Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Quantifier/SOA ambiguity’ Category

Content with Nothing

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2015

Today’s newspaper had a story from AP about one Dylan Miller, a college student in Pennsylvania who has been living, Thoreau-like, in a hut in the woods since last summer, as part of a research project. As I read in the article:

The title of his project–Content with Nothing–carries a double meaning.

Of course it does. It’s the old ambiguity between the quantificational meaning and the state-of-affairs meaning. Why don’t we let Miller explain it for us? He starts with the quantificational meaning (emphasis mine):

We can’t be content with anything, really. Nothing can make us content; we’re always looking for something else,” Miller said.

In other words, there exists no x such that we are content with x. Now how about the state-of-affiars meaning? Miller explains this one, too:

“And then the solution, content with nothing, means we are content with having nothing. We don’t look externally for satisfaction or desire luxury. So the whole project is how to get to that final state of contentment.”

"The title has a quantificational meaning, and a state-of-affairs meaning!"

I call this the state-of-affairs meaning because in it, nothing means the state in which we have nothing, or nothing exists. Miller expressed it more concisely by using a gerund phrase: having nothing.

Miller seems pretty taken with the double meaning in his project title. Maybe he hasn’t been sensitized to quantifier/SOA ambiguities; he’d’ve only been five or six years old when the “show about nothing” aired its last episode. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t stop by my 2011 LSA poster presentation on the subject, either.

Posted in Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 2 Comments »

New Species Need Few Competitors

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2011

Gotta blog this now, so I can recycle page G3 of the Sunday paper:

Stigall said new species, which need space and few competitors to establish themselves, didn’t have a chance to develop in an environment domianted by invaders.
(Spencer Hunt, “Driven to extinction? Researcher believes invasive species might have caused biodiversity disaster 370 million years ago.” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 16, 2011, p. G3)

Let’s simplify this sentence and compare it to another one:

Neal’s fastest time in the 100-yard dash can be beaten by few competitors.
New species need few competitors (in order) to establish themselves.

Now let’s paraphrase each sentence by starting with There are few competitors that. You can do it with the first one, but not with the second:

There are few competitors who can beat Neal’s fastest time.
#There are few competitors that new species need in order to establish themselves.

The meaning is totally changed. With the original sentence (well, the adaptation of the original one), we could conclude that if there are zero competitors, so much the better for new species. But with the attempted paraphrase, we can conclude that zero competitors is no good; there has to be some minimum number of them in order for new species to survive.

What’s going on? It’s another quantifier/state-of-affairs ambiguity. The intended meaning of the adapted original sentence is: “New species need a state of affairs in which there are few competitors in order to establish themselves.”

Posted in Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 6 Comments »

All Work and No Play

Posted by Neal on January 7, 2011

In my last post, I wrote, “…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 (i.e., those that could fit into the sentence frame There+be). Can you think of the common saying that caused me so much grief?” I promised the answer in the next post, so here it is:

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Taken compositionally, this sentence would mean the following:

Every kind of work makes Jack a dull boy, and no kind of play makes Jack a dull boy.

The intended meaning, of course, is something like, “When everything is work, and nothing is play, that state of affairs makes Jack a dull boy.” This is a somewhat different paraphrase than I was giving the SOA interpretations in the last post. There, I was using there-existential sentences. If I had been writing about a simpler sentence like No play makes Jack a dull boy, I would have rephrased it as “When there is no play, that makes Jack a dull boy.” But now I’ve switched to “When nothing is play….” I did that so it could be syntactically parallel to when everything is work. I had to rephrase All work that way, because rephrasing it as “There is all work” is no good. All isn’t one of those existential determiners that fit into the there+be frame.

And the problem is not just that There is all work sounds funny. If I used the same formal semantics on all work as I used on the existential noun phrases like no play, too much beer, or more money, it would mean “the state of affairs in which all the work exists.” Well, that SOA is trivially true. All the work that exists exists. For that matter, all the anything that exists exists, and that’s not what the sentence means.

So the SOA meaning that worked for no play doesn’t work for all work. On the other hand, the SOA meaning that does work for all work is also fine for no play. So why not just go with an analysis that uses the SOA meaning semantics for all work?

Well, now that I’m letting one non-existential NP have the SOA meaning, I’ve essentially opened the gates for any NP at all to have it. I could theoretically say something like Neal makes Jack a dull boy and mean “The state of affairs in which Neal exists makes Jack a dull boy.” Furthermore, I don’t even think that all itself participates in SOA meanings outside this expression and its derivatives. I did a quick search in COCA for all plus a noun and didn’t find anything. I limited the search to all plus a noun followed by the verb mean, since that verb is especially fond of SOA NPs for subjects and direct objects. When I did that, I turned up All options means all options, but even there, I think something else is going on. It’s really not so much an actual use of the NP all options as it is a mention of it, a quotation of a snippet of a sentence: “When I say ‘all options’, I mean ‘all options’.” So for that reason, I’m sticking with SOA semantics for existential NPs only, and excluding All work and no play as an individually learned idiom.

My poster session is from 10:30 to noon tomorrow, so if you’re at LSA, come by and tell me why I’m all wrong about this!

Posted in LSA, Quantifier/SOA ambiguity | 9 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 »