Archive for Semantics

He's still waiting

From Francois Lang:

Attached is a photo of a sign in the washroom at Heckman's Deli in Bethesda, MD

I kept waiting for all the employees to wash my hands. I even asked. But nothing. Maybe it was something I said?

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Definiteness, plurality, and genericity

Mollymooly's comment on yesterday's post ("The Donald's THE, again") deserves general attention:

1. A leopard is bigger than a cheetah, though both have spots.
2. The leopard is bigger than the cheetah, though both have spots.
3. Leopards are bigger than cheetahs, though both have spots.
4. The leopards are bigger than the cheetahs, though both have spots.
5. Your leopard is bigger than your cheetah, though both have spots.
6. Your leopards are bigger than your cheetahs, though both have spots.

For me at least, 1 and 3 are generic; 2 can be either generic or specific; ditto 5 and 6 (though generic is very informal); but 4 must be specific. There seem to be restrictions on when "the + plural-noun" can be generic: are these restrictions syntactic, semantic, pragmatic?

From the other side of the Atlantic, I agree with her judgments. Does the intuited specificity of 4 help us understand what's odd about Donald Trump's use of "the women", "the gays", etc.?

There are several literatures (from philosophy of language as well as linguistics) that converge here,  and perhaps someone who knows them better than I do can summarize.

One comment: this is an area where there are subtle differences even among those languages that have categories approximately corresponding to English plurality and English definite or indefinite determiners. The Romance languages are clearly different from English here, but are they all the same among themselves? What about Germanic languages?

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"Perform a sex act"

How to be circumspect and explicit at the same time, from the Washington Post, Sept. 5: "Metro Transit Police arrested a man Monday afternoon whom they say exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act." My mind isn't exactly racing: there aren't a whole lot of she-on-he sex acts that are introduced with the verb perform.

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Clueless Microsoft language processing

A rather poetic and imaginative abstract I received in my email this morning (it's about a talk on computational aids for composers), contains the following sentence:

We will metaphorically drop in on Wolfgang composing at home in the morning, at an orchestra rehearsal in the afternoon, and find him unwinding in the evening playing a spot of the new game Piano Hero which is (in my fictional narrative) all the rage in the Viennese coffee shops.

There's nothing wrong with the sentence. What makes me bring it to your notice is the extraordinary modification that my Microsoft mail system performed on it. I wonder if you can see the part of the message that it felt it should mess with, in a vain and unwanted effort at helping me do my job more efficiently?

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"I don't think you cannot deny someone the right"

Jamison Hensley, "Ravens' John Harbaugh defends Colin Kaepernick's right to protest anthem", ESPN sports 8/29/2016:

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that he respects Colin Kaepernick's right to protest the national anthem and cited a French Enlightenment philosopher in doing so.  

"Voltaire so eloquently stated, 'I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend it until death your right to say it,'" Harbaugh said. "That's a principle that our country is founded on. I don't think you cannot deny someone the right to speak out or mock or make fun or belittle anybody else's opinion."

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The Festival are clear

One of the rare syntactic dialect differences between British and American English (there really aren't many) concerns verb agreement in present-tense clauses: British English strongly favors plural agreement with any singular subject noun phrase that denotes a collectivity of individuals rather than a unitary individual. And the extent to which it favors that plural agreement is likely to raise eyebrows with speakers of American English. This example, for example, from an email about a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

The Festival are very clear that if you arrive after the start of the lecture you will not be admitted.

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Modal logic of traffic signs

Sent in by Michael Robinson:

I saw this traffic sign in Toledo, Ohio. Luckily I wasn't driving a truck, or I would have had no idea what I was allowed to do. Since we were in a car, we figured U-turns must be OK. Because we were heading to a place that sold coffee, and nothing must stand between us and our morning latte.

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Shoots flaming balls with reports

From Bill Benzon:

"Flaming balls" and "reports" may very well be the standard technical terminology for the visual and auditory design features of roman candles. None of the rest of the visible text shows signs of translation problems. But still…

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Never not stop… uhh… Come again?

One of the shows in the upcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe, by the three-man Australian musical comedy ensemble The Axis of Awesome, is called "Won't Ever Not Stop Giving Up."

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Indistinguishable misnegation

David Frum, "Donald Trump's Bad Bet on Anger", The Atlantic 7/21/2016 [emphasis added]:

Donald Trump’s supporters yearn for the country as it was and fear the country as it is. Tonight’s powerfully dystopian Trump nomination acceptance address will touch them at their deepest emotional core. It will ignite a passionate spasm of assent from those many, many Americans—mostly but not exclusively white, mostly but not exclusively less affluent and educated—who experience today as worse than yesterday, and anticipate a tomorrow worse than today.

Don’t think it won’t work. It will work. The speech will be viewed and viewed again, on cable news and social media. The travails and troubles of this dysfunctional convention will recede, even if their implications and consequences linger. Trump’s poll numbers will probably rise. Small-dollar donations will surely flow. Many wavering Republicans will come home—even if the home to which they now return has changed in ways that render it almost indistinguishable from the dwelling it used to be.

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On this day

Paul Ryan's July 4 statement (emphasis added):

On this year’s Fourth, we can celebrate the historic document that was signed—and the self-evident truths it declared. We can celebrate the historic battles that were fought so that those truths would embrace all of our people. We can remember the extraordinary men and women, so dedicated to those truths, who died on this day—and the millions of others whose names we’ll never know. Or we can remember—and give thanks—that we live in a country where all these things are possible. We still believe in those self-evident truths. We still struggle to live up to them. And really, what that struggle represents is the pursuit of happiness. So today, with great gratitude, we celebrate our independence.

Could Speaker Ryan (or the intern who wrote this statement) have meant "on this day" to modify "We can remember"? Or are invited to remember the people who died in historic battles specifically on July 4? Puzzling.

Update — Jenny Chu points out that Adams, Jefferson and Monroe died on July 4. I was led away from that interpretation by the previous discussion of "historic battles" and the reference to "extraordinary men and women" who died on that day, as well as the following "millions of others".  And now I also wonder what we're meant to understand by "all these things" — the document? the truths? the battles? the deaths? All of them?

Perhaps this message is a lightly-adapted version of  an all-purpose patriotic-holiday exhortation.

[h/t Adam Rosenthal]

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Misnegation correction

Dahlia Lithwick, "The Ideal Allies", Slate 6/27/2016:

Make no mistake, Whole Woman’s Health is a massive win for choice, even though nobody believed that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey wasn't in peril this term.*

*Update, June 27, 2016: This story also originally said nobody believed that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey was in peril this term. The author meant to propose the opposite.

Don Monroe, who sent in this addition to the misnegation files, noted that the revision

is correct but seems to exacerbate rather than reduce the challenge of interpreting it. I would have said “even though nobody doubted that the very core of Planned Parenthood v. Casey was in peril this term.”

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Bob Ladd sent in a link to "Five Questions on Brexit to Jo Shaw", Verfassungsblog 6/24/2016 [emphasis added]:

There’s a possibility for the Article 50 trigger to be delayed, and the UK simply to carry on in membership, and then – once the UK population has had long enough to digest the real implications of Leave […] a second referendum could be held, perhaps this time under better conditions. I’m not sure that this will happen, though, precisely because the issue is complicated by the internal territorial pressures discussed in the next section. I don’t think anyone is under any illusion that Boris Johnson is not some sort of ideological Leaver, so it could be that if he becomes Prime Minister then we will see moves in this direction.

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