Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Pragmatics’ Category

Modal Miscommunication

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2015

I got a Facebook message from someone who had friended me based on my linguistical online presence. From his profile, he seems to be Middle Eastern. He was asking about graduate linguistic programs in the United States, and whether I knew of professors who had similar research interests to his. Trying to be helpful, I asked about his research interests, then mentioned a few of the professors at Ohio State, and wrote:

I would check the CVs or webpages for [these syntacticians] and email them if you’re interested in asking about studying at Ohio State.

I saw later that the Facebook friend had responded. I was startled to see that he was thanking me for being willing to do that for him.

Whoa! I wanted to be helpful, but not that helpful! At least, not for someone that I only know through Facebook. Where did he get the idea I was offering to actually craft an email for him? I looked again at my previous message, and then wrote back:

I’m sorry, I miscommunicated. When I wrote “I would email them”, I was using an implicit conditional sentence, in which I left an “if” clause unsaid. If I had written it fully, it would have gone “If I were in your situation, I would email them.” This is a way of making a suggestion or giving advice, but it was not an offer to email these professors for you. I think an email coming directly from you would be better, although if you wish, you can mention my name (for example, “Neal Whitman recommended that I …”).

By the way, to make an offer, I would probably write “I COULD email them” (to mean “I could email them if you wanted me to do so”), or “I CAN email them” (to make the same offer, but more emphatically), or “I WILL email them” (to indicate that I intend to do it without waiting for you to accept my offer).

I know that it’s often tough for English-language learners to get a grip on all the shades of meaning for all the modal verbs in their different tenses. If any of you have learned both English and some other language that’s not your native language, what do you think? Are English modal verbs (and quasi-modals like ought to and have to) harder to learn than similar verbs in other languages?

Posted in Language learning, Lexical semantics, Modal verbs, Politeness | 7 Comments »

Stop Creating!

Posted by Neal on January 13, 2014

You know, I really liked the first film I saw Shia LaBeouf in, and the second one wasn’t too bad. I was always a bit bugged by the clear misspelling of his last name, which I knew from high school French II should have been LaBoeuf, but I wouldn’t let a petty thing like that cause me to boycott a movie. But I’ve been increasingly incredulous of the unfolding story about LaBeouf and a graphic novelist named Daniel Clowes, and I’m inclined to boycott LaBeouf now. Here’s the recap for those who haven’t been following it:

  1. LaBeouf produced a movie titled Howard
  2. Daniel Clowes observed that large portions of the dialogue were plagiarized from his book Justin B. Damiano.
  3. LaBeouf apologized on Twitter.
  4. LaBeouf apologized numerous other times on Twitter, plagiarizing other notable apologies.
  5. LaBeouf apologized via a message in skywriting over LA.
  6. LaBeouf then tweeted a storyboard, supposedly for his next movie project, which clearly plagiarized from another of Daniel Clowes’s works.
  7. Clowes’s lawyer sent LaBeouf a cease-and-desist letter demanding that “he must stop all efforts to create and produce another short film that misappropriates Mr. Clowes’ work….”

You can read more about this here, here, and here, but here’s where the story takes a linguistic turn, so this is our stop.

Ben Zimmer emailed me to tell me about how LaBeouf was deliberately misreading the cease-and-desist letter. He sent along a few links that I’ll share. First, here’s an image of the original letter, along with LaBeouf’s edited version:

And here’s another message he delivered via skywriting:

In addition to copping out with the bullshit claim that all authorship is plagiarism, LaBeouf’s carryings-on exemplify two argument techniques that really get under my skin. One is the deliberate cutoff, exemplified in the classic dialogue:

A: Why did you do this?
B: Well, I didn’t think I–
A: That’s right! You didn’t think!

The other is the straw-man technique, which I often get from my sons. Take a demand from your opponent, amp it up to its most extreme, idiotic version, then belittle your opponent for being so naive as to make such an extreme, idiotic demand. In this case, “stop creating a particular kind of thing” becomes “stop creating (anything)”.

