Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Scope ambiguity’ Category

Glen Gets Literal

Posted by Neal on November 20, 2004

My brother Glen noticed and wrote about a strange usage of remarry in an advice column, where it said someone “remarried two years ago to a woman I’ll call Beth.” Paraphrasing Glen’s comments, both marry and remarry can be used intransitively (although get married is more idiomatic than intransitive marry):

John married.
John remarried.

Both verbs can be used transitively, too:

John married Marsha.
John remarried Marsha.

However, if you use remarry transitively, the “again” component of the meaning must take wide scope over the direct object. Thus, John remarried Marsha has to mean that John married Marsha again, not that John married again, and this time the bride was Marsha.

So far Glen and I are in agreement. But Glen maintains that even the insertion of a to before a woman I’ll call Beth fails to get the semantics right. My take is that it doesn’t even get the syntax right. To use a to with either marry or remarry, in my dialect you have to use the periphrastic get (re)married, and even then the to sounds a bit strange with remarry.

The very oddness of the phrasing, though, is what I think lets the reader get the semantics right. You read it and think, “Why is there this unnecessary to? The writer must be trying to convey some meaning that wouldn’t be conveyed by the simpler phrasing.” And then you figure out that the meaning that the writer is trying to avoid is that the man married Beth twice. (Or as it’s put in the linguistic subfield of pragmatics, you draw a Q-inference.) But I agree with Glen that you don’t get this meaning from the compositional semantics of the phrase, just from the context.

Glen moves from there to the general ambiguity of marry illustrated in, “The minister married me,” and from there to an amusing musing on interspecies mating and polyandry, based on ambiguous song lyric that I really need to add to my list.

All that talk about the semantics of marry took me back ten years ago, when I was introducing my wife fiancée then-fiancée now-wife to Mom and Dad. “And we’re getting married!” I told them. “To each other!” Later, when Dad told me he heartily approved, I checked just to make sure he’d said “heartily” and not “hardly.”

Posted in Lexical semantics, Scope ambiguity | 3 Comments »

Something Catastrophic Didn’t Happen … Too Bad Something Else Catastrophic Did.

Posted by Neal on August 22, 2004

Glen of Agoraphilia sent me another example of a scope ambiguity a few days ago. Here’s what he wrote:

In the L.A. Times yesterday, I found the following in an article about health insurance:

“In fact, most Californians probably have a family member, friend or co-worker who lacks health insurance, though they may not always be aware of it. ‘You may not know it if they haven’t talked about it or if something catastrophic hasn’t happened,’ Brown said.”

Hmmm. I’m betting this is another case, like “not all are” versus “all are not,” where my grammar must be more restrictive than other English speakers. When I hear, “something catastrophic hasn’t happened,” I don’t hear, “nothing catastrophic happened”; I hear, “there is at least one catastrophic thing that did not happen.” Which, one hopes, is pretty much always. Wouldn’t it suck if all possible catastrophes happened at the same time?

It’d suck, all right. The reading of “there is at least one catastrophe that didn’t happen” can be represented like this, with the negation inside the scope of the existential:

EXIST(x, catastrophe(x) & NOT(happen(x)))

The intended reading of “it is not the case that there is a catastrophe that happened” can be represented like this, with the existential inside the scope of the negation:

NOT(EXIST(x, catastrophe(x) & happen(x)))

I guess Glen out-literals me in this case. Whereas we agree in hearing “Everyone can’t” to mean the same thing as “No-one can,” in this case I have a little easier time getting the correct reading than he does. Instead of immediately getting the narrow-scope negation that Glen gets, I get the intended one, but it comes with a nagging feeling that something’s not quite right, which I then identify as the scope ambiguity.

But whether a reader reacts like Glen does, or like I do, it’s still a case of unclear language that can cause readers to stumble. Of course, some slack has to be cut, since the ambiguous sentence is from a spoken language, not written. I’d guess it’s probably just easier on the fly to negate “Something catastrophic happened” by negating the verb than to work out the interaction of the quantifier and the negation and come up with, “Nothing catastrophic happened.” In fact, I suspect that might be what goes on when people say, “Everyone didn’t pass.”

Even so, I’ve seen plenty of this kind of scope ambiguity in written English, and I’m surprised it doesn’t get at least as much attention in English composition classes as the attachment ambiguities known as dangling participles or misplaced modifiers.

Posted in Scope ambiguity | 1 Comment »

When I Say Everyone Can’t, I Mean It!

Posted by Neal on June 21, 2004

One time back in elementary school, I heard a teacher talking about the logistics of an upcoming field trip, and she said something like this:

Everyone can’t fit on the bus.

I was confused. Did she seriously mean to say that not a single one of us could fit on the bus? How was that possible? Oh, wait—she must mean that not everyone could fit on the bus. But even when I’d figured out what she’d really meant, mentally attaching the intended meaning to the actual utterance was like trying to push two magnets together the wrong way.
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Uncanny

Posted by Neal on May 7, 2004

Mark Liberman’s recent posting on the different meanings of can depending on how wide a scope it takes reminds me of my first brush with a scope ambiguity (though at the time I didn’t know what it was called). It was back in my sophomore year in high school, in Linda Misenhimer’s 6th period biology class. We were having a multiple-choice exam on our genetics unit, and one of the questions went something like this:

John has type AB blood, and Marsha has type B. What blood-type child can they not have?
a. AB
b. B
c. A
d. O

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