Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Quantity and Relevance’ Category

Retain vs. Re-elect

Posted by Neal on October 24, 2006

Ann Fisher, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, had an eye-opening piece yesterday. She talks about a gambit used by political parties…

…in which the incumbent resigns before his term ends.

The party then appoints a replacement who has the advantage of incumbency in the next election. This is legal. Politicians and their party leaders, be they Democrats or Republicans, sometimes plot such shifts weeks, months, or even years in advance.

The point is that both parties do it. But they don’t like to admit as much because the idea offends some voters.
Ann Fisher, “Both parties love to play monkey move up,” The Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 23, 2006, p. D1)

The idea certainly offends me, so I was glad to read Fisher’s next paragraph, which offered some information I could use:

How can you tell the difference…? Look for the campaign signs urging voters to “retain” instead of “re-elect” a candidate.

A-ha! I’ve seen those signs, and never realized the significance of the wording. But now that Fisher has laid it out for me, I see it’s a clear case of Q-based narrowing. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “[Q-based narrowing] happens when word B denotes a specific kind of what word A denotes. Eventually, word A comes to be used as if it refers to everything word A denotes except for the things that word B denotes.” Here, word A is retain, and word B is re-elect, a specific way of retaining someone. If you can unambiguously and truthfully say re-elect, implicating that a candidate was good enough to get elected before, why on earth would you choose the less specific retain? You wouldn’t, and now retain on campaign posters is used to refer only to keeping someone in office who wasn’t elected to it.

Posted in Quantity and Relevance | 3 Comments »

Adam’s Pragmatics Lesson

Posted by Neal on September 28, 2006

“I’m stopping at the drugstore on the way home to get some more eyeliner,” my wife announced as the four of us got ready to leave the place where we’d met her for dinner. “Does anyone need anything from there?”

Adam thought for a second, and then asked, “Will you look for anything I might like at the drugstore?”

“Sure, I’d be happy to do that, Adam!”

As we walked to the car, Adam did a few excited hops, while I was thinking about the exchange between him and his mom. That’s pretty neat, I thought. Asking her to look for something he might like when he couldn’t think of anything was a nice example of the kind of flexible thinking that Adam just didn’t do a couple of years ago. Ask him an open-ended question like that, and all you’d get was silence or an “I don’t know.” And just listen to how he naturally employed the Maxim of Relevance in his request: He just asked her to look for stuff he’d like, not actually asking her to buy it, knowing that part was understood. This is the kind of stuff that’s notoriously hard for kids on the autism spectrum to get.

So I guess I should have restrained myself when we were all buckled in and Adam said, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Quantity and Relevance, The darndest things, You're so literal! | 1 Comment »

In an Abusive Relationship

Posted by Neal on August 14, 2006

“Aha!” Mom said one day during her visit last week, as she read Dear Abby. “I knew there’d be some letters about this guy!”

“What guy?” I asked.

Mom explained: A few weeks earlier, there had been a letter written by a man who said he’d been in an abusive relationship. The letter was strange, not because it had been written by a man (since both men and women can be victims of abuse), but because as you read the letter you realized that the writer had been the abuser, not the abused. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Quantity and Relevance, You're so literal! | 13 Comments »

The Beloved Sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon in D

Posted by Neal on June 25, 2006

We got a set of windchimes last week that maybe one of these days I’ll get around to hanging somewhere outside. When I opened up the box, there was a little card explaining that these windchimes would play Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Now that was an amazing breakthrough in windchime technology. Apparently, the makers had somehow figured out how to make the chimes sound in a particular order so as to play the famous Canon in D. This I had to hear. How had they done it? Was there a motor in there or something?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Advertising, Quantity and Relevance | 17 Comments »

A Polyglot of Characters

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2006

I feel used. Back in November, my wife and I watched Lost every week–watched the story of the hitherto ignored survivors from the tail of the plane, saw the death of another principal character, basically tuned right in for the November sweeps just like the network wanted us to. And then, after we’d given them what they wanted? An unannounced string of preemptions and reruns for a whole month! I tell you, it’s a sad state of affairs when you can finish watching an episode of a show, notice that they haven’t shown you any previews for an “all-new episode” the following week, and from that draw an accurate quantity implicature that there ain’t gonna be one. At that point, you’ve accepted reruns and preemptions as the default, and know not to expect a new episode unless they tell you to expect one.

