Archive for Semantics

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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The grammar of "Abide with me"

On Tuesday at my mother's funeral we sang "Abide With Me". It's a popular hymn for funerals, possibly because people like the line "Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?"; but as we sang the fifth verse (you can see the lyrics here) I couldn't help noticing a syntactic point.

No, don't be shocked that syntax could be on my mind on such an occasion. A linguist's brain does not cease making linguistic observations on entering a crematorium chapel. As I recently explained in a piece over at Lingua Franca, linguistics is not a task that one takes up only as necessary; it is more like a kind of affliction, making the afflicted person incapable of not noticing points of interest in linguistic material. Here is the stanza that I could not help noticing:

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

Perhaps you can immediately see what struck me about the first sentence (the first three lines)?

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Taking a selfie

In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:

"Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"

She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.

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"Hard to understate"

Nick Wingfield, "Microsoft Pins Xbox One Hopes on Titanfall, a Sci-Fi Shooting Game", NYT 3/9/2014:

It’s hard to understate how incredibly important Titanfall is for Xbox,” Yusuf Mehdi, chief marketing and strategy officer for devices and studios at Microsoft, said in an interview.

If it's not clear to you why this is semantically and psycholinguistically interesting, see here.

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WHO: 5 percent of calories should be from sugar

Even though I've been reading that headline on my portal page for 3 days now and know what it's really supposed to be saying, I still can't read it the way they intended. The first sentence of the actual article:

The World Health Organization says your daily sugar intake should be just 5 percent of your total calories — half of what the agency previously recommended, according to new draft guidelines published Wednesday.

Even that sentence doesn't really say they'd be happy with 4 percent, or would previously have been happy with less than 10%. But at least the "just" cancels an otherwise implicit "at least". There's a lot of literature about when numbers are interpreted as "exactly" and when as "at least", and about where exactly those two kinds of interpretations come from. But unless they occur with suitable modifiers or in particular constructions, they are never freely interpreted as "at most". So unless we're supposed to believe that WHO wants everyone to get exactly 5% from sugar, that headline is just wrong, I believe.

No big deal. I just had to say it after three days of suffering in silence.

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"Impossible to understate" again

MSNBC Hardball with Chris Matthews 2/26/2014:

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It's been uh nearly impossible to understate the far right's hatred
of President Obama's health care law.

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The flood that no one has been unable to stem

That would be the flood of misnegations… John Shinal, "Analysis: Will too many cooks spoil a Microsoft revival?", USA Today 2/14/2014:

Nokia and Microsoft have both been drowned out in a market flood that neither Elop nor anyone at Microsoft, including outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, has been unable to stem.

 [Tip of the hat to Rick Rubenstein]


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Charles J. Fillmore, 1929-2014

Arnold Zwicky shares the sad news that the Berkeley linguist Charles J. "Chuck" Fillmore passed away yesterday. Arnold quotes Amy Dahlstrom's Facebook update:

Charles Fillmore died yesterday at age 84 after a long battle with cancer. A brilliant linguist, especially in the field of lexical semantics, who influenced so many of us Berkeley students and colleagues elsewhere. He was sweet and funny and loving, and deeply devoted to [his wife, Berkeley linguist] Lily Wong Fillmore. The loss of my Doktorvater feels like the loss of a parent.

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Synonymy and quotational contexts in New Jersey

The "Say What?" feature on the Doonesbury site quotes this error correction from the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper, about the misreporting of something Governor Chris Christie's chief spokesman Michael Drewniak said:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Drewniak referred to the Port Authority's executive director as a 'piece of crap.' While Drewniak did call him a 'piece of excrement,' it was David Wildstein who referred to the executive director as a 'piece of crap.'

What do we learn from this? (Remember, this is Language Log, not New Jersey Politics Log.)

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