Thinking about the syntax of the butchered sentence, though, I wonder if LaBeouf has realized that he can carry his half-ass mis-parsing even further, to arrive at a completely grammatical parse that’s even more to his liking. Here’s the structure of the intended parse:

A conjoined verb

The and is joining the smallest constituents it can join: the verbs create and produce. The shared direct object is another short film that misappropriates the word of Daniel Clowes. But LaBeouf wants to break the connection between create and produce, and have create its own verb phrase, meaning “engage in any kind of creation.” Well, in that case, what do we do with the and? Instead of hooking up the two single verbs, it will have to hook up the next larger constituents: the verb phrases stop all efforts to create and produce another short film…. So the parse would be like this:

Coordinated verb phrases

So if he wanted to, LaBeouf could argue that this letter actually requires him to produce another short film that misappropriates the work of Daniel Clowes. Syntactically, it’s impeccable. Semantically, there’s the problem that the verb produce in the movie-making sense entails creating, so he couldn’t satisfy both requirements. Pragmatically, there’s the oddity of requiring that someone do something that involves lawbreaking (i.e. misappropriation). But hey, it’s about as logical as what he’s been doing already, so what the heck?

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Coordination, Movies, Pragmatics | 5 Comments »

Before You Drink That

Posted by Neal on August 8, 2013

As Adam was getting the DVD cued up and the subtitles turned on, I saw Doug walk in with his movie snacks: a bowl of chips and a tall glass of milk. A tall glass of milk! I had to speak up, fast:

Hey, Doug, before you drink that milk, you want to go for a run after the movie?

Doug’s response, naturally, was “What?” The before bit and the after bit were clashing with each other. What sequence of events was I proposing? Movie first, then run, then milk? But then how could he drink his milk while watching the movie?

But I’d bought myself enough time that I could explain what I’d meant. Doug had been wanting to do some running, in preparation for the grueling physical conditioning that he knew he was in for in band camp. Sometimes I would go running with him. The other relevant fact was that Doug had discovered that drinking a big glass of milk before he played a game of soccer or went on one of these runs usually wasn’t such a good idea. I just wanted to suggest the possibility of going running so that he could make his decision right now, and then drink the milk or save it for later accordingly.

In other words, before you drink that milk wasn’t modifying go for a run; it was modifying the whole sentence do you want to go running after the movie?. Actually, even that isn’t entirely accurate. Before you drink that milk was modifying the entire utterance. It was as if I was saying,

Before you drink that milk, I ask you: Do you want to …?

Cribbing from the introduction of a paper by Chris Potts, I see that modifiers like these have been called utterance modifiers, second-order adverbs, and pragmatic adverb, and illocutionary adverb. Others include frankly, just between you and me, and the oft-criticized usage of hopefully. Potts himself notes that they have a “metalinguistic” feel, using a word that I used in a recent post, and which my brother Glen asked me about in the comments. Metalinguistic describes something whose meaning isn’t part of the ordinary meaning you get from a phrase by using ordinary rules of grammar; rather, the meaning is about the speaker’s attitude. The best-known example of metalinguistic stuff is probably metalinguistic negation, a term coined by Larry Horn to describe utterances such as, “It’s not a shtraw, it’s a straw.” The speaker is not denying that the object is a straw; they’re objecting to someone’s pronunciation of the word straw.

So I had sandwiched the heart of the clause do you want to go running with an utterance modifier Before you drink that milk at the beginning and a VP modifier after the movie at the end. Doug, however, had taken them both as VP modifiers.

Here’s a diagram of just Do you want to go running after the movie?. You know after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run because the two phrases are under one roof, which is the bigger VP go for a run after the movie.

Watch the movie, then run.

Now here’s a diagram of just Before you drink that milk, do you want to go for a run? with the before clause modifying the entire utterance, as I intended. (I don’t have a way of distinguishing sentential modifiers such as probably and utterance modifiers like frankly, but since that difference isn’t the main point of this post, I won’t worry about it.) You know that before you drink… is modifying the entire sentence do you want… because the two chunks combine to form another, bigger sentence.

