Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Scope ambiguity’ Category

Thoughts on Just Because X Doesn’t Mean Y

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2014

On her Grammar Girl podcast this week, Mignon Fogarty is running a guest script that I wrote on the just because X doesn’t mean Y construction, a thriving piece of English syntax that has come into its own in the last 50 years or so. My favorite example of JBX-DMY is

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

In this post, I go into some of the details that didn’t make it into the script. First off, quite a bit has been written about this construction; the sources I read while writing the Grammar Girl script are:

Weird syntax
JBX-DMY is so common that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t follow the regular syntactic or semantic rules. On the syntactic side, what’s the subject of doesn’t mean? Is it the just because clause? Or is it an understood subject that sometimes gets pronounced, as in Just because it’s easier to raise VC money, that doesn’t mean you should, or Just because it’s wrong, it doesn’t mean it’s not funny?

Weird semanticsFor comparison, let’s look at more regular sentences that contain just because. For example, think about the scope of the “cause” meaning and the negation meaning in Bill isn’t speaking to me, just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke. Depending on the intonation, we can get two readings. I’ll illustrate them by using the notation CAUSE(A)(B) to mean that A caused B. With the intonation suggested by the comma I put in the sentence, we get this reading, with CAUSE taking scope over the negation:

CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(NOT(speaking to me))
(i.e. my serving Bill the CFS caused him to not speak to me)

Without a pause before the just because, and with a a rise-fall intonation at the end of the sentence, we get a reading with a wide-scoping negation:

NOT(CAUSE(serve cat-food sandwich)(speaking to me))
(i.e. Bill is speaking to me, but for reasons other than my serving him a CFS)

However, when we put the just because clause in front, as in Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me, the only reading we get is the wide-scoping CAUSE.

Now consider just because X doesn’t mean Y. In passing, let’s note that just because is now not talking strictly about cause and effect, but about inference. This is not unusual in and of itself, because “inferential because” is a well-known phenomenon. For example, you can say, “Classes just let out, because the hallways are full of students,” but not mean that the crowded hallways caused classes to let out. What you really mean is that the fact that the hallways are full of students allows you to infer that classes have just let out. But what’s interesting about just because X doesn’t mean Y requires that NEG scope wider than (inferential) CAUSE, just the opposite of our cat-food sandwich example:


Variations on the just because and the doesn’t mean
Another point made in several of the articles is that JBS-DMY requires neither just because nor doesn’t mean to work. You can do it with simply because, or in the right context, plain old because. And instead of doesn’t mean, you’ll also hear other negations, such as is no reason to, or doesn’t make, or even rhetorical questions that imply a negative answer.

Just because with of complements, and “because X”
By analogy with ordinary because and because of, Kanetani observes, the just because construction now has a variant with just because of, as in

Just because of his dominance doesn’t mean they’re going to win games of footy or win or the clearances. (link)

The much-talked-about because X construction (in which X is something other than a full clause, such as a noun phrase, an adjective, a participle, or an interjection) has also now been folded into the analogy. Taking the top result from Tyler Schnoebelen’s listing of the most common words to appear in tweets after because, I did a search for “just because YOLO doesn’t mean” and found numerous examples like Just because YOLO doesn’t mean you can act like a moron.

Hilpert believes that the origin of the unusual semantics of JBX-DMY followed a sequence like this:

  1. Unremarkable sentences beginning with just because were already in the grammar, and some of them happened to have negated main clauses; for example, Just because I served him a cat-food sandwich as a joke, Bill isn’t speaking to me.
  2. Such constructions eventually came to be used with the inferential CAUSE meaning rather than a pure causation meaning.
  3. Finally, the inference-denying meaning of today’s JBX-DMY.

There’s a problem, though. In step 1, the semantics has CAUSEcausation>NOT, as discussed earlier. In step 3, the semantics has NOT>CAUSEinference. So there are two changes that have to happen in between: the scope change, and the change from causal to inferential just because. Whichever of those changes happens first, we end up with something that doesn’t seem to have the appropriate meaning, as illustrated below:

Just because he’s my nephew I didn’t hire him!
(Desired meaning impossible: that I hired my nephew for non-nepotistic reasons.)
Just because the streets are wet, it didn’t rain.
(Desired meaning impossible: that the sole fact of wet streets allows us to infer that it rained.)

