Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Pragmatics’ Category

Talks at Appropriate Times

Posted by Neal on April 7, 2011

Doug’s report card came home last week, and on the list of nonacademic, behavioral characteristics, he had a minus for “Talks at appropriate time.” I knew from the conference with his teacher last month that Doug had no problem speaking up at appropriate times. What he does have a problem with is not talking at inappropriate times. I tweeted about the grade:

Glen tweeted in response:

Good point! Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Conditionals, Pragmatics | 6 Comments »

Adam’s Free Time

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2011

Every summer when Doug and Adam take swim lessons (at the pool I’ve talked about before), I put up with the instructors calling the crawl “freestyle,” bringing up yet another generation of kids to think that freestyle means crawl. I can understand this usage in the Olympics, because there, freestyle really does mean you can choose your stroke, and it’s just that for most swimmers, you’d be a fool to choose anything but the crawl. And as a linguist, I can understand the process by which freestyle undergoes this semantic narrowing. But as always, I don’t have to like it, and what the swim teachers call freestyle, I continue to call the crawl.

So what got me thinking about swimming, here in the middle of winter? Conversations I have with Adam, which go something like this one:

Me: OK, time to do your homework.
Adam: But I haven’t had any free time today!
Me: Sure you did! You slept until almost noon this morning.
Adam: I mean I haven’t had any video game time!

Or this one:

Me: All right, let’s do some violin practice.
Adam: So you’re saying I get no free time at all? Because after this it’ll be time for showers and get ready for bed!
Me: You had an more than an hour of free time between when you got home from school and supper.
Adam: But Doug was on the P[lay]S[tation]3 almost that whole time!

No. No R-based narrowing of free time on my watch. In my house, it will continue to refer to time you can spend as you wish, regardless of whether you spend it playing video games.

Posted in Adam, Quantity and Relevance | 5 Comments »

No One Would Be Better

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2011

Of course you’ve read, at some point, lists of sentences taken (supposedly) from letters of recommendation whose authors were unable to gracefully refuse to write them. Instead, the letter-writers damn with faint praise, with sentences like, “John always came to class on time.” Or they offer carefully ambiguous phrasings like, “I can’t recommend him highly enough.” The ambiguity there is easily enough pinned down: Is it impossible to recommend him highly enough because he is so good that no recommendation can do him full justice, or because of ethical considerations (you cannot do it because you know he’s not suited for the job).”

How about this one? “No one would be better for this position than Jen Smith.” Yeah, I get it: The hidden meaning is that Jen Smith is so incompetent that having no one at all take the job would be preferable to hiring Ms. Smith. But where does that ambiguity come from? It’s not one of the kinds I’ve written about enough to have created a category of posts for it: attachment ambiguity, scope ambiguity, de dicto/de re. There is something to say about it pragmatically: If the author had wanted to unambiguously convey that Jane Smith was the best candidate, they could have done so by writing, “Jane Smith is without question the best candidate for this job.” The fact that they wrote something that could be interpreted two ways indicates that they didn’t wish to send that message. Still, we’re left with the question of how this sentence is able to encode both these messages.

The same kind of ambiguity comes up in proverbs such as No news is good news and Half a loaf is better than no loaf, and unremarkable sentences like Well, a peanut butter sandwich ‘s better than nothing, or I suggest no liquids after 11:00 PM. Under ordinary quantifier semantics, these sentences would mean that there is no such thing as good news; that there exists no loaf that half a loaf is better than; that a peanut butter sandwich is the worst thing that exists; and that there are no liquids that I suggest after 11:00 PM.

I’ve wondered for years how this ambiguity is represented in formal semantics, and have figured that it’s so pervasive that someone must have covered it somewhere. It doesn’t happen just with no. It also happens with quantifiers such as too many, as in Too many cooks spoil the broth. That sentence doesn’t mean that there are too many broth-spoiling cooks in town (though it could); it means that when you have too many cooks, you end up with spoiled broth. But after studying semantics for years and still never coming across anything on this kind of ambiguity, I figure it’s time to offer my own analysis, and that’s what I’ll be doing in Pittsburgh this Saturday, at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference. My poster is titled “‘No news is good news’: The quantifier/SOA ambiguity in English”.

