Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Even More Wide-Scoping Operators

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2009

One of my regular readers is Deborah Lipp, who blogs at Property of a Lady, and has written several books on Wicca and paganism in addition to The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book (“One of these things is not like the others,” as she admits in Sesame Streetwise fashion). She also, as it turns out, is a big fan of AMC’s series Mad Men. I learned this when she wrote to me asking a language-related question about the show and mentioning her and her sister’s MM fan blog, A Basket of Kisses. That reminded me that I’ve had a Mad Men-related post sitting in my pile of drafts, so it seemed like a good time to pull it out and consolidate it with a number of other draft posts on the same topic.

The topic is “Wide-scoping operators”, and here’s the example, from the October 18, 2008 episode of Mad Men:

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

How do I know I’m not just going to eat another mushroom and this room will disappear and I’ll be back on the train to Trenton?

This line was spoken by a character named Jane Siegel, who preserved her job at the ad firm by becoming the mistress of Roger Sterling, one of the company partners, who has proposed to her although he’s still married. If you take Jane’s question in a strictly parallel manner, she is asking: How do I know that the following propositions are true?

  1. I’m not going to (figuratively) eat another mushroom (like the kind that had such profound effects on Alice in Alice in Wonderland).
  2. This room will disappear.
  3. I’ll be back on the train to Trenton.

But what she’s really asking is: How do I know that the following propositions are not true?

  1. I’m going to eat another mushroom.
  2. This room will disappear.
  3. I’ll be back on the train to Trenton.

In other words, the not that’s embedded in the first of the three clauses after How do I know actually takes scope over all three of them.

Here are some other wide-scoping negations I’ve collected. First up is one from June 7, 2008. Doug was telling me about the Time Warp Trio books. In each of these books, the protagonists find themselves transported in time, and have to find a certain magic book in order to get back to the present. Luckily, they always get transported to a location that’s not too far from where the book can be found at that point in time. Doug explained:

The Time Warp Trio

The Time Warp Trio

You wouldn’t be in Mongolia and the book would be in Hawaii.

Next, here’s one from Greg, in a March 16, 2009 blog post about volunteering at the roller derby:

She doesn’t remove her glasses and her hair falls down and the lens blurs. No, she’ll probably kick your ass and then brag about it.

Greg’s not saying that she keeps on her glasses and her hair falls down and the lens blurs. He’s saying that she keeps on her glasses and her hair doesn’t fall down and the lens doesn’t blur. (Or at least, that the combination of these three events doesn’t occur.)

Next are a couple of examples where the wide-scoping operator is a modal. This one is from Laurence Gonzales’s book Deep Survival, in a passage where he talks about why one member of a ski party caught in an avalanche may have performed the profoundly stupid act that triggered it:

For example, he may have smelled the pine forest and it was the same smell he’d noticed the last time he tried hammerheading…. (p. 64)

The uncertainty of the may have is intended to cover both clauses, not just the first one. The other example:

Somebody could have the same model as somebody else and their model isn’t experiencing it. (Amy Saunders, “Modified program guide spurs complaints”, The Columbus Dispatch, May 4, 2008, D2)

Aside from negations and modals, the wide-scoping operator could be the syntax that turns a statement into a question, as in this example that I’ve been hanging onto for quite a long time. I know I’ve had it a long time because it comes from a book I was reading aloud to Doug and Adam, and we’re way beyond this kind of material:

Frances gets hosed.

Frances gets hosed.

Do you want your tea set back and you will give my money back? (Russell Hoban, A Bargain for Frances, 2007)

This is actually a really funny book. Frances’s friend manipulates her into accepting an unfair deal, but Frances expertly violates the maxim of Relevance to countermanipulate her friend into taking it back. Anyway, syntactically this looks like a question coordinated with a statement again, but really the do you inversion on the first clause is intended to turn both clauses into a question: Is it the case that (A) you want your tea set back and (B) you’ll give my money back? The same thing happens in something I once heard myself saying to Doug, so long ago that I don’t even remember when it happened or what was so interesting that I had to take Doug and Adam to see it:

Doug, do you want to come look with me, and then I’ll take Adam to look?

Negation, modals, and interrogatives: three kinds of wide-scoping operators that come up again and again. I’ve found that they’re astonishingly easy to derive in an associative Lambek categorial grammar, easier than a right-node wrapping, provided you don’t require conjunctions to coordinate elements of like syntactic categories. Here, I’ll show you. A Lambek categorial grammar … hey, where are you going? Come back here! It’s simple, I tell you!

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4 Responses to “Even More Wide-Scoping Operators”

  1. […] Men and the Basket and me (me!) are mentioned over at Literal-Minded. Literal-Minded is a linguistics blog; I had written to him in regard to hunting down a potential […]

  2. nenikhkamen said

    Wait. I know I’m late getting here, but I actually want to know how the associative Lambek categorial grammar makes this work. I have a degree in linguistics, and I thought I studied syntax, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. Care to share?

  3. David said

    The “not” as far as I can see does not take “scope” as you put it but is “trapped” as Fowler would define it. You have to carry the negation over to the following clauses.

    How do I know I won’t just eat another mushroom and this room won’t disappear and I won’t be back on the train to Trenton.

    • Neal said

      That’s exactly what’s interesting here: The “not” is syntactically trapped, but despite that, takes wide semantic scope.
      Thanks for making me aware of Fowler’s coverage of this. Do you happen to have a page number, or a word that it’s referenced under? Coordination? Negation? Parallelism?

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