Archive for Semantics

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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Not doubting that not

"Woody Allen Speaks Out", NYT 2/7/2014:

Not that I doubt Dylan hasn’t come to believe she’s been molested, but if from the age of 7 a vulnerable child is taught by a strong mother to hate her father because he is a monster who abused her, is it so inconceivable that after many years of this indoctrination the image of me Mia wanted to establish had taken root?

As usual, it's hard to keep score, but there might be an extra negative in that first clause.

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By far one of the best

From reader GW:

If a misnegation contains conflicting indicators of polarity, what is an expression that contains conflicting indicators of intensity?

I’ve been noticing expressions containing the ngram “by far one of the” followed by a superlative. COCA has twelve of them. A typical example is “I mean, it was by far one of the best nights of my life.” Such expressions seem odd to me. Imagine the goodness of someone’s nights plotted on a vertical axis. “By far the best night” would be a lone outlier at the top. “One of the best nights” would lie in a small cluster of outliers, but it wouldn’t be the topmost; if it were, it should simply be called “the best.” (Is that Grice’s Maxim of Quantity?) I can’t visualize where to plot “by far one of the best nights.”

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"Record low levels of unpopularity"

"Reason For Optimism? Two Sides Talking On Debt Ceiling", NPR Morning Edition, 10/11/2013:

STEVE INSKEEP: What prompted Republicans to change course?

MARA LIASSON: They were losing. They were just getting battered politically. And here's a pretty good example of what was happening to the Republican political position. This is a new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. By a 22 point margin the public thinks the Republican Party is more to blame for the shutdown than President Obama. That's a bigger margin of blame than the Republicans received during the last shutdown in 1995. The Republican Party is now at record low levels of unpopularity. Only 24 percent of people have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. The Democrats aren't doing much better, but at least they have a 39 percent favorable rating and they're not dropping like the Republicans. And here's the other thing. The president's approval rating actually went up in this poll.

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"Neither is refusing to budge an inch"

The mess in Washington is providing plenty of opportunities for misnegation. Today, John Bresnahan at Politico got tangled up in budging and cut loose with a classic — "Bad blood: Four feuding leaders":

But the personal animus extends beyond the leaders. Along with their bosses, aides to Boehner and Reid are in an undeclared war and neither is refusing to budge an inch.

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Annals of even

A recent statement to the Washington Examiner about the U.S. government shutdown, by Representative Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., has been widely reported:

“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

Senate Democrats featured the quote on a display outside their press conference. This is an indication of how Rep. Stuzman's words were generally received, and helps explain why he quickly released a statement walking the quote back:

"Yesterday, I carelessly misrepresented the ongoing budget debate and Speaker Boehner’s work on behalf of the American people. Despite my remarks it’s clear that the American people want both parties to come to the table to reopen the government, tackle this nation’s debt crisis, and stop ObamaCare’s pain."

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