Before you drink that, lemme ask you a question

Now here it is modifying just the VP go for a run. It looks almost the same as the earlier diagram, but there’s one difference. Notice that the PP label for before you drink… has a subscript 1, and that next to go for a run, there’s an empty place where you might find an adverb phrase, labeled GAP, with a matching subscript 1. This is the syntactic structure of a sentence with a so-called “extracted adjunct”; i.e. a verb modifier put at the beginning of the sentence instead of the usual place for VP modifiers.

So how do we parse before you drink… as modifying go for a run? Like this:

Run first, then drink

Now what happens if we try to parse a clause with both an extracted VP modifier and one in situ? It’d look sumpm like this:

Movie, run, drink; what's the problem?

Here, after the movie is modifying the VP go for a run, and before you drink that milk is modifying the larger VP go for a run after the movie.

In any case, Doug didn’t want to go for a run that day, so he drank his milk, ate his chips, and watched the movie. He did fine at band camp, by the way. He’s quite happy with the six pack that has begun to appear on his torso, and has surprised himself with how many pushups he’s become able to do in one go.

UPDATE, 10 Aug. 2013: What the hell happened?! The post that readers were commenting on up until now is not what I thought I had published! The whole bit about two PPs trying to fill the same spot is, as Randy noted, not a problem, and I thought I had taken that whole paragraph and diagram out. Furthermore, there was other stuff that I added, which did not appear in what got published. I have re-done the revisions that apparently didn’t stick last time, and the post in its current form is what I intended to publish.

Posted in Ambiguity, Pragmatics, Syntax | 15 Comments »


Posted by Neal on May 2, 2013

Doug and Adam and I watched Food, Inc. a month or so ago. I learned that the main reason for all these E. coli contamination scares and subsequent beef recalls we keep having is that a lot more E. coli grows in bovine digestive tracts when cows are fed corn instead of grass. If ranchers would just let their cattle feed on grass, one expert said, most of the E. coli problem would solve itself, without a need for all the prophylactic antibiotics that they’re giving the cattle now.

So I asked at my grocery store if any of their beef was grass-fed. None was. But when I was at a different grocery store last weekend, I noticed they had packages of ground beef with green labels. As we know, green labels mean the food is healthier for you, and more environmentally friendly, so I took a closer look. Great news! The label said that this beef had been produced with “no antibiotics ever.” OK, cool. Now how about the grass-fed thing? I kept looking, and saw that the label said “Vegetarian fed.” Excellent! I’d pay 20 cents extra for that! I threw it in the cart.

Then it occurred to me that the only place I’d ever heard of non-vegetarian fed cattle was in the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode from 2009. That’s the episode with the “Krusty Burger Squared,” made with the meat of cattle that have been fed with the meat of other cattle. But whether you’re feeding your cattle with corn or with grass, they’re vegetarian-fed. So what difference between this beef and the other beef was the label vegetarian-fed referring to? Maybe they meant that that the feedlot workers who fed these cattle each day were vegetarian. Or that the cows ate vegetarians!

Well, there is one other possibility: vegetarian-fed is the marketers’ way of violating the conversational Maxim of Relevance in order to get me to think their beef is grass-fed, without actually lying and saying it is. The Maxim of Relevance, as regular readers will know from previous posts, is the principle that if I tell you something, it is not something that I think you already know. If I think you already know that all the beef you’re going to find in the grocery store is vegetarian-fed, then I’m not going to tell you that. So if I go ahead and tell you anyway that the beef in this special green packaging is vegetarian-fed, you’re going to assume I’m telling you something you don’t already know about this beef, something that has to do with the way it was fed. If you already know that cattle are by and large corn-fed these days, then that might be all you need to fill in the gaps and conclude that this is grass-fed beef. That’s what happened with me.