I think a more likely progression is suggested by Bender and Kathol’s paper. Noting that there is flexibility over how the DMY part gets negated, imagine a sentence like this, in which the speaker seems to question the validity of an inference:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he seems to think he is allowed to use it any time he wants to.

The semantics here is the straightforward one you’d expect: For the sole reason that I let him borrow my computer once, he thinks he can use it whenever he wants. The negation, which is unspoken, permeates the whole utterance: This guy is wrong to think he can borrow my computer any old time now. From here, it’s a short step to turn that implied negative he seems to think into an actual one:

Just because I let him borrow my computer once, he shouldn’t think it’s his to borrow whenever.

Now we have NOT>CAUSEcausation, which we couldn’t get in our nepotism example. From here to that doesn’t mean doesn’t seem quite such a jump now. Subsequent elimination of the overt subject that or it, Hilpert argues, was due to the mostly empty meaning of the pronouns, plus the phonetic similarity of their final /t/ and the beginning /d/ of doesn’t. This part of his argument I’m inclined to believe.

Update, April 14, 2015: Doug was re-watching Iron Man this afternoon, and I heard this line of dialogue, uttered by bad guy Obadiah Stane to Tony Stark:

Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?

Without the framing rhetorical question of Do you really think…?, this is a straightforward instance of causal just because: if you have an idea, that makes it yours. But inside the rhetorical question, the clear meaning is that simply having an idea doesn’t make it yours. It’s an example, in the wild, of the type I was describing in the original post.

Posted in Scope ambiguity, Syntax | 2 Comments »

Only One Cause

Posted by Neal on June 16, 2013

“Whoa, Dad,” Doug said, turning away from his online summer English class. “Ambiguity strikes!” Of course, I couldn’t ignore that. I went over to check out his computer monitor. As it turned out, he was right. Here was the question from the quiz in the unit on “Plot”:

There can be only one ... can't there?

“Effects do not occur within a bubble”? What kind of bubble? I thought there was a lot of science about the kind of things that went on in soap bubbles. Yeah, that one was probably false.

Oh, wait, they meant figuratively. Effects have other effects, or something like that. Well, in that case, it would be true. However, that wasn’t the ambiguity Doug was talking about. He’s got no problem with the literal-figurative thing. He was looking at item D.

“An effect can … have only one cause,” he explained, “or it can have … only one cause.”

I rephrased in linguist-talk: “It’s possible that an effect has only one cause, or there is only one cause that any event can have. Wow, that’s a nice scope ambiguity.”

I remembered the scope ambiguity I encountered in a biology test when I was about Doug’s age–another one involving can, but interacting with a negation instead of only. Anyway, the ambiguity in this question turned out not to pose much of a problem. With wide-scoping can, i.e.

It is possible that an effect has only one cause.

Well, that’s probably true. And so are items B and C, which would mean that all four items are true, leaving Doug with no false statement to choose. Unless item A was talking about actual bubbles after all, in which case we should really look into the physics of bubbles… On the other hand, with wide-scoping only, i.e.

There is only one cause that any event can have.

the answer is clearly false. Bingo!

What a difference context can make, though. When my college friend Cali made me go and see Highlander with him, there was never a question whether can or only was supposed to take wide scope in the tagline “There can be only one.” Wide-scoping can would have really deflated the conflict, which Doug’s English course has taught him is an essential for any plot.

Posted in Doug, Movies, Scope ambiguity | Leave a Comment »

Only the Celebrity’s Name

Posted by Neal on June 13, 2011

I was reading an article in the newspaper last week about how celebrity-written novels are almost always ghost-written. It’s kind of funny how insistently celebrities will say they really wrote the novels themselves, and then still admit they used ghost writers. This passage made me laugh:

When [Snooki] Polizzi appeared on Today in January, Matt Lauer asked, “Did you really write this book?”
“I did,” Polizzi said, “because, if you read it, you’ll know the first page that I wrote it — ’cause, like, it’s all my language.” (When pressed further, she admitted she had a co-writer.)