SOA stands for “state of affairs”, which is what I take the meanings of the above examples to involve: the state of affairs in which there is no one hired, there is no news, there is half a loaf or a peanut butter sandwich, there are no liquids after 11:00 PM, or there are too many cooks. All these SOAs are SOAs in which something or other exists (instead of, say, SOAs in which something happens or someone does something), and in fact, this kind of ambiguity only occurs with noun phrases that fit comfortably in sentences fitting the template There+be — in other words, with indefinite or existential NPs. For example, you can’t say, “There are most women in this class.” And when you replace no or too many with most

Most news is good news.
Most cooks spoil the broth.

— you don’t have an SOA reading anymore. These sentences mean that most of the news in the world is good, and that more than half of all the cooks out there spoil broth.

If you’re attending the conference, stop by and check out the poster. If you’re not, or if you’re just impatient, you can click on the poster below to see it now.

Click to access full poster

It took me a long time to buckle down and do the poster, though, because there was one piece of data that I kept trying to cover, but could only do so at the cost of letting this quant/SOA ambiguity occur with all NPs, not just indefinites. Can you think of the common saying that caused me so much grief? No fair if you’ve already examined the poster! Stay tuned for the answer in the next post.

Posted in LSA, Pragmatics, Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 9 Comments »

Doug Visits the Lost and Found

Posted by Neal on December 22, 2010

Last year, Doug started to get a reputation among his friends as a guy who will do crazy things. At the end-of-school pool party, his friend Ken dared him, for $5, to eat a slice of pizza that someone had dropped on the ground. Doug ate it and collected an easy $5. (When my wife found out, she was so horrified that she told him, “The next time that happens, come to me! I’ll give you $5 for not eating it!” Doug and I agreed that if that policy had been in place, he would have tried to get an offer of $20 from Ken before refusing.)

At the end of a course of eight weekly lectures on drug abuse and how to resist peer pressure, he resisted the peer pressure (and teacher pressure) to write an essay that concluded with his pledge not to abuse drugs. He wrote that the program had provided some good information, but could be improved by not glossing over issues like medicinal marijuana, and that although he didn’t plan to abuse drugs, it wouldn’t be because of a pledge that was involuntary and therefore meaningless. According to Doug, it was the only essay to get a round of applause from the students.

Last Friday, Doug came into the lunchroom carrying a green glove that his friends didn’t recognize. As he sat down to eat, Ken asked, “Where’d the glove come from?”

Doug said, “I picked it up at the Lost and Found.”

“You just took it from the Lost and Found?”


Ken began to laugh. This was crazy! He turned to the others at the table. “Hey, guys, Doug just took this glove from the Lost and Found!”

They laughed in disbelief. You just never knew what kind of random stunt Doug would pull. But after a minute or so their amusement turned to concern.

“Doug, you can’t just go taking stuff from the Lost and Found!”

“Doug, why would you want that glove?”

“Doug, this is not cool, man!”

“Well,” Doug said, “it is mine….”

I had been less than happy when Doug came home with only one of his new green gloves on the very first day he wore them. Good for him for taking the initiative to look for it at the Lost and Found. And way to violate the Maxim of Quantity for fun and laughs!

Posted in Doug, Quantity and Relevance | 6 Comments »

Senators, Representatives, and Congressmen

Posted by Neal on November 2, 2010

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column about how and when congressman, which on its face would seem to be synonymous with member of Congress, came to refer to members of the House of Representatives to the near-exclusion of senators. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when I heard someone on NPR talk about a low-population Western state’s “lone congressman“. Wait — the fewest congressmen (or congresswomen) any state should have is three, right? Two senators and one representative. As is often the case, it turns out that this usage been going on for a long time, in this case maybe even for as long as there has been a U.S. Congress, since the word congressman predates it.

But these days, congressman is even less appropriate than it was a hundred years ago, since now there are women in the House (not to mention the Senate). So the feminine equivalent congresswoman has been created, and to refer to either congressmen and congresswomen, the supremely awkward congressperson (first citation in OED, 1972). This word should never have been created. (Note: I’m not taking the untenable position that it’s not a word. But I still say it was stupid to create it.) If you want to talk about a representative, why not just say “representative”? Or, if you want a word that can refer to either a senator or a representative, member of Congress will do the job less awkwardly, and without the confusion that’s bound to occur when people interpret congressperson to mean “representative”. And what about more than one congressperson? Congresspersons? Congresspeople?