But the company is not respecting Relevance, because that vegetarian-fed business really isn’t telling us anything unusual about this beef. Why not respect Relevance and actually say “grass-fed”? Well, that would be a lie. (In terms of Grice’s Conversational Maxims, this would be a violation of the Maxim of Quality: Don’t say stuff you know isn’t true.)

Despite the violation of Relevance, the opposing Maxim of Quantity makes things clear. That’s the principle that says to be as informative as necessary. Grass-fed is more informative than vegetarian-fed, so if it’s true, they should say it. Since they didn’t say it, it’s probably not true. And so it comes to pass that vegetarian-fed, which could theoretically encompass grass-fed, is sometimes understood to be a synonym for corn-fed. In practical terms, I guess it is.

Posted in Advertising, Food-related, Quantity and Relevance | 7 Comments »

Waste or Recycle, Please

Posted by Neal on July 29, 2012

Elliot Anderson sent me this picture from a trip to Disneyland or Disney World (he didn’t say which), and told me, “I didn’t know whether I should waste or recycle.”

As I wrote in response:

I think either of these messages would be OK on its own, but together, they generate the kind of puzzlement you experienced. When I’m in the post office and I see the trash can labeled “Waste,” I get a micro-chuckle about imagining that they’re encouraging me to waste stuff, before coming back to the message of “(Put your) waste ([noun] here).” I would do the same thing at Disney World for a trash can by itself. But right next to a recycle bin with a similar message, you get the interference. Unlike waste, recycle cannot (yet) be used as a noun, so you’re forced to interpret the message as an explicit command. And then by association, you want to do the same with the garbage can, essentially being forced to give it the stupid reading.

Posted in Ambiguity, Pragmatics | 2 Comments »


Posted by Neal on April 1, 2012

We hear a lot about partisan gridlock in Congress these days, so it’s nice to hear about times when Congress (or at least the House of Representatives) can lay politics aside and just get the job done, as they did in 2009 when they declared March 14 National Pi Day. Adam’s math teacher has taken the resolution to heart, and spent a couple of weeks in March teaching his class lots of formulas involving π, including both surface area and volume of spheres, cones, and cylinders. Adam asked for some help on that cylinder worksheet, and I found that the poor guy had actually been doing the multiplication of π by hand, instead of just doing like you get to do once you hit pre-calculus and leaving all the answers in terms of π. Furthermore, he was doing them by hand, and worst of all, he was doing it twice in the formula (πdh)+(2πr2). The first thing I did was convince him that (πdh)+(2πr2) was equal to 2πr(h+r), so at least he’d only have to multiply by π once.

He did the first six problems, which all had labeled diagrams of cylinders to go by, but got confused when he got to the last three problems, which moved from diagrams to verbal descriptions of various cylinders. In particular, he was uneasy about #8, which asked for

the surface area of the outside of a cylindrical barrel with a diameter of 10 inches and a height of 12 inches.

Just looking at the words, I figured Adam would have to start by finding the surface area of the side: 120π square inches. Then there would be the ends to consider. Assuming the thickness of the side was negligible, the surface area on the inside would be the same as on the outside. So two ends, each with a surface area of 25π square inches. In other words, the exact same procedure as finding the surface area of any cylinder.

So why did the worksheet creators go to the trouble of asking about the outside of a barrel, when the outside and inside surface area were going to be the same anyway? That seemed like a pretty clear violation of the Maxim of Relevance.

Or was it? As seeming violations of rules of conversation will do, this one made me look a little closer at the situation. I looked at problem #7, and found that it was asking for the

surface area of a can with a radius 4cm and a height of 11cm.

I looked at #9, and found that it was asking for the

curved surface of a D battery with a diameter of 3.2cm, and a height of 5.6cm.

And with that, the task in problem #8 became clearer. In #7, you had to find the complete surface area of a cylinder; in #9, the surface area of a cylinder without its top or bottom. If #8 were about a cylinder with a bottom but without a top, that would make a nice progression, and I was convinced that that was what the worksheet creators had been after.