This one, too:

[Hillary] Duff … said in an interview that she came up with the plot and characters. … “It is my story,” Duff said. “It is my book. I wrote it, and she helped guide me through the process.”

But this sentence was quite surprising to me:

When the typical celebrity novel is published, only the celebrity’s name is printed on the book cover.

No kidding? They seriously leave off the title? I thought the celebrity’s name usually went above the title, and in a bigger typeface than the title, but always, there was a title. Looking at the pictures accompanying the article, I could see that Snooki’s book had “SNOOKI” across the top, but underneath was the title, A Shore Thing. Nicole Richie’s book clearly had the title Priceless on it. Turning again to the text, I read on:

Generally, publishers think two names on a cover is a turnoff to readers, especially in fiction.

Aha! It’s another case of only scoping not over an entire noun phrase, but on something within the noun phrase. In 2009, I wrote about thinking the sentence Only the manly men came in meant that no women came in; the only people who came in were men (and manly ones at that). Really, it meant that, in addition to whatever women may have come in, the only men who showed up were manly ones. I was thinking only scoped over the manly men, but really it was scoping over just the adjective manly. This time, I thought only was scoping over the noun phrase the celebrity’s name, but really it was scoping over just the possessive noun celebrity’s.

Once again, it just goes to show that even following the rule of placing only closest to what it modifies won’t always make things clear.

Posted in Books, Focus-sensitive operators, Scope ambiguity | 8 Comments »

De Dicto and De Re

Posted by Neal on August 10, 2010

Doug and his friend Grant were standing in the kitchen yesterday, trying to figure out what they wanted to do.

“So, what do you want to do?” Doug asked.

“Something Adam doesn’t want to do,” Grant answered. “Wait, that sounded bad! I meant, I wanted to play Hide-and-Seek, but Adam never wants to play that.”

I looked up from my computer. “Oh, you got caught in a de dicto / de re ambiguity!”

It seems Grant had never heard of de dicto / de re ambiguities. I enlightened him. “What you meant was, you wanted to play Hide-and-Seek; Adam never wants to play that; so you want to play something Adam didn’t want to play.”


“That’s called the de re meaning. But it sounded like you were saying, ‘I don’t care what we do, just as long as it’s something Adam doesn’t want to do.’ That’s the de dicto meaning.”

“Oh, uh, OK,” Grant said.

The ambiguity comes down to a difference in whether or not the something takes wide scope over the (unstated) want in his elliptical statement (I want to do) something Adam doesn’t want to do. If it does, we get Grant’s intended de re meaning: “There exists an activity X that Adam doesn’t want to do, and Grant wants to do X.” If it doesn’t, we get the exclusionary de dicto meaning: “Grant wants it to be the case that there exists an activity X such that Adam doesn’t want to do it and Grant does.”

Of course, I didn’t get into that with Grant. I could tell he was happy enough just to have this useful new vocabulary!

Posted in De dicto / de re, The darndest things | Leave a Comment »

Only the Manly

Posted by Neal on February 7, 2009

noodle12“You’d never catch me sticking my bare hand down a hole like that!” Laura said, as she ran the clippers over the back of my neck. Jim and Stan, two of the other barbers, were sitting in the waiting chairs talking about an outdoor activity that I’d never heard of called noodling. Noodling, I learned, was the sport of catching catfish with just your hand, usually by sticking it into a likely-looking hole in a creek and, if you were lucky enough for a catfish to bite it, pulling out the catfish by its jaw. Part of the thrill was not knowing what might be in one of these holes. Instead of a catfish, it might be nothing at all, or a muskrat, or a snapping turtle. In fact, Stan said, the guy who’d introduced him to noodling was missing a finger — because of an incident involving a gun that he’d picked up by putting his hand over the muzzle.

Then talk turned to the snowstorm we had last week, the one that canceled two days of school for Doug and Adam. That got me to thinking about how many of the allotted “calamity days” for the school year had been used, and while I was doing that, I missed what Jim said next. Laura laughed and I came back to the present.

“Did you hear what they said?” she asked. “Jim and Stan and Harry all came to work that day, but Len was snowed in. So Jim said that only the manly men came in.”

“Ha!” I laughed, and then thought. Hmmm…

Only the manly men came in.