In the VT column, I attributed the constrained meaning to Q-based narrowing, which I’ve also talked about in these posts. However, representative also has semantic and phonetic factors working against it. On the semantic side, congressman/-woman does have an advantage over representative: It refers to a member of Congress, as opposed to some other kind of representative. Anyone who represents someone is a representative, but only a representative in Congress is a congressman/-woman.

Phonetically, representative is a troublesome word because it has an [r] in a consonant cluster beginning with a bilabial stop, i.e. [p]. Furthermore, this [pr] cluster is at the beginning of an unstressed syllable, and these circumstances almost guarantee difficulty in pronunciation. Look at what’s happened to Feb(r)uary, p(r)erogative, and lib(r)ary. (Nancy Hall at California State University at Long Beach has done some research on this “short-distance r-dissimilation,” but it’s not published yet. But if you’re curious, you could take a look at some of her other work in progress, on long-distance R-dissimilation, in words like pa(r)ticular and gove(r)nor.) There’s also the fact that representative has five syllables to congressman‘s three, or congresswoman/-person‘s four. Finally, there’s the decision you have to make when pronouncing the nt in the middle. Do you do a nasalized flap (scroll down), or carefully pronounce the [nt]?

In the course of my research for the VT column, I also found that usage of congressman/-woman and representative varies by region. In one post to the alt.usage.english newsgroup, Ed Williams wrote:

I’ve found that the term “congressman” can refer to either a Representative or a Senator depending on the local parlance of different areas in the US. Back in New England where I grew up, for some reason we always talked about “congressmen and senators.” When I lived near Wasington, DC, you tended to hear people refer to the Representatives as just that. Out here in the western US, everyone seems to speak just of “congressmen” in the broad term. What’s odd around here, however, is that when you hear people addressing the politicians directly, you hear “Mr or Ms So and So” for Representatives and “Senator” for Senators. Different traditions, I suppose. Personally, I find using the term “Representative” all the time to be a little too officious and that “congressman” (or “-woman”) just feels a little more neighborly.

There were two threads on this topic on alt.usage.english. The Williams post was in the earlier, shorter, and more even-toned thread. The later, much, much longer, and at times rather heated thread was entertaining because of the strident posts by a guy named Bob Lieblich, who insisted that not only was congressman/-woman used exclusively to refer to members of the House, but that even the plural congressmen/-women only referred to representatives, never to a mixed crowd from both houses, no exceptions. Here’s a sampling:

i don’t know what to say. Where I am (see below), “Congressman/woman/person” means someone in the House — period. It does not mean or include “senator” — ever. I live three miles or so from where these people hang out (when they’re not fund-raising), and maybe out there in Podunk or Peoria there is someone who, hearing the word “Congressmen” or the phrase “Members of Congress,” allows for the possibility that some senators are meant, but that’s not what the words mean where the people described by those words assemble.

Interesting: For Lieblich, even members of Congress doesn’t cover both houses. But continuing, when one participant wrote, “Neither Congressman nor Congressperson should be used as a title, Lieblich showed little patience:

Sorry, both are, by the very people to whom the title applies.

Can’t argue with the content. Upping the stakes, Lieblich wrote:

And here’s a dare: Find anything in the Congressional record that clearly uses “congressman” or “congressperson” to mean or include senators.

Okay, senators and congressfolk are not the final word on English usage. (Thank God.) But they use the labels for their positions the way I use those words, and until I am shown something (other than unsupported opinion) that indicates I am wrong, I’m going to keep insisting that I’m right.

Bob Lieblich
I am, you know

When one participant told Lieblich, “I can say: Senator Boxer is a congressperson,” Lieblich responded with this howler:

Well, of course you can. And any knowledgeable American speaker of English will wonder what you are trying to convey. Forgive my asking, but are you a knowledgeable American speaker of English? If so, what has led you to think that you can call a Senator a congressperson and have anyone understand what you are saying?

I guess it just goes to show that word meanings, like Constitutional rights, fade when they’re not exercised.

