Archive for Pragmatics

Incrimination by presupposition? The Goldstone e-mail

Paul Kay offered the following item for discussion around the water cooler at Language Log central:

Here's an excerpt from the initial email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr.:

​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its  government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​

Is it worth noting the use of the possessive determiner​? I guess it's generally accepted that possessive determiners involve  some kind of existence presupposition, though I'm aware that there's a lot more to that subject than I know. In the current instance, the presupposition would be that there is in fact Russian government support for Trump. …

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What a woman can't do with their body

Mark Meckes noticed a tweet about an interview with Emma Watson, who was being discussed in this Language Log post, and mentioned it in a comment thereto. It was completely off topic (and thus violated the Language Log comments policy), but I felt it was too interesting to be left languishing down there in a comment on a post about preposition doubling, so I'm repeating it here, where it can have its own post:

If you think @EmmaWatson is a hypocrite, maybe consider you shouldn't be telling a woman what they can and can't do with their own body.

Two occurrences of singular they (they and their), with the phrase a woman as antecedent!

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Donald Trump, Frederick Douglass, and the present perfect

The media (for example here, here) have noticed that there is something strange about Donald Trump’s use of the present perfect in a comment about Frederick Douglass at the start of Black History Month:

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

Somehow this utterance suggests that Trump believes that Douglass is still alive, raising the question of what aspect of its grammar leads to that inference.

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Uh

An interesting example of meaningful uh:

The effect seems different from um, in a subtle way.

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Alien Encounter at Penn

Last week, I posted a few notes about how the alienness of aliens might make it hard to learn to communicate with them ("Alien Encounters", 9/15/2016). To start with, even the basic modes of signal generation and interpretation would probably not fit our biology very well. And the interpretation of signals — biological as well as cultural — might also be outside the range that we expect from experience with our fellow humans.

Some people, including my colleague and friend Victor Mair, nevertheless proposed methods based on those that have been found to work in human contexts. So to clarify the issues I was trying to raise, here's a little Alien Encounter Sketch.

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Hillary's "sigh"

Eric Garland of The Hill shares a video of Hillary Clinton at a June 22 campaign appearance in North Carolina, and it provides ammunition those who would like to portray her as a soulless automaton vainly trying to seem like an authentic human being.

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The NYT catches up…

Or maybe David Crystal does — as reported in Dan Bilefsky, "Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style", NYT 6/9/2016. Better late than never, in any case.

For some background, see

"The new semiotics of punctuation", 11/7/2012
"Aggressive periods and the popularity of linguistics", 11/26/2013
"Generational punctuation differences again", 8/1/2014
"Query: Punctuation in personal digital media", 2/23/2015

And even: Jessica Bennett, "When your punctuation says it all (!)", NYT 2/27/2015

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Sentence meaning and speaker meaning

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Tell the truth!

It was a linguistic maneuver that had possibly never been tried before in the history of real estate: tell the straight truth about the property, no varnishing, no slathering with adjectives like "stunning". Just tell it like it is. One brave firm of real estate agents, Scott & Stapleton in England, tried it as a way of getting rid of a run-down apartment in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The manager, Rob Kahl, wrote the copy:

Not for the faint hearted this first floor flat is being sold as seen, rubbish and all!

Having recently just had to evict some charming (not) tenants the vendors of this property have had enough and can't even face setting foot in what used to be their sweet and charming home.

I can't flower this one up or use my normal estate agent jargon to make this sound any better.

The property is full of rubbish, there is mould on the walls and I think there may even be some fleas there to keep me company when I carry out the viewings.

To conclude, the advertisement advised those viewing the property to "wipe your feet on the way out".

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"Are you Henry David Thoreau?"

A few minutes ago, an earnest-looking stranger came up to me on the sidewalk and asked "Are you Henry David Thoreau?" I shook my head and kept walking. And I'm pretty sure that was the right choice. But to satisfy my idle curiosity, can anyone tell me what he was selling?

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"If you're just joining me, …"

On Facebook, Mike Pope asks:

On "Fresh Air," Terri Gross says:

"If you're just joining me, my guest today is …".

What she DOESN'T mean is:

"… but if you're NOT just joining me, my guest is …"

Linguists: who can help us understand how "if" here is not a simplistic conditional? Any links welcome. Thx.

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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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American politics: The pending expletive shortage

Charles Pierce, "Hillary Clinton Has Run Out of F*cks to Give", Esquire 8/28/2015:

My goodness, the special snowflakes of the elite political media are all a'quiver because Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for president of the United States, has decided to talk like somebody who wants to be president of the United States, which is to say, she's started to talk like someone whose big bag of fcks to give is running very, very low.

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