Nobody too important to not serve

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From J.M.:

I had jury duty a few days ago in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and as the judge was reading the potential jury members our opening questions (to which we had to mark our answers on an index card), she said the following: "There's nobody whose job is too important for them to not serve on a jury."

The issues involved in (mis-)interpreting sentences like this have been explored and discussed in detail for more than 35 years, starting with Wason & Reich's classic paper "A Verbal Illusion", The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31(4):591-97, 1979. Wason and Reich began with the classic clinic-wall warning "No head injury is too trivial to ignore", and went on to propose a theory of such confusions.

That paper, and some of the subsequent work, are discussed at length in "No wug is too dax to be zonged", 11/28/2009. See also "No detail too small", 11/27/2009; and in the unlikely event that you're still interested, "No post too obscure to escape notice", 11/27/2009.

The general idea is that there's

  • a scale (here how important someone's job is), and
  • a threshold that divides that scale into a lower-valued region and a higher-valued region, and
  • a presupposition about how this threshold relates to a binary deontic judgment (here people with less important jobs need to do things like serve on a jury, and people with more important jobs don't), and
  • an assertion that the threshold is in fact all the way at one end of the scale or the other (here (the intent is) that the threshold is so high that no one falls into the class "job importance above the threshold".

Things generally work out when the presuppositions and assertions are all commonplace ideas. But when not — as in this case — not.

In addition to the general complexity of interactions amount scalar predicates, modals, and negations, there's an additional problem in this case. Phrases of the form

No one is too X for them to Y

are sometimes interpreted as if they were

No one is so X that they should Y

which doesn't mean the same thing at all.

"Too X to Y" is roughly the same as "so X as to not Y", syntactic details aside. Thus (starting from some real-web "so X as to not Y" examples):

Requirements documents that are so big as to not be understandable are a waste of effort. ==
Requirements documents that are too big to be understandable are a waste of effort.

The policies would be so expensive as to not be worth bothering with. ==
The policies would be too expensive to be worth bothering with.





  1. GeorgeW said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 9:34 am

    Isn't there a presupposition here that serving on a jury is a highly important civic responsibility for everyone? I think it would be expected that a judge would espouse such a view and any other interpretation would be counter intuitive.

    [(myl) Indeed. In other words, this is what Wason & Reich called a "pragmatic" case, where writers/speakers and listeners are both prone to assume the meaning that makes sense to them, whether or not it's what the phrase literally means.]

  2. leoboiko said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 9:51 am

    Dōre vala daor dohaeris…

  3. Terry Collmann said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 10:09 am

    GeorgeW: That's the point, really: the intuitive interpretation is the intended interpretation but not the logical interpretation. We intuit what the judge meant, so we don't bother working out that what the judge actually said contradicts what she meant. What I find equally interesting is why the judge phrased her sentence with one too many negatives in the first place: why the mental mix up by her between "too important to serve on a jury" and "important enough to not serve on a jury"?

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 10:41 am

    In the New York state court, one of the few remaining per se exemptions from jury service is for parents/guardians who are the full-time "primary caregiver" for a child no older than 14, typically but not invariably so-called "stay-at-home-moms." So if you're a fan of cliches to the effect that "being a parent is the most important job you'll ever have in your life," here's some supporting evidence that some jobs make you too important for jury service and here's an example.

    You of course can also still avoid jury service by e.g. avoiding acquiring sufficient proficiency in the English language or being convicted of a felony.

  5. Brett said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

    The pragmatism effect seems to be particular strong with this sentence (at least for me). Normally, I have little trouble seeing how the negations make one of these sentences incorrect. However, in this case, since I knew unquestionably what the intended meaning was supposed to be, I had a significantly harder time working out the strict logical meaning of the statement. (Or maybe I'm just more tired than usual.)

  6. Michael Watts said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 12:21 am

    I don't like the characterization "'Too X to Y' is roughly the same as 'so X as to not Y', syntactic details aside." In both your examples, Y is "be + adjective", where that characterization basically works, but I understand "Too X to Y" as being the same as "so X that Ying is impossible", not as "so X that Ying doesn't happen". Consider an example with a more verbal Y:

    Elephants are too heavy to jump.

    To my mind, this means "Elephants are so heavy that they can't jump", and rendering it as "Elephants are so heavy that they don't jump" is an error.

    Similarly, I'd interpret "he's too important to insult", if directed to me, as a warning that insulting him would be a severe mistake, not as an observation that because of his importance he never receives insults from anyone.

  7. chris said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

    Similarly, I'd interpret "he's too important to insult", if directed to me, as a warning that insulting him would be a severe mistake, not as an observation that because of his importance he never receives insults from anyone.

    I would too, but doesn't that contradict your point about impossibility? Surely his importance doesn't make him *impossible* to insult; even the president of the USA can have a shoe thrown at him. (I think the mention of presidents of the USA probably refutes the judge, though. Neither the business of the nation nor the pursuit of justice would benefit from the attempt.)

    Sometimes there may be ambiguity between what you might call the empirical and normative uses of "too": does "this road is too steep for trucks" mean that their engines won't be able to propel them up it at all, or it's so dangerous they are forbidden to try, or both?

  8. Michael Watts said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    chris, mostly agreed. I think of those two examples as similar because they both give "too" a modal quality, can/can't or should/shouldn't, in contrast to the indicative does/doesn't that struck me as wrong. Whether the modality is related to deontology or possibility is indeed ambiguous.

  9. Jimbino said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    Two ways to get out of jury duty are:

    1. Insist that you can't support the State Constitution.
    2. Insist that you strongly believe in Jury Nullification.

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