Laura seemed to be speaking from firsthand knowledge when she told me that Jim and Stan and Harry had come in. It sounded like she’d been able to make it to work that day, too. So if my intuition was right, it was not true that only the manly men came in: Only the manly men and Laura had come in!

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Posted in Focus-sensitive operators, Phonetics and phonology, Prescriptive grammar, Scope ambiguity | 2 Comments »

Outside the United States or Canada

Posted by Neal on October 2, 2008

On Monday I went to give blood. On several occasions, I’ve noticed linguistically interesting phrases while I was participating in a blood drive, and it happened again this time. I was going through the health questionnaire (now on computer), confirming that I had never, even once, paid money to have sex with someone; giving the right answer for the “close contact with someone who has been vaccinated for smallpox” question; and remarking on the fact that a lot of email scammers are not eligible to give blood. (Not for being email scammers per se, but for living in Nigeria.) Then I came to this question:

In the past three years, have you ever been outside the United States or Canada for a period exceeding three months?

This one had never given me pause before, but this time I had to think a little. Well, I thought, I’ve been in the United States for a lot longer than the past three years. Except for that weekend trip we took to Niagara Falls a couple of months ago. During that weekend, I was outside the United States, but since that’s less than three months, I don’t need to worry about it.

However, I thought, for all these years except for the weekend in Niagara Falls, I have been outside Canada, right here in the United States! So maybe I should answer yes?

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Posted in Scope ambiguity | 9 Comments »

They Always Forget the Winner’s Name

Posted by Neal on July 17, 2008

I read this headline on the front page of the sports section yesterday:

People always seem to forget Home Run Derby winner’s name

I had never heard of the Home Run Derby, but it sounded like some kind of baseball-related annual event. And, apparently, year after year people had trouble remembering the name of whoever won it. A bit strange, I thought. Maybe it was one of those pieces of baseball lore involving a curse, like the Curse of the Bambino, or the Cubs’ Billy Goat Curse. I was curious, so I started reading the story. It began:

Justin Morneau received 70 text messages after winning Monday’s All-Star Home Run Derby, he said, with many making reference to the trophy presentation, when the event’s sponsor referred to him as “Jason.”

“It happens a lot,” Morneau said Tuesday, with a smile and a shrug. “People call me Jason all the time.” (link)

So it wasn’t that people always forgot the name of the Home Run Derby winner; they always (or often, anyway) forgot the name of Justin Morneau, who happened to be this year’s winner. Yes, I’d been caught by the old de dicto / de re ambiguity.

De dicto means “of what is said”, which is the interpretation I’d given the headline: They said Home Run Derby winner, so I thought they had in mind that particular role, regardless of who was filling it. De re means “of the thing”, or in this case, the actual person, Justin Morneau. This, of course, was the intended interpretation.

De dicto / de re is a particular kind of scope ambiguity, involving an element that makes reference to different times (or even different possible worlds), and a quantifier. In this case, it’s the always that makes reference to different times. To know whether something is always true, you need to know if it’s true at all particular times under consideration. The quantifier here is the, which combines with Home Run Derby winner to identify the sole individual who fits that description (assuming that we’re talking about this year).

When the Home Run Derby winner is taken to have wide scope over the always, we get the intended de re reading:

There exists a unique individual X, such that:

  1. X won the Home Run Derby
  2. for all relevant times T, at time T people forget X’s name.

On the other hand, when always is taken to have wide scope over the Home Run Derby winner, we get the strange de dicto reading:

For all relevant times T, there exists a unique individual X, such that:

  1. X wins the Home Run Derby at time T
  2. people forget X’s name at time T.

Actually, there’s one more circumstance that made this ambiguity possible. If the headline had said

People always seem to forget Justin Morneau’s name

there would have been no ambiguity, since no matter what time you’re talking about, Justin Morneau refers to the same individual. In semantic terms, it’s a rigid designator. In contrast, the non-rigid designator the Home Run Derby winner, like Speaker of the House, the Tomato Queen, and the dread pirate Roberts, refers to different individuals at different times.