Posted in Ambiguity, Consonants, Lexical semantics, Quantity and Relevance, Variation | 13 Comments »

The Un-Unwritten Rules

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2010

I don’t get too much use out of page-a-day calendars. I’ll rip off a page a day and put it in the recycle pile for a while, until I forget for a week or so, and then I just won’t bother catching up. After that, the page-a-day calendar is just an extra-fancy pile of scratch paper, which may take years to use up. I got a Latin phrase-a-day calendar in 1996 that I finally finished about three years ago, and in my office there’s a page-a-day calendar of brain teasers for I don’t know what year anymore.

However, Doug and Adam and I have been amusing ourselves with a page-a-day calendar called the Hidden Curriculum. It’s put out by the Autism Asperger Publishing Company, and is intended to provide written rules for many occasions, for people who don’t do so well with unwritten rules. For example, here’s a useful one that I actually learned on my own while growing up: “When your parents are lecturing your sister or brother about something they have done wrong, it is not a good idea to laugh or make fun. You may end up getting in trouble yourself.” Others, though, can cramp one’s style a little bit. “Don’t blow your nose on your napkin”? I’ll have to make a note of that one.

The rules are compiled from submissions from users of calendars from previous years, and sometimes I find myself imagining the circumstances that inspired someone to write down a rule. Was it an inconvenienced parent of a friend of an autistic kid who sent in “Don’t invite yourself to someone’s house. Wait for an invitation”? Was it an autistic kid’s own outraged parent who sent in “You should not have to buy gifts for or give money to your friends to keep them as friends”?

Many of the tips are translations of idioms like “Cat got your tongue?” or “I’m all ears.” Doug and Adam and I got a laugh when we pictured the inspiration for writing this one: “When someone calls ‘shotgun’ as she is leaving, that means she is claiming the front passenger seat in the car, not that there is a weapon.”

But some of these rules were not written with sufficient allowance made for an audience that has difficulty making generalizations. “If your grandmother tells you to “hold your horses,” she means that she wants you to wait or slow down.” OK, so what if your mother or a friend of the family tells you to hold your horses? Does it mean something else in that case?

And then there’s this piece of advice for people who might not know the social niceties:

If you meet a person with a service dog, ask if you can pet the dog. It may be busy helping the person, so you need to let it do its job. It performs an important function.

Reading this one, I imagined not the rule-writer, but the confused rule-reader, thinking, “But what if I don’t want to pet their dog? I never knew it was rude not to pet someone’s service dog. Good thing this calender has clued me in, so I’ll never make that mistake again!”

Posted in Pragmatics, Reviews, You're so literal! | 6 Comments »

As Is Often the Case

Posted by Neal on August 11, 2010

The front of a birthday card I was looking at said

As is often the case, many of the world’s great discoveries are accidental.

When I read As is often the case, I’m expecting to read about a specific event or circumstance that fits into a larger pattern. Some examples from CoCA:

  • The truth, as is often the case, is a little less dramatic.
  • As is often the case in such situations, the bank offered her “cash for keys”
  • But, as is often the case, the defeat wasn’t entirely Baratieri’s fault.

In the first example, the general pattern is that things are usually not as dramatic as you’d imagine. The specific case is the truth. In the second example, the general pattern is the kind of situation where the bank offers “cash for keys”; the specific case is that of whoever her refers to. In the third example, the general pattern is that defeats are often not entirely the fault of the defeated. The specific case is that of this Baratieri.

So on the front of the birthday card, the specific case is great discoveries made by accident. The general case is … what? Great things not limited to discoveries? Great discoveries not limited to our own world? If any of you can make sense of this, let’s hear what it means to you.

Oh, and as for the great discovery illustrated on the front of the card? It’s not worth repeating. Just a cartoon by some guy trying to imitate The Far Side.

Posted in Pragmatics | 5 Comments »

Reach For It

Posted by Neal on March 24, 2010

A few years ago, I wondered if eating something healthy (healthful, if you insist) wasn’t enough; you had to enjoy it, too. After all, the brochure said

To lower your risk of cancer, enjoy 3 to 5 servings of fruit per day.

