Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Quantity and Relevance’ Category


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 »


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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Linguistics Is for the Birds!

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2010

“I’m so excited that you found lard!” my wife said. “I’ve been looking all over the place for it! How did you find it?”

“Well, first of all,” I said, “our lives must be pretty pathetic if this is what counts as excitement. But anyway, it occurred to me to look in the Mexican food aisle.” Which was true. I’d suddenly remembered a tortilla recipe that came with a tortilla maker my wife and sons gave me for my birthday a few years ago, and the recipe called for lard. And there it was, in the Mexican aisle, labeled in both English and Spanish (manteca). But before I remembered the tortilla recipe, I tried to find lard in the baking supplies aisle.

“Luckily, there was a guy stocking groceries in that aisle,” I said. “But I hesitated to ask him about lard…”

“Why?” asked Doug.

“Well, he was kinda fat,” I told him. “But it was OK. I just said, ‘Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but is this the aisle for lard? And I really am talking about lard, I’m not trying to insult you or anything.'”

“Oh, Neal, you didn’t,” my wife said, in a tone of dismay.

“No, I just said, ‘Is this the right aisle for lard?’ and he pointed me to the shortening, and I said it had to be lard, and he didn’t know where it would be after all.”

“I know some people who would have done it like you said,” my wife said. “They’ll say, ‘No offense, but…’ and then you knock yourself out trying to figure out what they were saying that they thought you might take offense at.”

Wow. I’m glad I don’t know those people. Anyway, the reason my wife wanted lard so badly is that she and Doug are still into watching and feeding birds, enough that it has occurred to her that it would be more economical to make their own suet blocks than to buy the pre-made ones, and the recipe she found calls for lard.

Refilling the bird feeders has also become one of Doug’s regular chores, although it’s an easy one to forget when there’s snow on the ground and it gets dark early. After a couple of days of asking Doug to refill the feeders and finding out at bedtime that it hadn’t been done, my wife spoke to Doug before school one morning:

“OK, Doug,” she began. “When you get home this afternoon…”

“Yes?” said Doug.

“…while it’s still light outside,” my wife continued.

“Yes?” said Doug.

“Go out and fill the bird feeders.”

I was listening while I packed Doug’s and Adam’s lunches. “You know, Doug,” I said, “This just goes to show how one little word can change a sentence into a fragment.” I was remembering our previous discussions on this topic, and knew a teachable moment when I heard one.

“‘You get home this afternoon’ — you, subject; get home this afternoon, predicate,” I explained. “‘When you get home this afternoon’ — you know there’s more. ‘It’s still light outside’ — sentence. ‘While it’s still light outside’ — you know the main sentence is still on the way. ‘Go out and fill the bird feeders’ — now there’s your sentence!”

My wife laughed, and Doug just kind of shook his head as he cleared his breakfast dishes. That was probably the last either of them thought about it for the rest of the day. But I kept thinking about it, and at supper that night, I had to make a retraction.

“You know how I said the when and the while told you that there was more to come?” I asked Doug. “Well, maybe not. Your mom could have just said, ‘This afternoon, you’ll get home from school’: a complete sentence. But you’d still have said, ‘Yes?’ And if she’d said, ‘It’ll still be light out,’ that’s a full sentence, but you’d have still been waiting for her to get to the point.”

I didn’t get into stuff about the Maxim of Relevance, or a rising intonation at the end of a sentence instead of a falling one. I didn’t even explain the main lesson I took away: a reminder that what qualifies as “a complete thought” syntactically, maybe even semantically, is not always the same as a complete thought in terms of a real conversation.

“You’re learning how I operate!” my wife said.

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Quantity and Relevance, The wife | 8 Comments »

That’s So Disabled!

Posted by Neal on May 28, 2009

The good news: Adam has picked up some more of the language of his peers. The bad news: It’s the adjective retarded. The good news: He’s not using the word to insult people. The bad news: He’s using it to describe things that only someone with mental retardation could appreciate, as in That’s retarded! This usage makes sense only with the support of a presupposition that mentally retarded people like things that other people find stupid, but that kind of argument is going to be hard to explain to a kid. This is the same kind of semantic shift as happened with gay — from describing a person to describing something that only that kind of person would like, with the hearer implicitly asked to agree that gay people like things that other people find stupid. There are kids for whom this connection is so attenuated that they refuse to believe it, saying, “It’s not insulting to say something is gay! You’re not insulting a person, you’re just saying the thing is stupid”, and I’m sure I’ll hear the same kind of defense of retarded as a thing-describing adjective.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Diachronic, Quantity and Relevance, Taboo, The darndest things | 19 Comments »