Archive for Pragmatics

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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Reference to humans with this and that

When is it rude to use this or that to refer to a person? A friend of mine, frustrated by someone who was moving too slow, muttered If this would only get out of the way…, and it was clearly a hostile putdown. But it's not a hostile putdown in a case like This person wants to know where the police station is. So could it be that when dependent this or that is used with a (non-insulting) noun denoting a human being it can be polite, but it's never polite to use it on its own to refer to a human being? No, that can't be right either, because it's perfectly polite to say This is my friend John. Whereas !*Have you met this? or !*This would like to meet you would be rude (I mark this grammatical-only-as-deliberately-rude status with a "!*" prefix). What is the rule or principle here? There must be one, because I know, tacitly, when to use this for human beings. It's just that I don't know what it is that I tacitly know.

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Ask Language Log: Raped-raped-raped

MM writes:

I would like to hear your take on the following:

In episode 8/2 of House, he recounts his prison experience to his colleagues: I wasn't raped. Well, perhaps I was raped, but not raped raped. Well, perhaps I was raped raped, but not raped raped raped.

This is not a simple intensifier (as in yes, yes, or really, really), but rather it seems to say: I'm not kidding, this is the real thing. Then the scriptwriter mocks it by embarking on an infinite series.

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A floating kind of thing

Evan McMorris-Santoro, "South Carolina GOP Chair Says His State Is GOP Primary Reset Button", TPM 1/11/2012:

“Our voters are fiercely independent and pretty fickle,” [SC GOP chair Chad] Connelly told me over coffee at a downtown shop brilliantly named Immaculate Consumption. “They watch what happens in Iowa, they watch what happens in New Hampshire. They may take that under advisement kind of thing, but they’re going to make their own decisions.”

This is a lovely example of the  use of "kind of thing" as a sort of floating discourse adjunct, something that I've noticed recently here and there. It seems to be similar in force to discourse-particle like, and to more conventional phrases like "so to speak" and "as it were":

They may, like, take that under advisement, but they're going to make their own decisions.
They may take that under advisement, as it were, but . . .
They may take that under advisement, so to speak, but . . .

However, I'm not sure about the syntax of this apparently free-floating "kind of thing".

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Logic! Language! Information! Scholarships!

’Tis the season to announce seasonal schools. Geoff Pullum announced a short course on grammar for language technologists as part of a winter school in Tarragona next month, and Mark Liberman announced a call for course proposals for the LSA's Linguistic Institute in summer 2013. But what if you can't make it to Tarragona next month, and can't wait a year and a half to get your seasonal school fix? Well, I have just the school for you!

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When is a name a claim?

The government of Canada, along with no doubt many others, frowns upon companies making health claims for which they have no evidence. This is supposed to nip in the bud deceptive practices like those exhibited in this pre-regulation 1652 handbill proclaiming the "vertues of coffee drink", in which the advertisement's author touted coffee as a prevention and cure for everything ranging from miscarriage to gout to "hypochondriack winds", whatever those may be. In that document, the claims were overt and brazen, with statements such as:

"It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout and Scurvy."
"It is very good to prevent Mis-Carryings in Child-Bearing Women."

Yup, those are claims.

But in a recent case that's made headlines here in Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has determined that the names of two brands of infant formula made by Enfamil, A+ and Gentlease A+, also amount to claims, the former constituting a claim about nutritional superiority to other brands, and the latter an additional claim about ease of digestibility.

Which begs the question: What counts as a claim?

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Referent-finding llama

Combining two things from recent postings (linguist llama and referent finding):

(via Ellen Seebacher on Google+).

Comments off

Amy was found dead in his apartment

I'm spending three days in Tampa at the kick-off meeting for  DARPA's new BOLT program. Today was Language Sciences Day, and among many other events, there was a "Semantics Panel", in which a half a dozen luminaries discussed ways that the analysis of meaning might play a role again in machine translation. The "again" part comes up because, as Kevin Knight observed in starting the panel off, natural language processing and artificial intelligence went through a bitter divorce 20 years ago. ("And", Gene Charniak added, "I haven't spoken to myself since.")

The various panelists had somewhat different ideas about what to do, and the question period uncovered a substantially larger range of opinions represented in the audience. But it occurred to me that there's a simple and fairly superficial kind of semantic analysis that is not used in any of the MT systems that I'm familiar with, to their considerable detriment — despite the fact that algorithms with decent performance on this task have been around for many years.

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Deceptively valuable

A couple of weeks ago, Eric Baković posted about phrases of the form deceptively <ADJECTIVE>, and gave the results of an online survey of more than 1500 LL readers ("Watching the deceptive", 10/2/2011), who were each asked to interpret one of two phrases:

The exam was deceptively easy. The exam was deceptively hard
The exam was easy. 56.8% The exam was easy. 11.8%
The exam was hard. 36.0% The exam was hard. 84.0%
The exam was neither. 7.2% The exam was neither. 4.2%

Eric suggested that this variability in judgments, and also the asymmetry between easy and hard, might be connected to the phenomenon of misnegation. And there were many other interesting observations and speculations in Eric's post and the 64 comments on it. But a simple tally of collocational frequency for the word deceptively suggests a couple of relevant factors that neither Eric nor any of the commenters noticed.

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Watching the deceptive

After almost a month, I'm finally following up on the results of the single-question surveys that I asked Language Log readers to participate in. Each survey received an overwhelming 1500+ responses, and I didn't realize that I needed a "pro" (= "paid") account on SurveyMonkey in order to view more than the first 100. I owe special thanks to Mohammad Mehdi Etedali, to whom I transfered the surveys and who kindly sent me the overall percentages.

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"That's England for you"

Here at Hulme Hall at the University of Manchester the dining hall is adjacent to the Hulme Hall Bar, connected by two sets of double doors about 15 feet apart. During the LAGB meeting, the dining hall is where the book exhibits and coffee breaks are located, and the only convenient way into it goes through the Hulme Hall Bar. Here's what that right-hand pair of doors looks like:

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