Well, I guess the answer is no. Look at the advice offered in these messages:

  • Craving candy? Reach for fruit instead (link)
  • When anxiety strikes, reach for homeopathic remedies. (link)
  • In Sugar Blues author William Dufty has a chapter titled Reach For A Lucky Instead Of A Sweet, where he seeks to demonstrate that sugar is far more dangerous than tobacco. (link)
  • 10 Healthy Snack Choices You Should Reach For Every Week (link)
  • Currently most teen girls are getting far less than the recommended 700 milligrams of calcium per day. So, reach for foods rich in calcium now. (link)
  • Reach for the chocolate – it’s healthy (link)
  • When to Reach for a Sports Drink (link)
  • Reach for the foods that don’t come with a long nutrition label, such as broccoli, spinach, apples, brown rice, whole wheat flour, fresh fish, nuts, or beans. (link)

You don’t need to enjoy it. You don’t even need to eat it. All you need to do is reach. If it’s right in front of you, just move back a few steps, and then reach. You have to watch out, though. Look at these:

  • Not only are our minds preoccupied with the stressor at hand, but our bodies are telling us they desperately need support, so we reach for foods that provide quick energy. (link)
  • Emotional eaters also tend to reach for foods that are high in fat, sugars and calories instead. (link)
  • Reach for a banana, not Doritos. (Doug remembers reading something like this in a Weekly Reader article on nutrition.)

Just as merely reaching for the right things does you good, merely reaching for the wrong kind of stuff can do you harm.

Posted in Advertising, Food-related, Quantity and Relevance | 4 Comments »

Turning the Gun on Yourself, Revisited

Posted by Neal on March 10, 2010

The top headline on the front page of The Columbus Dispatch today was “Janitor’s desperation turns deadly at OSU”. The subhead read: “Nathaniel Brown lashed out by killing his boss, Larry Wallington, and wounding supervisor Henry Butler Jr. before killing himself”.

“Before killing himself”? I thought. That’s not how they’re supposed to say it! However, I think they only worded it this way because of space constraints. Down in the text of the story, they used the customary phrase for events such as this one:

Early yesterday, Brown walked into the Ohio State University building where he’d worked since October and killed his supervisor, shot another boss and then turned the gun on himself.

The Google News Archive didn’t exist when I wrote that earlier post. I took a look through it just now, and the earliest attestation of “turning the gun on himself” or “turned the gun on himself” is this one from 1897:

John Nichols shot and fatally wounded Joseph Lewis today and then turned the gun on himself with fatal … (link)

What’s interesting is that in most of the examples I’ve looked at from near the turn of the 20th century, the writers go on to say what happened after the gun-turning. Even when the result was fatal and not just an injury, they’ll usually spell it out rather than assume the reader will draw the right conclusion. A few examples:

…the brother turned the gun on himself and sent a bullet through his brain. (link)

he suddenly halted, faced his pursuers and then turning the gun on himself fired the fatal shot. (link)
W. S. Crews, an old and prominent resident of this place shot, killed his wife, then turning the gun on himself, put a bullet into his own head and died an hour afterward. (link)

I’ll leave it as a research project for some inspired reader to go through the archives year by year to find out when turn the gun on [one]self started to convey the meaning of actually successfully committing suicide with a gun.

Posted in Ohioana, Quantity and Relevance | 3 Comments »

You Probably Think This Song Is About You

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2010

Last week I heard Melissa Block and Michele Norris on NPR, talking about Carly Simon’s 1973 hit “You’re So Vain”. In case you haven’t heard the song, here it is:

Every now and then over the years I’ve read something somewhere about who inspired the song. Apparently, it’s a persistent unsolved mystery of pop music, and in her recently released re-recording of the song, Simon supposedly whispers a clue as to the identity of this vain person. NPR had done a story on this the week before, and when I tuned in, they were reading a letter from a listener in response to it. Here’s what Melissa Block said:

A different mystery about Carly Simon’s song haunts Gerald Pollock of North Haven, Connecticut. He muses, “What I don’t get is the line ‘you probably think this song is about you’. But the song is about the vainee, whoever he may be. So why would she write that line?” Mr. Pollock continues, “That’s been bothering me for 37 years.”

“Vainee”? Well, that’s another blog post. However, I am sympathetic to Pollock’s question. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Music, Quantity and Relevance | 7 Comments »