Anyway, they’re finally showing new episodes again, and as the VCR records tonight’s, I’m thinking about something written in Entertainment Weekly about the show in the Dec. 30/Jan. 6 issue. They said:

Lost has used that license to create not only a noodle-cooking mythology but a polyglot of unique characters–damaged souls fumbling for enlightenment and redemption in the damnedest of places–played by the best ensemble cast on television.
(Jeff Jensen, “Treasured Islanders: The Cast of Lost, p. 44)

I’m not sure quite what they meant by “noodle-cooking mythology”, but I was even more perplexed by “a polyglot of unique characters”. I mean, the only characters who are known to even come close to polyglot-hood are Sun (who speaks Korean and English), Sayeed (English and Iraqi Arabic), Shannon (English and French), and maybe Hurley (Hispanic background, but I can’t remember hearing him speak any Spanish), but I kind of thought you had to speak more than just two languages to qualify as a polyglot.

Of course, what they meant was something like “myriad”. To someone who didn’t bother to look it up, polyglot must probably sound like some sort of collective noun, with -glot sounding like a cross between a clot and a glut, the poly- obviously contributing the meaning of multiplicity, and the whole word meaning something like a big group of various things.

As it turns out, Ben Zimmer read the same article and was caught by the same passage, and posted a message to the American Dialect Society listserv, quoting the passage and adding:

Googling on “a polyglot of” finds all sorts of possible objects: races, ethnicities/ethnic peoples, religions/religious beliefs, nationalities, histories, intelligence agencies, regulations, buildings, etc., etc. Is this a new usage, or has it been flying under the lexicographic radar?

Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary replied:

The OED’s draft entry for this (no longer labelled “rare”, by the way) doesn’t split it out, but has the note “Also in extended use”….

So it looks like it’s been around long enough to have been noticed by the OED writers. But hey, what about my clot/glut/polyglot connection? Has anyone looked into that? (I’d do it myself, but… you know…) And hey, what if you had a big group of people of varying backgrounds and personalities, and they all spoke lots of languages? Could you have a polyglot of polyglots?

Posted in Lexical semantics, Quantity and Relevance | 2 Comments »

With Holiday, it’s Quantity that Counts

Posted by Neal on December 10, 2005

When I was a kid, I thought Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, and Merry Christmas were interchangeable phrases, to be used according to one’s whim on Christmas cards or tags on presents, or when greeting someone in person. Only years later did I learn that (1) there were actually other holidays than Christmas during December, and (2) the first two phrases were often seen as wimpy, politically correct generalities used by people who wanted in on the fun (or increased sales opportunities) of Christmas without actually having to recognize it as a Christian holiday.

But, of course, there are holidays other than Christmas that come near the end of the calendar year, so what are you supposed to say if you want to wish someone some kind of seasonally appropriate holiday wishes? Sure, if you know they celebrate some particular holiday, you can mention it specifically. But if you don’t, I guess the complainers’ answer would be just not to say anything at all. Actually, one answer I’ve heard is just to say “Merry Christmas” to anyone you please, and trust that no non-Christians will take offense at your carelessness. And if any do, tough noogies for them.

If you don’t like either of those options, then it’s useful to have a general term (holiday) that covers the disjunction Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day. (And what about Easter or Passover or Halloween/Samhain or any other holidays during the year? I’ll save that for another post.) People who universally condemn the phrase Happy Holidays are, IMO, willfully ignoring other widely celebrated holidays that are out there. However, the complaints you hear this time of year go beyond just Happy Holidays, into the more general substitution of holiday for Christmas in other contexts. And here I’m with them: Violations of Grice’s Maxim of Quantity are annoying.

I’ve mentioned the Maxim of Quantity before (here and here), and Semantic Compositions talks about it here, but to give a couple of new examples, imagine someone who introduces himself to you by saying, “Hi, my name is either Bill or Frank.” Oh, you infer, he goes by either name. But later, you find out that his name is definitely Bill, not Frank, and that nobody knows him as Frank or calls him Frank as a nickname. Bill has been perverse and uncooperative in not providing you as much relevant information as he could and should have. Or suppose a company tells you that for a fee, it will notify you whenever someone requests a credit report on you from “one of the three credit-reporting agencies.” It knows that you will interpret one of the three to mean any of them, but actually the way they operate is that they notify you only when someone requests a report on you from Experian, which after all, is “one of the three credit-reporting agencies.” (This example comes from Glen at Agoraphilia, but I can’t find the relevant posting.) If they had respected the Maxim of Quantity, they would simply have said Experian, rather than phrase things in such a way that the possibility is created for other, inaccurate interpretations.

