Logic problem

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Seth Mydans, "As Hanoi Marks 1,000th Birthday, Some Are Cynical", NYT, 10/8/2010:

Like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending, live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week.

A few simpler examples to ponder — first retaining the possible comparison between a large city and the rest of the country:

Like most Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
Like most Americans, a handful of New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
Like most Americans, 137 New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
Like most Americans, only a handful of New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
Like most Americans,  only 137 New Yorkers speak Tibetan.

Or alternatively,  interpreting the initial clause as simply reinforcing the generalization:

Like most of their fellow citizens, few Americans speak Tibetan.
Like most of their fellow citizens, a handful of Americans speak Tibetan.
etc. …

Are these (a) OK (b) confusing (c) redundant (d) logically contradictory?

[tip of the hat to Language Hat]



77 Comments

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Logic problem [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    [...] Language Log » Logic problem languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2700 – view page – cached Like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending, live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week. Tweets about this link [...]

  2. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

    The first four examples compare the population of a city to the population outside the city. The two sets do not intersect.

    The second two examples compare a subset to the containing set, where we are forced to assume (conclude?) that the subset necessarily equals the containing set. Logically, then, "most fellow citizens" cannot equal "few Americans" or "a handful of Americans. The prologue is worse than redundant and ought to be dropped–it makes my hair hurt trying to process it.

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    I can sell you sentences like that all day long at up to fifty percent off, or more. If I did so, I could get up to double my profits, or more.

    Logically, I think this is the same flaw, and yet we know that people (well, advertising copywriters, and as I was one in my callow youth I like to think they're people) write sentences like that all the time. So do journalists, even reputable ones smart enough to work for NPR.

    I would describe these throwaway phrases as simple throat clearing; as an editor I get rid of them all the time. They seem to emanate from the gotta-keep-my-mouth-moving-while-I-think-of-what-I'm-going-to-say-next part of the brain. I'll leave it to the neuroscientists to say where that is.

  4. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

    In the subject sentence, if the intro had been "Like other of their countrymen" or "Like their countrymen," we could distinguish between those in Hanoi and those outside. There would not be a problem.

  5. TonyK said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:16 pm

    To be faithful to the original, those examples should start "Like most American men…". Perhaps the author really meant 'compatriots'.

  6. Rubrick said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    This is interesting. I think the original does manage to (clumsily) make its meaning apparent, but he New York analogs range from extremely awkward to downright ridiculous.

    My best attempt at sensifying the original while sticking to its basic structure is to substitute "As with the rest of Viet Nam" for "Like most of their countrymen".

  7. Faldone said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    Dang you. There's no problem (other than perhaps stylistic problems) with any of these until a bunch a wise acre linguists come along and point it out. Whadaya, for an encore gonna ask the centipede how he walks?

  8. jfruh said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    "Few residents of Hanoi — indeed, few Vietnamese anywhere in the country — live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week."

    What do I win?

  9. mgh said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

    easier to think about if you move the clause:

    Few New Yorkers, like most Americans, speak Tibetan.

    Few Hanoians, like most of their countrymen, live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week.

    some kind of misnegation? compare
    Few New Yorkers, like most Americans, eat dinner at 6 pm

  10. Peter said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    As I read it, the problem doesn't come from any of the specifics of the relationship between Hanoians and their countrymen, and so on. We get exactly the same situation in:

    "Like blimps, few glumps twaggle."

    We're clearly saying "few glumps twaggle", but the ambiguity is: are we saying "in this respect, glumps are like blimps" (i.e. few blimps twaggle), or "in this respect, those few glumps are like blimps" (i.e. blimps generally do twaggle)?

    The first is what we mean, but the second fits better with the usual syntax of "Like X's, Y's Z." The things that are like X's are usually the whole noun phrase "Y's”; e.g.

    "Like blimps, purple glumps twaggle."

    clearly asserts just that purple glumps are like blimps.

