Archive for Pragmatics

Gender is the least of it

A.C. sends in this opening sentence from a story in his local (NZ) paper:

The former lover of a murdered British jeweler was in his bed when he and his new girlfriend arrived at his villa on the Costa del Sol.

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Emojify the Web: "the next phase of linguistic evolution"

Today's announcement from the Google Chrome team (yes, note the date):


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Free Pre-Paid Cremation! DETAILS INSIDE

Over the last year or so I've received several letters from an admirable organization called the Trident Society with the words "Free Pre-Paid Cremation! DETAILS INSIDE," on the envelope. Ordinarily, I don't open advertising letters, but the third time I got one of these I couldn't resist the urge find out what the writer(s) could mean by these words, which appear to pose a double conundrum. (1) What could a pre-paid cremation contrast with? A post-paid cremation? How would that work? (2) Anyway, if it's free, how can it be paid, pre- or post-? You might want to stop reading for a second and try to guess what's going on.

I'm afraid the answer isn't all that satisfying. Inside there is a card on which the reader can express interest in learning about cremation services. The card also features the announcement: "WIN a pre-paid cremation. Return this completed card today …to be entered … " So I'm invited to participate in a lottery for which the prize is a cremation paid for before my death. I guess I would have been just as happy with a free cremation.

By now, you may be saying , "Oh c'mmon, you know perfectly well what they meant!" Yes, of course, but what I find puzzling about the whole thing is the question of the relative shares of linguistic ineptitude and huckstering flimflam that went into it.

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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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Too much Victor Mair

I've been reading way too much Victor Mair. In the restaurant of my hotel in London I just saw an English girl wearing a T-shirt on which it said this:


H O
P E

And I immediately thought, who is Ho Pe?

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It doesn't get any better

Email from David Craig observes:

Usually this phrase is used to mean there's no room for improvement.  In this case it's quite the opposite.  52 seconds in to this recap of yesterday's Cubs Nationals game.

Here's the phrase, in a bit of context:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Five nothing Cubs, bottom five: It doesn't get any better for Jordan Zimmerman, as Dioner Navarro comes through with two men aboard.

Jordan Zimmerman is the pitcher for the Nationals, who has already given up several home runs, and at this point — the bottom of the fifth inning — gives one up to Navarro, the Cubs' catcher.

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X, let alone Y

"No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken," said Trent Mays after he was found guilty of disseminating a nude photo of a minor, according to this account of the notorious Steubenville rape case.

If that is what Mays said, then he has apparently internalized the wrong meaning of the idiom let alone. He used it as if it had the inverse of its usual meaning. In other words, he apparently thinks that let alone means or even.

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The cyberpragmatics of bounding asterisks

On Daring Fireball, John Gruber noticed something interesting about David Pogue's New York Times review of the Surface Pro: what he calls "the use of bounding asterisks for emphasis around the coughs." Pogue wrote:

For decades, Microsoft has subsisted on the milk of its two cash cows: Windows and Office. The company’s occasional ventures into hardware generally haven’t ended well: (*cough*) Zune, Kin Phone, Spot Watch (*cough*).

And the asterisks weren't just in the online version of the Times article. Here it is in print (via Aaron Pressman):

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"I have a theory about what it means!!"

Conversations among linguists may sometimes be interesting to non-linguists for reasons that are not entirely the same as those that appeal to insiders. As an example, I present without further comment a recent back-and-forth on Facebook between Linguist X and Linguist Y, slightly redacted to preserve anonymity.

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Perhaps now more than ever, ain't nobody got time fo that

Philosophy and the Poetic Imagination
by E. Lepore & M. Stone, 2012

Perhaps now
More than
Ever
We spend our days
Immersed in
Language

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$1 in the hands of a woman

Reader Jacob Baskin wrote with an interesting ambiguity that he was reminded of reading my recent post about "the wife and mother of two men killed in a fire". He writes

In the context of third-world development, I recently heard the factoid that "$1 in the hands of a woman is, on average, worth $10 in the hands of a man" (here, for instance).

Does this mean, "Each dollar that a woman has is worth, to her, what ten dollars would be to a man"? Or, "Each dollar that a woman has would be worth, if it were in the hands of a man, ten dollars"? Clearly the former meaning is intended, but as with that "duck/rabbit" optical illusion, I can make myself see the sentence in either way.

I'm hard pressed to think of other sentences with two possible meanings in direct opposition to each other. I also can't quite figure out what's going on with the sentence to create this ambiguity. Just thought this might be interesting to you.

Yes, it’s interesting! Here are my first thoughts, for what they’re worth. I also easily hear both meanings, (plus a third, I discovered as I wrote this) and I think both (maybe all three) patterns are probably common.

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Grown and growner

Reader TM writes:

A language anomaly of sorts that has entertained me for some time is the term "grown man."

First, it's a term that we use ONLY in circumstances where someone is, in fact, not acting like a grown man; yet the use of the term is literal, not ironic. E.g., "I can't believe that a grown man would act this way." The term is not used in any other context, as far as I know.

Second, there is no such term as "grown woman." No one ever says that.

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Booking in advance

If you go to the FAQ page for the Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company ferry service between Connecticut and Long Island and click on "How far in advance can I make a reservation?" you will see the following:

How far in advance can I make a reservation?

Reservations can be made up to 2 hours in advance of the departure (depending on availability).

What a disaster. They've managed to answer the wrong question!

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It depends on what "the" means …

Semantics in the John Edwards trial (James Hill and Beth Lloyd, "John Edwards Defense Relies on Definition of 'The'", Good Morning America 5/13/2012):

Not since Bill Clinton challenged the definition of "is" has so much hinged on a very short word.

John Edwards appears to basing much of his defense, which begins today in a North Carolina courtroom, on the legal interpretation of the word "the." [...]

The statute governing illegal receipt of campaign contributions "means any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money… for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office."

The words "the purpose" suggests that in order for a conviction, the sole reason for the money would have to be to finance a presidential campaign.

Edwards' legal team has argued … that his main reason for hiding Hunter was to keep her secret from his wife, Elizabeth.

Prosecutors, however, are arguing the law should be interpreted to mean "a purpose," meaning use of the donations does not have to be solely for a political campaign.

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Scientific study of affirmative-response indicators

My Breakfast Experiments™ aren't quite as rigorous as Mark Liberman's. He has direct access via a high-speed line to the entire Linguistic Data Consortium collection of corpora at his breakfast table, and writes R scripts for statistical analysis as if R was his native language (it may well be, come to think of it). My breakfast table has just a digital radio, a cereal bowl, and a mug bearing the legend "Keep calm and drink tea." But I'll give you some hard quantitative data for two different ways of expressing an affirmative response to a yes/no question or agreeing with a presented statement in contemporary British English. The frequency of people (especially experts) speaking to Radio 4 news programs saying "That's correct" falls in the monstrogacious to huge range (as measured by my casual early-morning impressions), while the frequency of that mode of affirmative responding in ordinary real-life conversation is roughly zero (source: vague memories of hearing people chat to each other). I hope that's rigorous enough for present purposes.

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