Archive for Semantics

"Often more [difficulty] than in this chosen pair"

We've often complained about the ignorant aftermath of E.B. White's ignorant 1959 incitement to which-hunting, which launched the idea that restrictive (or integrated, or defining) relative clauses in English should always and only be introduced by that, while non-restrictive (or supplementary, or non-defining) relative clauses should be introduced by which. (See "Reddit blewit" 12/24/2012 for details and additional links. Note that for simplicity, I'm considering only relative clauses with inanimate/nonhuman heads, though the fundamental point remains the same when we add who to the mix.)

My point today is that the whole distinction is a false one.

More exactly: The traditional restrictive/non-restrictive dichotomy merges distinct morphological, syntactic, semantic, prosodic, rhetorical, and psychological questions; the correlation among these different dimensions is loose at best; several of the relevant distinctions are gradient rather than categorical; and some of the distinctions are sometimes a matter of pragmatic vagueness rather than grammatical ambiguity.

If I'm right, then modern linguists have been committing White's sin in a less extreme form, trying to impose an over-simplified rationalist taxonomy on a more complex linguistic reality.

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Gun oil

In "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun  Phrases in English" (Sag & Szabolsci, Eds., Lexical Matters, 1992), Richard Sproat and I discussed the semantic ambiguity or vagueness of English noun compounds:

We now turn to N0 compounds where a paraphrase links the two words in the compound with a predicate not implicit in either one. We are limiting this category to endocentric compounds, so that their English paraphrase will be something like 'an N1 N2 is an N2 relative-clause-containing-N1,' e.g., 'an ankle bracelet is a bracelet that is worn on the ankle,' or 'rubbing alcohol is alcohol that is used for rubbing'. The range of predicates implied by such paraphrases is very large. Since this type of compound-formation can be used for new coinages, any particular compound will in principle be multiply ambiguous (or vague) among a set of possible predicates.

Consider hair oil versus olive oil. Ordinarily hair oil is oil for use on hair, and olive oil is oil derived from olives. But if the world were a different way, olive oil might be a petroleum derivative used to shine olives for added consumer appeal, and hair oil might be a lubricant produced by recycling barbershop floor sweepings.

We go on to discuss the wide range of relationships involved in such cases, and the difficulty of automating their analysis.

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Denying that the earth is not flat

M.S. wrote to contribute an item for our misnegation collection — Liel Leibovitz, "‘The New York Times’ Goes Truther on the Temple Mount", Tablet 10/9/2015 [emphasis added]:

And so, because the paper of record won’t put it clearly, permit me the pleasure: Denying that a Jewish temple stood on the Temple Mount is not a form of historical argument. It is akin to denying that the earth is not flat. Or denying that global warming is real. Or that the evidence of human evolution is widely accepted by scholars.

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Of castrated cows and Three Finger Brown

New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, who got the win in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the L.A. Dodgers, received a glowing profile in The New York Times: "Straight Out of Hollywood: The New Guy Outpitches the Ace." When the article first appeared online this morning, it included this line, in the middle of a description of deGrom's "winding and tangled" path to the major leagues:

He also broke a finger castrating a cow, which set him back.

I don't have a screenshot of the article as it originally appeared, and NewsDiffs didn't catch it, but I found out about it on Facebook thanks to MLB historian John Thorn. Very quickly, however, the article was revised to read:

He also broke a finger castrating a calf, which set him back.

And the Times appended this wonderful correction:

An earlier version of this article misidentified the animal Jacob deGrom broke a finger castrating. It was a calf, not a cow.

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Reversal of meanings

From Cecilia Segawa Seigle (9/18/15):

Yesterday morning's Asahi Shinbun reports that some Japanese words (or argot in certain cases) seem to be changing (reversing) meanings.

For example "yabai" (やばい), originally an argot used by criminals (thieves) meaning "not good" or "not propitious," seems to have changed its meaning among teenagers. 90% of the teens use the word "yabai" to express "wonderful," "good," "delicious," "smart-looking."  Only 5% of the people above 70 years of age used "yabai" for positive meaning; in other words the older people still use the word for negative situations.