    Contrariwise, we don't get the same ambiguity in

    "Like blimps, glumps rarely twaggle."

    "Like blimps, glumps mostly don't twaggle."

    because neither of these modifies the noun phrase.

    I can't think of a case where one can modify the noun phrase in this structure while keeping "like" unmistakably referring to just the original noun. On the other hand, I can't think of a way of rephrasing "few glumps twaggle" that means quite the same thing, without modifying the noun phrase somehow; so we end up with phrasings like the original example, which are basically clear but at least awkward enough to give the occasional reader a double-take.

    Thinking wishfully, it seems quite conceivable that there could be an adjective, analogous to "rarely", so that "glumps Xly twaggle" meant "few glumps twaggle". English doesn't seem to have such an adjective, but do any other languages have it? Or is there a good syntactic reason why it'd be unlikely to exist?

  11. James said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    I say: unacceptable. I wouldn't call the problem 'logical contradiction', but the sentence does not say what the author intended to say. At least to my internal parser, there is no way to get the intended reading. (Of course, I can tell what reading is intended; that's a different matter.)
    To me, if the sentence (I'll take one of the simpler ones as an example) means anything, it is saying that only a few New Yorkers speak Tibetan, and in this way those few New Yorkers are like most Americans.

  12. Craig said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

    It's weird – I understood the intended meaning immediately – maybe because the headline set it up – and only after a couple seconds said "Wait a minute.." It's definitely illogical. But I guess language doesn't have to be strictly logical to be understandable. We can deal with some fuzziness.

    (Does that mean the answer is A and D?)

    But I think that however you rearrange "few" and "most", it's still illogical. You're doing a switcheroo between the figure and the ground.

  13. Val said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

    (a) OK. It's an interesting problem, because logically it seems like it shouldn't make sense, but in practice it does, at least to me. As far as I'm concerned, there is no problem with "like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians…."

    What sends my brain in circles a bit is the second half:
    …few Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending, live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week.

    "Few" can't really apply to the second half and not the first…can it?
    Wondering why Mark didn't mention this.

  14. Trish said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

    The gist of the original comes across for me no problem. Only when I think about it does my head start to hurt. Why does it work for me if I don't give it too much thought? I think it's because the word "few" used in this way triggers a conceptual space that is actually populated by *most*. So when we say something like "Few New Yorkers speak Tibetan", we're referring to the conceptual space of *most New Yorkers not speaking Tibetan*. And it's not a great leap to relate that conceptual space to the conceptual space of *most Americans*. On the level of conceptual structure, it works.

  15. Thomas Westgard said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    The thrust of the article is that the people discussed don't care about the topic discussed. So there's a logic behind not bothering to write clearly about a subject, the point of which is how much nobody cares about it. To me, it looks like a verbal hand-wave toward Vietnam in general, Hanoi more specifically, and how practically nobody cares about patriotism. The lack of logical structure in the sentence conveys that lack of interest pretty well.

  16. Val said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    An addendum to my above post:
    Like most Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan. (OK)
    Like most Americans, a handful of New Yorkers speak Tibetan. (confusing)
    (all the other NY examples: also confusing)
    Like most of their fellow citizens, few Americans speak Tibetan. (contradictory)
    Like most of their fellow citizens, few Americans speak Tibetan.
    Based on these examples I think I was wrong to say that "logically" it shouldn't make sense. There is a logic, but it depends on the second set of people being a subset of the first set.

  17. Betsy McCall said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

    I have no problem with comparing the citizens of a city to that of the larger country they reside in. It emphasizes their sameness. However, I find sentences 3 and 5 to make little sense. When you say "Like most Americans, few understand Tibetan", that "few" seems to be interpreted in a way meant to be "a small percentage". It suggests to me that while there may be pockets of communities where a large percentage speak Tibetan, in most parts of the country, few people will speak Tibetan. It's almost like an idiom for me, because it takes a lot of thought to catch the contradiction between "most" in the first phrase and "few" in the second. However, "Like most Americans, (only) 137 New Yorkers speak Tibetan" prompts me to ask "And they all live in New York?"

