Archive for Pragmatics

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+).

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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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On the graphic and orthographic properties of Saskatchewan

What it says on the license plates of cars registered in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan is more or less indistinguishable from many other provincial or state slogans: Land of the Living Skies. The point here seems to be to give you a succinct summary of the geography of the place so that you have some idea of where you are if you find yourself on an ill-advised cross-country road trip involving too much drinking in the off-driving hours. Hence, you get the rather obvious Grand Canyon State (Arizona), The Ocean State (Rhode Island), The Green Mountain State (Vermont) and Explore Canada's Arctic (Northwest Territories). At least Saskatchewan adds a small pinch of poetry.

Enigma is clearly under-valued in these slogans, with the exception of Quebec's Je Me Souviens ("I remember"), whose meaning is elusive to outsiders or residents with shallow historical roots in the province. Though I lived there from 1971 to 1984, I never did figure out what it's supposed to mean, though I suspect that it means something like I remember how to order hamburgers and fries in French, or I remember when the Habs were the greatest hockey team on the planet. Or perhaps it's shorthand for something slightly more sinister, as in I remember how the English bastards smashed us in battle and oppressed us economically, and I promise to counter their linguistic imperialism using all means necessary, including enforcing legal requirements that English appear on Montreal restaurant menus only in microscopic font guaranteed to make anglo eyeballs bug out. Or something to that effect.

But Saskatchewan's unofficial motto, which you'll see imprinted on T-shirts or tourism signs is: Hard to spell. Easy to draw. This is often accompanied by the following image, registered as a trademark by the Government of Saskatchewan:

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All let alone some

Edward Rothstein, "A Reflection of Greatness, Blurred", NYT 8/25/2011:

Following the appointment of Mr. Lei as sculptor, the foundation was attacked for not having chosen a black American, let alone an American.

Reader MH, who sent it in, feels that "let alone" is pointing in the wrong direction. Is it?

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Not so gullible after all

Most people believe they're better-than-average drivers. They also believe that, while many others are taken in by advertising messages, they themselves remain immune to persuasion unless it's with the full consent of their rational and thoughtful selves. Charming delusions. But surely we're not left defenseless, and awareness of the persuasive intentions of advertising must provide some sort of skeptical buffer against the daily onslaught of commercial messages that don't necessarily have our best interests at heart. Enough so, argued the late free marketeer Jack Calfee, that the myth of the vulnerable consumer is just that, and advertising should be regulated as little as possible in order to allow its salutary effects to permeate the economy. In his book Fear of Persuasion, Calfee wrote:

Advertising seeks to persuade, and everyone knows it. The typical ad tries to induce a customer to do one thing—usually, buy a product —instead of a thousand other things. There is nothing obscure about this purpose or what it means for buyers. Consumers obtain immense amounts of information from a process in which the providers of information are blatantly self-interested and the recipients fundamentally skeptical.

The Federal Trade Commission, which is in the business of regulating advertising, happens to agree with Calfee about the protective effects of identifying persuasion for what it is. Which is one reason why it's recently clarified its guidelines on endorsements to require that bloggers and social media users disclose any pecuniary relationship with the makers of the products they're shilling for—even if free stuff is all they're getting for their efforts.

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Americans: 90% on the right, if you will

Having discovered that Rick Perry is a right-leaning hedger, if you will, while Mitt Romney is, if you will, a leftish hedger, I wondered what the distribution of these alternatives might be in general American usage.

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