For the word "Omomuroni" (おもむろに), an adverb meaning "unhurriedly," "slowly," 44.5% answered with the traditional meaning "slowly." 40.8% answered that "omomuroni" meant "suddenly."

This is only a small part of the phenomena revealing the breakdown of the Japanese language according to the recent survey made by Bunkacho (文化庁), Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs.

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Inverting inversely

Paul Kay wrote to point to a sexist joke that inverts a scalar predicate, in a way that's similar to what happens in the "No head injury is too trivial to be ignored" / "No wug is too dax to be zonged" type of misnegation:

The speed in which a woman says "nothing" when asked "What's wrong?" is inversely proportional to the severity of the shit storm that's coming.

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Absolved of having done nothing wrong

Last month, the hockey star Patrick Kane was accused of rape, and investigations of the matter continue. Last week, he joined the Chicago Blackhawks' training camp, and at a press event organized by the team, he read a statement that addressed the accusations as follows:

While I have too much respect for the legal process
to comment on an on-going matter

I am confident
that once all the facts are brought to light
I will be absolved of having done nothing wrong

[Chris Hine and Stacy St. Clair, "Patrick Kane 'confident' he will be 'absolved' of wrongdoing", Chicago Tribune 9/17/2015.]

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The growing expletive deficit at the White House

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In the European Union or out?

Over the past week there has been a change in the officially ordained wording of the referendum question about European Union membership that will be put before the people of the United Kingdom some time over the coming two years. On the face of it, the change seems trivial or even pointless, because it does not allow for any new decision to be made by the voters. They will vote either to continue the UK's membership in the EU or to discontinue it. But the change provides a very clear and useful example showing the real-life importance of a linguistic distinction.

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Non-programmer friendly

Brad DeLong linked to a paywalled Financial Times article by Lisa Pollack about problems with spreadsheet usage, and observed that

[C]onsiderations like these make me extremely hesitant when I think of asking my students in Econ 1 next spring to do problems sets in Excel. Shouldn’t I be asking them to do it in R via R Studio or R Commander instead? Audit trails are very valuable. Debuggability is very valuable. Excel ain’t got it…

The first comment, from "Captaindomestic":

I'm biased as a MathWorks employee, but you may want to look into MATLAB. It is really strong in the kinds of data analysis and plotting that econ students need to do. MATLAB has a pretty non-programmer friendly editor and model that helps new users.

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How can you (not) help but (not) __?

Here's another example of the power of negation to confuse us –Jonathan Capehart, "Marco Rubio’s powerful American story", WaPo 4/14/2015:

Rubio’s up-from-nothing life story is inspiring. “I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege,” he said. How can you not help but puff out your chest in pride for the promise of this nation?

This seems to be a blend of "How can you help but puff out your chest in pride?" and "How can you not puff out your chest in pride?".

Such expressions are fertile ground for misnegation: Given the combination of explicit or implicit negation with a question and an implicit scalar predicate (here the strength of the chest-puffing motivation), how can you not help but not throw in an extra negation or two?

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Hyperbolic scalar indifference

From Larry Horn

Eliza Kennedy, I Take You, 2015 (p. 69):

[narrator has just been asked by wedding planner to choose one of six identical-looking swatches]

I look at her, then at Rose. “Ladies? To say that I do not give two shits about this vastly overestimates the value I place on shits.”

They puzzle that one out for a while. So do I. Those Bloody Marys must have been pretty strong.

Trollthumper, in the context of an online discussion of TV shows:

Yeah, and while I'm not one to uphold a show as "the documentary experience," having such inaccuracies can just leave this ringing sense of disconnect with those who know the language. And I know that sometimes, that's just me – I've gotten into fights with friends over blatant inaccuracies in media, because in their eyes, such things only matter to a few people – and I don't believe you need to give a fuck about EVERYTHING. But there does come a point where a viewer's "lack-of-fucks-ometer" is going to tick over the red line, and when it does, they'll start to wonder if the scriptwriter gave a fuck about ANYTHING.

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Disastrous ambiguity

Talking of the possibly impending Grexit, what an unfortunate sentence The Economist chose to conclude its leader article on the ongoing Greek monetary crisis:

This marriage is not worth saving at any price.

A quirk of English syntax and semantics makes this radically ambiguous.

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