Posted in Quantity and Relevance | 3 Comments »

Why To Bother?

Posted by Neal on December 29, 2011

A couple of months ago, I caught a few minutes of a local morning news show. Coming up was a segment featuring a guy selling a system that would protect your gutter from leaf debris and other gunk. As a teaser for the segment, just before the commercial break, there was a message on the bottom of the screen saying

Why to clean your roof

That one phrase poked a hole in what I’d thought was an interesting case of complementary distribution, which I’d only noticed a few weeks before. I had been thinking about tenseless clauses — clauses in which the verbs don’t have tense, such as Me worry? More specifically, I’d been thinking about tenseless WH questions, such as What to do?, which you might find as rhetorical questions or in soliloquies. For most WH words, the tenseless question uses an infinitive. If you just use the plain form of the verb, it’s ungrammatical:

  • what to do / *what do
  • who(m) to call / *who(m) call
  • where to go / *where go
  • when to go / *when go
  • how to do it / *how do it

For one WH word, though, the pattern is reversed. At least, that’s what I thought:

*why to bother / why bother

I wondered if semantic, pragmatic, or functional differences between tenseless why questions and other tenseless WH questions might explain the difference in syntax. One difference in pragmatics that occurred to me is that the who/what/where/when/how questions are asking the details about an action that you’ve already decided you’re going to do. The why question does not make this presupposition. If you’re asking for a reason to do something, you haven’t decided you’re going to do it yet. But I didn’t see how that would bear on the choice of an infinitive over a plain verb form.

A functional difference that I noticed is that tenseless who/what/where/when/how questions are usually asked to oneself, often in literary contexts (a fact that CGEL notes), with an intention of finding an answer. The why question, on the other hand, is often asked of someone else, with the function of advising against a course of action, the understood answer being “there’s no reason to take this action.” Again, though, I didn’t see what that would have to do with the choice of an infinitive over a plain verb.

There was also, I thought, another syntactic difference, beyond the use of an infinitive or a plain verb form. The infinitival WH questions could stand alone as questions to oneself, or as embedded questions: I know {what to do, who(m) to call, where to go, when to go, how to do it. The tenseless WH questions using the plain form of a verb do not work as embedded questions: *I don’t know why to bother. But this difference still didn’t seem to say anything about the other differences.

After seeing the teaser on TV, I wondered if the original syntactic difference I’d noticed was real at all. A look into COCA shows that it’s not. Out of 103 results for why to, here is just a handful of the relevant hits to go with why to clean your roof:

  • Students will need clear and understandable (browsable) instructions for how to do this as well as why to do this.
  • He said he wants to cut contracting by 10 percent a year for the next three years, which, if you do the math, is about one quarter – a little more than a quarter of all contractors. Why to do that?
  • Knowing what to do, how do it, and perhaps most important, why to do it has become an integral part of teaching.
  • Here are some common reasons why people write short stories… and why to ignore them.
  • think of how many articles help educate readers about how and why to do something
  • Within a sport applications course devoted to teaching preservice physical education majors how and why to modify outdoor sports for secondary students, a 6-day flag football season structured around the Sport Education model is included.
  • I think we lack common sense at times in our judgments of why to justify something.
  • Instead, money had become why to do anything and everything.
  • Not just telling them to be good people, but how to do it and why to do it.
  • The Navajo storyteller Yellowman was asked why to bother to tell Coyote stories to adults.

I even found an embedded why to question:

But when you can say you are a litigator specializing in construction accidents relating to asbestos removal, then people are going to know why to hire you.

That said, there are still a lot fewer COCA hits for why to questions than there are who(m)/what/where/when/how to:

  • how to: 70K
  • what to: 20K
  • where to: 7K
  • when to: 3K
  • who(m) to: 1.5K
  • why to: 100

Now that I’ve learned that why can indeed go with infinitives, what about the other direction, with WH words other than why going with the plain form of the verb? That’s harder to search for, but if you find one in the wild, please put it in the comments.