And now, suppose that in December you go to a store selling “holiday trees” (to take one of this year’s most ridiculed examples). Accepting that holiday(s) at this time of year refers to the set including Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, New Year’s Day, etc., then it sounds like the store is selling trees for two or more of these holidays. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a Hanukkah tree or a Thanksgiving tree. They’re selling Christmas trees, so calling them holiday trees violates the Maxim of Quantity in the same way as the earlier examples.

On Christmas Day last year I had to call the customer service line for some company, and got this message: “Our office is closed for the holiday.” There’s only one holiday I know of that occurs on December 25th, so what is the vagueness accomplishing?

Actually, we spent our Christmas in a hotel, because an ice storm had knocked out our power two days before, and it was down to 40 degrees in our house (and I don’t mean Celsius). The newspaper talked about people who’d had to take shelter in school gyms for “a warm, if not miserable, holiday.” (I think they meant “warm, if miserable”.) The only holiday in that time frame was Christmas. Were they worried that not all of those in the shelter celebrated Christmas? Well, if they weren’t having a warm but miserable Christmas, they weren’t having any other warm but miserable holiday, either, so why say holiday at all in that case? (I checked: Hanukkah began December 7 last year, and Kwanzaa doesn’t start until the 26th.)

Though the holiday examples violate the Maxim of Quantity, they don’t cause the confusion my earlier examples did. In those examples, you don’t know Quantity has been violated until you learn that Bill’s name isn’t Frank, or you find that someone has obtained credit cards in your name and you were never notified when the credit cards requested your credit history. With the holiday examples, cultural knowledge makes the meaning clear, but you know at once that something is a little weird, and you wonder why. If they could have simply said “Christmas” and didn’t, what was the reason? Is there something shameful about it? This is the kind of reasoning that leads many Christians to take offense, and even causes some of the more conspiracy-minded to talk about a War on Christmas.

I don’t think it’s a war on Christmas. For one thing, it’s not always even Christmas that gets replaced–I had someone wish me a pleasant holiday on the day before Thanksgiving, and Googling the phrase “holiday menorah” produces a number of hits (not counting ones that say, “holiday tree is as dumb as saying holiday menorah“). I think it’s just that some people get in the habit of replacing some specific holiday name with holiday in situations where there’s a good reason to, and then overgeneralize. In other words, don’t attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Posted in Christmas-related, Lexical semantics, Quantity and Relevance | 5 Comments »

Chocolatey Enough for a Woman…

Posted by Neal on May 9, 2005

As Adam’s therapy has moved into more social goals, we’ve incorporated “Community Trips” into his programs. He and we and one of his therapists take a trip to a museum or the zoo or the OSU Chimpanzee Center or someplace, the idea being that more natural conversations can be encouraged this way than by sitting at the table, saying, “My favorite food is pizza” and waiting for Adam to say, “Oh! My favorite food is hot dogs.” One of our recent trips took us to the Columbus North Market, and as we were wandering around trying to promote conversation, I saw this at a store selling Japanese food:


Men’s chocolate? Ten steps later on, it still didn’t make any sense. It was so weird that I had to go back and take a picture of it with the camera we’d taken along to record that day’s community trip. (It looks like these guys were similarly bemused.)

The next week, the picture was in Adam’s Community Trips scrapbook, in time for him to go through the book with his therapist and reminisce with her about the stuff they’d done on the latest outing. His therapist liked the picture so much that she asked for a copy to show to her Women’s Studies class. Her Women’s Studies professor liked it so much that she put it up on the bulletin board in the department. And all her Women’s Studies classmates agreed: If men’s chocolate has to be specifically labeled as such, then one must conclude [NW: by the Maxim of Quantity] that all other chocolate must be women’s chocolate. (Or, I suppose, X’s chocolate for any X that is not a man.) I can’t fault their reasoning.

But what is so manly about this chocolate? Is it the shape? No, by that logic, any chocolate in bar form would be men’s chocolate. Besides, Pocky’s ordinary chocolate has the same shape. If someone has the answer, please enlighten us.