  18. J.M.M. said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

    Yes, they are confusing, all of them. Of course I can quickly adjust and find the meaning because, for Mark's examples, I know the situation or, for the original, I can guess at the intent, but that isn't the point. None convey any meaning in themselves and give me no idea of the situation in Hanoi or the rest of Vietnam.

    If we had a sentence: Like most Americans, a few New Yorkers pronounce 'R's," it would make just as much sense (yes, it is hyberbolic about New York accents), and we would find the meaning just as fast as we do with Mark's examples, though it is the opposite meaning.

    I really have no idea about the patriotism of people in the Vietnam countryside from what is said here.

    Also, are the "few Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending," the same ones that do "live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week," or not? How would I know?

  19. Dick Margulis said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

    And, life imitating art and all that, I have just encountered this sentence in a manuscript I'm editing this evening: "Prices range from about $2,000,000 to $20,000,000 and up (way, way up)." The intended meaning is clear, but the sentence won't see print that way.

  20. Craig said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

    I started thinking more about figure and ground, and had the thought that this could be a kind of "semantic illusion", analogous to optical illusions like the Rubin Vase.

    Maybe our minds can easily switch between seeing "few" as the figure with "most" as the ground, and the reverse, even in the same sentence. So a sentence like this can feel natural to write and to read, however illogical.

    Or I could be totally full of it.

  21. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

    @Dick Margulis, we've all see ads saying something like Save 25% to 40% and more. I'd like to see the real upper end of the savings percent. I'm not sure what they mean by the original, and why–if the upper end is so dramatic–the author didn't go ahead and state the upper bound he had in mind.

  22. Dick Margulis said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

    @Mr. Fnortner, my point (if I have one) is that this is the same kind of error as "like most of their countrymen"—that is, a meaningless space filler that only becomes problematic if the reader thinks it is supposed to mean something. Yes the logic of "Save 25% to 40% and more" is absurd, but I think these productions are nothing more than mouth (or fingers) in gear before conscious mind is engaged.

  23. Craig said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

    @Dick Margulis: I disagree – I think statements like that are very carefully crafted, the meaning being "Here are some numbers to make you think this is the actual range, while covering our asses when you discover we're lying."

    @Peter: The article is referring to a group and a subset of it, not two different groups. To me, that makes it a different game semantically. Also, I read your first sentence unambiguously as having the first meaning. In common usage that's what I would expect, though you could make a logical case otherwise. To my ears, you'd have to say "Unlike blimps, few glumps twaggle" to give it the second sense.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

    This would have been fine (-ish):

    "Like most of their countrymen, most Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending, do not live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week."

    Now another way to express the thought of most Hanoians do not live their lives to… is few Hanoians live their lives to…. And if you wanted to avoid the repetition of most or something, you might easily come up with the second version without realizing that it doesn't fit with the like and absorbed phrases. Or you might add those phrases to your few sentence because they fit a most sentence with the same meaning. Milton, thou shouldst be with the reporter at this hour!

    @Dick Margulis: I don't think these phrases are "meaningless space filler". We learn something from the statement that Hanoians are like other Vietnamese in this way, just as we learn something from the statement that the price can (occasionally) be way, way higher than $20,000,000. But I'm glad you're rewriting that last.

  25. Nick Fleisher said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    The like comparison seems to require the reader to deconstruct few into most plus predicate negation (i.e., Few Hanoians live their lives… = Most Hanoians don't live their lives…). The property of 'not living their lives to the rhythms…' is then shared by most Hanoians and most of their countrymen. This by itself is awkward but not horrible for me, though it gets much worse if, as mgh points out above, you move the like clause in between few Hanoians and the VP.