Posted in Morphology, Pragmatics | 10 Comments »

It Could Be Months

Posted by Neal on August 5, 2011

I was reading about the temporary funding deal for the FAA this morning, and was confused by this paragraph:

“This issue is still unresolved as far as I’m concerned,” said Dan Stefko, an engineer with the FAA who has been out of work for nearly two weeks. “It could be 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.”

The first time I read it, I was imagining a job that required an FAA engineer to visit different airports on a schedule. The temporary fix was no good because … he had been unable to do his job in the place he had visited most recently, and by the time his route took him there again, it would be 1 1/2 months later, and by then problems that he could have fixed now would have gotten worse. Was that it?

I read it again, and this time took the exact same spot metaphorically, referring to a sudden lack of funding. I finally began to get Stefko’s point: The temporary fix was no good because in six weeks the problem would have to be addressed again. Well, that’s always an obvious objection to a temporary fix, so why was it so hard for me to get that meaning?

I blame the It could be before syntax. If he had said,

We could be right back in the exact same spot in 1 1/2 months

I would have had no problem. By putting the time period up front, Stefko was putting the focus on it, and the usual reason for that is to emphasize how long something is going to take. That is, unless you do something to cancel that assumption, like

It could be as little as 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.

I did some Google searching for “It could be * months|years before”, and just skimming through the first few pages of results, didn’t find any that were emphasizing how little time might pass before something happened. What about you? Can you get the “as little as” reading with It could be ___ before constructions?

Posted in Pragmatics, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Unspoken Messages

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2011

In my last post, I talked about going out for dinner and a movie with the family. The movie was X-Men: First Class, and it was really good! Doug and I both liked how the plot mixed historical events with the fictional — and not just ordinary fictional events, but supernatural ones. Like reading the most satisfying books by Michael Crichton or Tim Powers, there are things you know are fact, and things you know are fiction, but some things straddle the line between plausibility and fantasy so well that you don’t know quite where the seam is. I learned somewhere that the literary name for this genre is low fantasy (as opposed to high fantasy, where the entire setting is made up). On a language-related note, you get to hear German, French, Spanish, and Russian spoken in the movie, in addition to English of course. But I’m pretty sure (as sure as I can be without actually fact-checking) that the adjective bad-ass didn’t exist in 1962.

Anyway, the way we happened to be on this night out is that last Thursday night, my wife was browsing the web while sipping her favorite after-work drink: club soda with cranberry juice and a big wedge of lime. As I was loading the dishwasher, she said, “Hey, they liked X-Men.”

“Who? EW?” I asked. I came over to the couch to look over her shoulder.

“‘James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are–‘” she began, handing me her empty tumbler. As I took it back to the dishwasher, she continued reading the review.

“So are you saying,” I asked, “that instead of Sunday night videos and homemade pizza, we should go have supper at Boston’s and then see X-Men at the Arena Grand? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” (Friday night was out of the question, since Adam and I would be at the Cub Scout campout. More on that in the next post.)

“Wow, that’s quite a detailed message you’re getting there,” she said.

“Well, we’ve been married going on 15 years, so I’m pretty good at picking up on this stuff, you know.”



“Well, there’s one unspoken message that you didn’t pick up on.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I wasn’t giving you my glass to put in the dishwasher.”

I was confused. “Huh?”

She pointed toward the dishwasher where I had just loaded her glass with all the dirty dishes. “I wanted a refill.”

Posted in Movies, Pragmatics, The wife | 2 Comments »

Sorry, Eliot!

Posted by Neal on June 5, 2011

As the wife and kids and I took our seats in Boston’s Pizza, I caught sight of a guy sitting one booth forward of us. It looked like one of those linguists on Twitter I met at LSA 2011 in Pittsburgh back in January. What was his name? I knew his Twitter handle was jeliot, but didn’t remember what the J stood for. In fact, I couldn’t remember much about him at all, other than that we’d met briefly a couple of times during informal linguist tweetups. Didn’t remember what he studied, or where — though apparently he was one of the Ohio State University linguists, enjoying a Sunday evening in the Columbus Arena District, just a mile or so south of the OSU campus. I graduated in 2002, so there are a lot of grad students there now that I haven’t met, or know only on Twitter (for example, KatCarmOSU). Or in this case, met in a tweetup and didn’t remember that they were studying at OSU.

