Archive for Semantics

Department of Redundancy Department alert!

Haters of redundancy, get ready to bristle at this email announcement I received today:

Please note that the 7th floor common room in the Dugald Stewart Building will be closed today from 10:30am until 1pm due to an event taking place.

An event taking place? But isn't taking place the only thing that events can do? Isn't taking place their whole thing, the only property they have in common? We have a redundancy here!

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Failure not to make payment

From Dick Margulis, for the misnegation files:

The source is a Facebook post, which you may or may not be able to read. Another picture of a similar sign is here or here — slightly different wording and line-division, same extra "not".

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This is another one of those posts that I wanted to write long ago (actually almost a year ago), but it got lost in the shuffle until now, when I found it going through my old drafts.

It was prompted by an article that Christine Gross-Loh wrote for The Atlantic (October 8, 2013) titled "Why Are Hundreds of Harvard Students Studying Ancient Chinese Philosophy?  The professor who teaches Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory claims, 'This course will change your life.'"

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Why not a simple, straightforward directory?

From C.M., a sign in the Sydney, Australia, suburb of Waterloo:

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Wanting that very (no)thing

Robert Neubecker, "Parents, the Children Will Be Fine. Spend Their Inheritance Now.", NYT 9/19/2014, reports "polling data from both older Americans and their adult children about whether they expected to leave or receive an inheritance":

Among the parents, ages 59 to 96, 86.2 percent expected to leave a bequest. But just 44.6 percent of the children, ages 40 to 60, thought they would get one. [...]

The message here would seem to be that aging parents are generous to a fault, if a bit manipulative on occasion. Adult children, meanwhile, accept their obligations to care for their parents with little expectation of receiving anything in return, though some who remain on the dole well into adulthood expect their parents to provide for them from the grave too.

The study’s yes-no questions, however, are relatively limiting. Many parents may be hoping to leave just a token amount, after all. Adult children might lie about their expectations to please the researchers, too. And besides, even if you expect nothing it doesn’t mean that you don’t badly want that very thing.

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The things neither of them don't do

Charlie C. writes:

“There are countless things neither the iPhone 6 nor the 6 Plus don’t do” [link]    

Huh??  Does this say what we know it means?  

I’m still in a loop on this one. Every time I read it I grind to a halt.  I could go to the Wikipedia and give myself a short refresher course on Boolean logic and then see if I could do the conversion from English to Boolean correctly, or… here I am.

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The grammar of "Better Together"

The official name of the organization campaigning for a No vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is "Better Together." That phrase was originally the campaign's main slogan. Much has been written in recent days about the campaign's evident signs of panic, but no one has commented on the stupidity of "Better Together" as a slogan. (It was actually ditched by the campaign in June, and replaced by an even more pathetic slogan: "No Thanks.")

Better together is an adjective phrase. Used on its own, without any logical subject or other accompanying noun phrases, it is apparently supposed to affirm that something will go better in some way for someone than something else if something is together with something else, but it doesn't specify any of these someones or somethings. Yet the cui bono issue (who benefits) is absolutely crucial to the debate. The ineptness of the sloganeering is almost unbelievable.

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Fourth highest, less empty

We culturally-evolved plains apes often have problems dealing with scalar predicates, flipping direction even when negation isn't involved. Here's the UK "terror threat level" scale:

On Friday, the British government raised the level from "substantial" to "severe".  Several news outlets described this as "the fourth highest" level — thus Laura Smith-Spark, Andrew Carey and Greg Botelhom, "UK raises terror threat level, citing risks out of Syria, Iraq", CNN 8/30/2014:

The UK government raised its terror threat level Friday from "substantial" to "severe," the fourth highest of five levels, in response to events in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS militants have seized a large swath of territory.

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Should we stop people from not doing this?

Jack Healy, "Defying Death in Utah Arches: A Thrill Too Far?", NYT 7/30/ 2014:

Even though his son died trying to swing, Mr. Stocking said he opposed any closing.  

