn’t happened,” I don’t hear, “nothing catastrophic happened”; I hear, “there is at least one catastrophic thing that did not happen.” Which, one hopes, is pretty much always. Wouldn’t it suck if all possible catastrophes happened at the same time?

It’d suck, all right. The reading of “there is at least one catastrophe that didn’t happen” can be represented like this, with the negation inside the scope of the existential:

EXIST(x, catastrophe(x) & NOT(happen(x)))

The intended reading of “it is not the case that there is a catastrophe that happened” can be represented like this, with the existential inside the scope of the negation:

NOT(EXIST(x, catastrophe(x) & happen(x)))

I guess Glen out-literals me in this case. Whereas we agree in hearing “Everyone can’t” to mean the same thing as “No-one can,” in this case I have a little easier time getting the correct reading than he does. Instead of immediately getting the narrow-scope negation that Glen gets, I get the intended one, but it comes with a nagging feeling that something’s not quite right, which I then identify as the scope ambiguity.

But whether a reader reacts like Glen does, or like I do, it’s still a case of unclear language that can cause readers to stumble. Of course, some slack has to be cut, since the ambiguous sentence is from a spoken language, not written. I’d guess it’s probably just easier on the fly to negate “Something catastrophic happened” by negating the verb than to work out the interaction of the quantifier and the negation and come up with, “Nothing catastrophic happened.” In fact, I suspect that might be what goes on when people say, “Everyone didn’t pass.”

Even so, I’ve seen plenty of this kind of scope ambiguity in written English, and I’m surprised it doesn’t get at least as much attention in English composition classes as the attachment ambiguities known as dangling participles or misplaced modifiers.

One Response to “Something Catastrophic Didn’t Happen … Too Bad Something Else Catastrophic Did.”

  1. I guess I overstated my reaction, since it was actually more like yours: I knew (almost) immediately what the speaker meant, but it still felt wrong to me. And it was certainly not how I would have expressed the intended idea.

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