All this was assuming I had the right guy, of course. As soon as we’d ordered drinks, I took out my smartphone and brought up my Twitter app to look for this jeliot and see if the profile photo matched the face that my wife’s face was intermittently obscuring. If it did, I could check the profile for his full name. I did my search and brought up the jeliot page, and found I didn’t even need to check the profile. His latest tweet said:

It was him! I got up, walked over, and said, “I thought that looked like you,” showing him his tweet that I’d just read.

“Wow! What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Having dinner with my family.” I pointed out the wife and kids, who were turning around to see who I was talking to. I introduced myself to his dining partner as Neal.

“I’m sorry,” I confessed. “I don’t remember your real name; I just remembered that you were jeliot on Twitter. Is it Jim, or Jacob … ?”

“It’s Eliot,” he said. “I go by my middle name.”

Oh, one of those weirdos, I thought. Like E. Gordon Gee, or John Calvin Coolidge, or M. Lynne Murphy. “Hey,” I said, “I go by my middle name, too! My first name’s Philip.” Well, that explained why I’d had trouble getting his name straight with the brief words we’d had at LSA.

“So do you live here?” Eliot asked.

“Yeah!” I replied. “Well, in __________,” the nearby city I actually live in. “Anyway, nice to see you. I’ll let you get back to your dinner.” I went back to our booth, where Doug and Adam were asking, “Who was that?”

“He’s an OSU linguist that I met at LSA,” I told them. Then it was time to order our pizza. Half an hour later, we got up to walk around the block to the Arena Grand theater to see the X-Men movie. Eliot and I waved goodbye to each other as I left.

In the theatre, I brought up the Twitter app again to look at Eliot’s Twitter profile again, but first saw that someone had mentioned me in a tweet. I clicked over to check it out, and saw that it was Eliot tweeting about me:

A small world? Oh-kay. Not that that wasn’t true, but the situation didn’t seem to meet the felicity conditions for uttering that it’s a small world. You’re only supposed to say that when you meet someone that in ordinary circumstances you wouldn’t expect to meet, because you live so far apart and haven’t seen each other in so long. It wasn’t that much more unusual for him to run into a fellow Buckeye linguist while out and about in Columbus than it was for me to occasionally see Brian Joseph at the airport, or Bob Levine at a recital for the violin school that his son and Adam go to. Was it?

Clicking over to Eliot’s timeline, I saw that his other recent tweets were a little odd, too. Two hours before our conversation, he’d tweeted:

That’s something I’d expect from someone who hadn’t lived here very long. Or … from someone who’d come to take his town for granted, and had suddenly had his eyes opened by something like the slide I’ve seen in the Arena Grand Theater’s pre-shows, which touts Columbus as the home of the nation’s best zoo, best library, best cancer hospital, etc. Maybe that was it.

Then I finally clicked over to Eliot’s profile page. He had listed himself as J. Eliot DeGolia, of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh! That’s right! He was one of the local linguists who’d shown us out-of-towners some of the locally popular places to eat. Now those tweets made sense, as well as his surprised question, “You live here?” And right within his hearing, I’d been telling me family, as if I’d known him a lot better than I actually did, “He’s an OSU linguist!” I hope he didn’t take offense.

Wait! Why should he? Isn’t it a compliment to be mistaken for an OSU linguist? In any case, sorry for my conclusion-jumping, Eliot, and treating our encounter as offhandedly as something that might happen any old time I visited the OSU library or linguistics department. If I’d remembered you were from Pittsburgh, I’d have asked what brought you to Columbus. I hope you had a good time while you were here. It looks like you did.

Posted in Ohioana, Pragmatics | Leave a Comment »