Posted in Food-related, Quantity and Relevance | 12 Comments »


Posted by Neal on April 17, 2005

Doug’s been reading a few of Louis Sachar’s Marvin Redpost books, and the one he’s been reading now (Marvin Redpost: A Magic Crystal?) is full of fun linguistic lessons just in the first two chapters. It opens with a syntactic ambiguity, in this exchange between Marvin and his teacher:

“Excuse me, Mrs. North,” said Marvin. “When’s the book report due?”

“I told you Tuesday,” said Mrs. North.

Marvin nodded.

Mrs. North returned to her papers.

He still didn’t know when the report was due. Did Mrs. North mean that it was due Tuesday? Or did she mean that she told him on Tuesday when it was due?

In chapter 2, Sachar moves on to pragmatics. Marvin is invited to go home with his classmate Casey, whose house he has never visited before. On the way to her car, this dialogue ensues:

“I hope you like cats,” said Casey.

“Oh, sure,” said Marvin.

“You’re not allergic?” Casey asked.

“I don’t think so,” said Marvin.

“That’s good,” said Casey.

“Do you have a lot of cats?” Marvin asked.

“No, I’m allergic,” said Casey.

Casey expresses concern over whether Marvin likes cats seemingly apropos of nothing; Marvin assumes she is abiding by the Maxim of Relevance and has a reason for doing so, the most likely one being that there are cats in her house and she is looking out for the comfort and well-being of her guest. But no, she has no cats, and was apparently just violating the maxim. Casey, it seems, is a little bit off, an impression reinforced by the conversation two pages later:

“I’m going to have to call my mom when we get to your house,” he said. “She thinks I’m at Stuart’s.”

“Do you know your phone number?” asked Casey.

“Of course,” said Marvin. “Don’t you?”

“No,” said Casey.

That surprised Marvin. He’d known his phone number since kindergarten. “You should,” he said.

“Why should I?” asked Casey.

“I don’t know it either,” said Casey’s father from the front seat.

That really surprised Marvin. “Did you just move or something?” he asked.

So now Sachar is into the semantics lesson. Marvin intends his “Don’t you?” question to mean, “Don’t you know your phone number?” while Casey is taking it to mean, “Don’t you know my phone number?” Or as semanticists put it, Marvin intends the “sloppy identity” reading (where the you in know your phone number refers to either Marvin or Casey as appropriate), while Casey takes the “strict identity” reading (where it starts off referring to Marvin and continues to do so).

The resolution of the misunderstanding comes a few pages later, along with the revelation that Casey really was obeying the Maxim of Relevance when she brought up the subject of cats: The title of the book he’s been carrying for his report is A Thousand Cats.

A Magic Crystal? is clever and entertaining aside from the linguistically relevant parts, but I do have one minor complaint about it. When Marvin or Casey makes a wish with the magic crystal for something to happen in the future, they say, “I wish,” followed by a present-tense indicative clause–for example, “We wish nobody in Mrs. North’s class is sick tomorrow,” (p. 27) or “I wish I don’t get hurt” (p. 24). That’s not how wish is used in the English I speak. You could say, “I wish nobody would be sick tomorrow.” The trouble now is that it sounds as if it’s understood that someone is liable to be sick. If that’s not the case, you either substitute hope for wish, or go for an infinitival clause: “I wish for nobody to be sick tomorrow.” Sometimes Sachar uses wish in a more normal way, though. When the wish is a present-time counterfactual (i.e., for things to be other than they are right now), Sachar has the characters use a past subjunctive, the normal usage in my grammar: “I wish I had an ice cream sundae” (p. 20), or “I wish you’d shut up!” (p. 46). Does this pattern of usage for wish hold for any of you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Kids' entertainment, Lexical semantics, Quantity and Relevance, Reviews, Sloppy and strict anaphora, Syntax | 4 Comments »

I Love You, You Love Me, Barney Loves Polysemy

Posted by Neal on October 3, 2004

Now that it’s October and Halloween is on the horizon, here’s a recommendation for a Halloween video that Doug enjoyed a few years ago: Barney’s Halloween Party. Even after Doug lost interest, I still got some use out of the video when I talked about lexical semantics in an introductory linguistics course I taught. When I introduced the idea of polysemy (different but related meanings of a word, also discussed here), I played this part, where Barney is looking at a list of Halloween party items that the kids need to get:

Barney: Hmm, now let’s see what’s on Ms. Kepler’s list… a ladybug…
Curtis: She wants us to get a ladybug?!
Barney: Uh, no, there’s a ladybug on the list! Go on, now, shoo! Fly away home! Now, where was I? Oh, yes, Ms. Kepler wants us to get pumpkins, dried corn, and apples!