“You can’t legislate people from not having fun,” he said. “They’re going to go find it one way or another.”

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Fatter for longer (sigh)

Here's a doubly embarrassing confession. First it involves my use of a construction that I love to make fun of. Secondly my spontaneously generated example is unfortunately also a true sentence.
I was trying on four dresses that have been stored in the attic for a while to see if I could avoid having to shop for a formal dress in Chicago on Friday for the Friday black tie dinner that precedes the Saturday honorary doctorate. I didn't think I was going to be able to fit into any of them, since I've gained back all the weight I lost around 2008-9 and am now close to an all-time maximum. But to my in some ways happy surprise, I found that I could sort of fit into two of them, including the best one. And my surprise was expressed (just talking silently to myself, but obviously in real sentences, since this sentence immediately caught my attention as soon as I "said" it) as "Gosh, I've been fatter for longer than I thought". (The happy part is I may not have to go shopping on Friday, or at least it won't be obligatory to buy a new dress, which takes off the pressure that accompanies last-minute obligatory shopping.)
I still reject that sentence, even though I said it .

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I wouldn't be surprised if few have yet to realize this

Lauren Collins, "Haiku Herman", New Yorker 3/31/2014:

When asked later about the role that poetry had played in Kiev's Independence Square — protesters waved portraits of the nineteenth-century poet Taras Shevchenko —  Van Rompuy said, "I wouldn't be surprised if this struggle and this tragedy had not inspired people there."

Sometimes, as in that example, the construction "I wouldn't be surprised if X had not Y'ed" means something like "I believe that X probably Y'ed", with the extra not presumably due to some combination of negative concord and the difficulty of keeping track of multiple negations. But about equally often, it means roughly the opposite: "I believe that X probably didn't Y". For instance, "Cup final booklet sold for £3,000", BBC News 9/26/2008:

Auctioneer Andrew Bullock said: "The amazing thing about this programme is its condition.

"It was tucked inside a book published in 1906 and I wouldn't be surprised if it had not seen the light of day since the game was played almost 100 years ago.

The versions with negative concord are quite idiomatic, and are used by some excellent writers — thus Graham Greene, The Third Man:

"She claims to be Austrian, but I suspect she's Hungarian. She works at the Josefstadt. wouldn't be surprised if Lime had not helped her with her papers. She calls herself Schmidt. Anna Schmidt. You can't imagine a young English actress calling herself Smith, can you? And a pretty one, too. It always struck me as a bit too anonymous to be true."

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Another misunderestimator

From M.S., we learn that Gary Marcus has joined Lila Gleitman, Chris MatthewsMark Aronoff, and  many others:

Language Log may not need another example, but Gary Marcus' book The Birth of the Mind contains this sentence at the top of page 128:  “Whether language is a medium for thought or just for communication, its importance in our lives cannot be understated.”

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Nobody too important to not serve

From J.M.:

I had jury duty a few days ago in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and as the judge was reading the potential jury members our opening questions (to which we had to mark our answers on an index card), she said the following: "There's nobody whose job is too important for them to not serve on a jury."

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The Estimation Game

More than 30 years ago, the famous linguist Mark Aronoff joined Lila Gleitman and others who have gotten under-/over-estimating upside down– "Automobile Semantics", Linguistic Inquiry 1981:

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When adding is subtracting

"In the Unverified Digital World, Are Journalists and Bloggers Equal?", Slashdot 3/24/2014:

As the source of news moves increasingly away from traditional channels to the millions of people carrying mobile phones and sharing commentary, photos and video on social networks, the distinction between journalists and bloggers has become increasingly blurred. Making sense of this type of information has been as much a challenge for journalists as it has bloggers. Journalists, like bloggers, have had to learn new skills in working in this environment. Highlighting this has been the release of the Verification Handbook which attempts to educate journalists in how to process user-generated content in the form of videos or images acknowledging that much of the reporting about situations, especially emergency ones, comes from the public. The techniques outlined are accessible to anyone reporting on a story, adding to the eroding gap between bloggers and journalists.

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