Of course, when I say Justin Morneau refers to the same individual at any given time, I’m ignoring details like what it refers to during times preceding Morneau’s birth. Likewise for interpreting sentences such as I dreamed Justin Morneau had never been born or In my world, Justin Morneau is not a baseball player, but a prehistoric mammal-like reptile whose fossilized remains were found in my backyard, and the question of what happens if Justin Morneau tries to cross the same river twice. For now, I’ll just leave matters with Jason Moreau as the winner of this year’s Home Run Derby.

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Posted in Scope ambiguity, Sports | 3 Comments »

If It’s Not for Everyone, It’s Not for Anyone

Posted by Neal on July 21, 2006

Once again, I find myself wondering exactly what James J. Kilpatrick is thinking. He begins this week’s column with:

This was a headline in USA Today on April 28: “Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers.”

Did you wince? Roll your eyes? Did you groan? Then you have the soul of a grammarian, and will go to heaven when you die…. There you will lecture the seraphim on the distinction between “all” and “not all,” and you will explain to them that if mass transit is not an option for “all” drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver.

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Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Scope ambiguity, Syntax | 9 Comments »

Doug Gets Rich

Posted by Neal on June 11, 2006

When Doug’s class went on an end-of-the-year picnic to a nearby park last week, they had to wear their official school T-shirts. These shirts are to be worn only on field trips (like this one), or on certain designated days at school, so it had been a while since I’d seen the shirt. I looked at it while I packed Doug’s lunch: It’s a beige shirt, with a 6-inch-diameter picture of a penny on the front. Under the penny are the inspiring words from the fourth-grader who won the T-shirt design contest last year:

If I had a penny for every new thing I learned at [this school], I’d be rich.

These words stared me in the face a few minutes later, as I rubbed sunscreen into Doug’s arms and neck. I pondered them while he put on his shoes and backpack. Just before he left for school, I got a penny, and said, “Doug, I want you to have this penny. Do you know what it’s for?”

“No,” he said.

“This penny,” I said, “is for every new thing you’ve learned at [your school]!”

You know, I don’t think Doug appreciated what I was doing for him. I saw that same penny again this morning, in the bottom of the washing machine with Doug’s school T-shirt and the shorts he wore that day.

Posted in Scope ambiguity, You're so literal! | 3 Comments »

Dagwood’s Lack of Focus

Posted by Neal on May 15, 2006

Dagwood is sitting watching TV in today’s strip, and Blondie asks him what he’s watching. He enthusiastically tells her that “it’s an old-fashioned movie,” because:

The cowboy only kissed his horse!

The trouble is, there is no indication of where the stress(es) should fall, which would show which chunk of the sentence is being focused, or in other words, which chunk only applies to. The pattern of stress could be any of the following:

  1. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  2. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  3. The cowboy only kissed his horse.
  4. The cowboy only kissed his horse.

In the first pattern, the entire phrase kissed his horse is focused, with stress on kissed and a slightly lower (in phoneticians’ terms, downstepped) pitch on horse. With this intonation, Dagwood would be saying that in old-fashioned movies, all cowboys ever do is kiss their horses. They never have cattle drives or poker games or showdowns at high noon. Hmmm.

OK, let’s try the next one. Here, just kissed is focused, so we conclude that the only things cowboys do to their horses in old-fashioned movies is kiss them. Not ride them, or feed them, or shoot them; just kiss them. As an aside, I wonder why columnists like James Kilpatrick never point out the kind of ambiguity we get between #1 and #2 when they get on their soapbox about the proper placement of only. They can’t show a nice disambiguation just by moving the only around, so it seems they ignore the issue. Anyway, I don’t think #2 is the intended reading, either. Next!

In the third stress pattern, just his is focused, implicating that in modern movies, cowboys are indiscriminate about whose horses they kiss. (Dagwood could also conveyed this meaning by putting the only right before the his and stressing the his.) Interesting visual, but I still don’t think we’re there.

In the fourth stress pattern, the focus is on horse; in old-fashioned movies, the only things cowboys kiss is horses. (The same meaning as you’d get if you put the only right before the his and stressed horse). So in old-fashioned movies, cowboys don’t kiss women, children, or other men. Oh, now I get it! This is another Brokeback Mountain joke!

Frankly, I find the first three readings funnier.

Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Scope ambiguity, Stress and focus | 1 Comment »