Hah! That Barney is something else! He took advantage of polysemy of list to crack a joke. There’s the “physical object” sense of the word, the one in play in sentences such as:

I spilled ketchup on the list.

Then there’s the “information” sense of the word, the relevant one in sentences such as:

There are ten items on the list.

Curtis naturally thought Barney was using list in its “information” sense, while Barney was secretly using it in its “physical object” sense.

Of course, in order to fool Curtis, Barney had to violate one of the rules of conversation, i.e., that you should make your contribution relevant. Curtis, assuming that Barney was being a cooperative speaker, and therefore respecting the Maxim of Relevance, had to conclude that Ms. Kepler wanted them to procure a ladybug.

In fact, there’s some other disregarding of conversational maxims in this video. Not long after the ladybug bit, Barney and his friends pay a visit to Farmer Dooley to get some of the items on the list. When they arrive, Farmer Dooley is nowhere in sight, but all of a sudden, a scarecrow perched on a fence moves, and the following dialogue ensues:

Scarecrow: Can I help you, little girl?
Hannah: (surprised) Uh, yes, sir, I guess so. Can… can you really talk?
Farmer Dooley: (emerging from behind fence) Talk? ‘Course I can talk! Why, I’ve been talking ever since I was just a little boy!

Instead of violating the Maxim of Relevance himself, Farmer Dooley plays dumb by seeming to blithely accept a violation of Relevance by Hannah. If Hannah were being a cooperative speaker, and believed she was being addressed by a normal, human speaker, the question “Can you really talk?” would be a flagrant violation of Relevance (unless it’s intended as an insult, that is). But Dooley proceeds as if no violation has occurred at all, as if it’s perfectly normal to ask your conversation partner if they can really talk.

Linguistics has deepened my appreciation for the subtle humor of Barney.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Polysemy, Quantity and Relevance | 2 Comments »

The Chicken Says “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!”

Posted by Neal on July 29, 2004

“OK, next story,” I said, and picked up the next library book in the stack. It had a great big black and white rooster on the front.

“This one’s called Bob. Looks like it’s about a chicken.”

“A rooster,” Doug said.

“Right, and roosters are chickens.”

“Roosters are boy chickens,” Doug clarified.

“Right, so, all roosters are chickens,” I said. “OK, here we go: Bob, a rooster, lived with a bunch of chickens. Well, he is a chicken, for crying out loud! The chickens clucked all day long, and so did Bob: ‘Cluck, cluck, cluck.’

And so did Bob? This was getting ridiculous. That was like saying, “Smart people shop here, and so do I!” I turned the page.

One day Henrietta told him the truth. ‘Bob,’ she said, ‘you are not a chicken. You are a rooster.’

Ai-yi-yi! It’s not enough for this author just to imply that roosters aren’t chickens; she has to turn it into a lie by saying it outright!

Larry Horn has given this kind of rooster-chicken situation the name of Q-based narrowing. It happens when word B (in this case rooster) denotes a specific kind of what word A denotes (in this case chicken). Eventually, word A comes to be used as if it refers to everything word A denotes except for the things that word B denotes. So for rooster and chicken, chicken is commonly used to mean all kinds of chickens except for those that are roosters. Other examples are easy to find: thumb-finger, square-rectangle, rectangle-quadrilateral, lesbian-gay, senator-congressman. And just as in the “you’re not a chicken” quotation above, in the right context you can say things like, “That’s not my finger, that’s my thumb” and get away with it (sometimes even when I’m within earshot!), even though it’s still true to say you have ten fingers.

So why am I so irritated with Bob? I think it’s because this time, there is another word, also more specific than chicken, that means “all chickens except for roosters”: hens! Why couldn’t the author just say Bob lived with a lot of hens, and have Henrietta the cat tell him he wasn’t a hen?

Oh, wait a minute. Uh, I guess hen doesn’t cover chicks…

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Lexical semantics, Quantity and Relevance | 12 Comments »