    The bigger problem, as also pointed out above, is that the non-restrictive adjectival clause, absorbed in getting and spending, is clearly meant to modify 'most Hanoians', i.e., just one deconstructed part of the actual subject DP. This seems bad to me, but then again it's not hard to construct examples where a non-restrictive modifier nearly succeeds in modifying 'most N' when the actual DP is few N: consider Few Cincinnati hitters, baffled all night by Halladay's mix of pitches, managed to reach base.

    Semantically, it seems things come out as intended if you change few Hanoians to most Hanoians and then negate the VP, but then you get yet another awkward interaction with most Hanoians coming close on the heels of most of their countrymen. That strikes me as a purely stylistic awkwardness, but perhaps it has some deeper semantic or pragmatic correlate.

  26. Nick Fleisher said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: You beat me to it!

  27. Rick S said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

    I think the problem is that it's the few-ness, and not the people, to which "like" refers. However, it's "few", not "few-ness", so we're tricked by the phrasing into looking for parallel NPs, and we wind up expecting it to be a comparison of Hanoians with their countrymen. Then, because it's the few Hanoians who "live their lives to the rhythms…" which seem to be compared to "most of their countrymen" (who clearly don't), we get confused, because that contradicts the assertion.

  28. Will said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    Regarding the side topic of sentences like "prices range from $10 up to $20, or more", I think this construction is actually very useful. It is giving a standard range ($10 to $20), but stating that not all prices necessarily fall into this standard range. This is very clear to me, and a succinct way to supply this information. I think all the example sentences of this form in the comments above are equally fine for the same reason.

    In any case, I can't see how this construction is illogical. The fact that prices fall into a range with an explicit upper limit ($20 in this example) does not logically exclude the possibility that prices may also fall into a wider range (which necessarily includes the full smaller range).

  29. KWillets said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 1:52 am

    They've changed the wording; the online NYT often seems to have little quirks (such as "fatally shot to death") that disappear after a short time.

  30. Addison said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 4:23 am

    I believe it is logically contradictory. The sentence implies that only a few Hanoians live their lives to the rhythms; this contradicts the initial adjunct that says they’re like their fellow countrymen. The few are actually “unlike” most of their countrymen.

    What the author means is: Most of their countrymen don’t live to the rhythms, but a few Hanoians do.

  31. aqilluqqaaq said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    Like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending, live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week.

    Preserving ‘most’ as quantifying ‘countrymen’ and ‘few’ as quantifying ‘Hanoians’ (but also ‘countrymen’):

    Hanoians are like most of their countrymen: absorbed in getting and spending, few live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week.

  32. Frans said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 6:32 am

    (a) OK for all sentences except 3 and 5 which are (b) confusing. Pretty much what Betsy said.

  33. Chris Surridge said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    In the original sentence the ambiguity about whether the comparison is between Hanoians and their 'countryman' or the small subset of Hanoians and their 'countrymen' isn't the confusing part to me. Rather it's the clause "absorbed in getting and spending". What does that refer to? By context I imply that it refers to the large subset of Hanoians that don't include the 'few', and by extension to a similar majority of the 'countrymen' as well. But I'd never reach that conclusion by any logical parsing of the sentence.

  34. language hat said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    (a) OK. It's an interesting problem, because logically it seems like it shouldn't make sense, but in practice it does, at least to me. As far as I'm concerned, there is no problem with "like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians…."

    What sends my brain in circles a bit is the second half

    Well, yes, the problem is that the second half contradicts the lead-in. I'm not sure everyone here is getting the fact that the problem is not grammatical but, as Mark says, logical; the sentence is clearly not "OK," because it clearly states that most Vietnamese live their lives to the rhythms of patriotic marching tunes, and this is clearly not what is meant. The question is why it is so easy to write sentences like this and not immediately realize you're not saying what you meant to say, and the answer probably has to do with our difficulties with negation, as evidenced by the many Log posts on the subject.

  35. language hat said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    They've changed the wording

    No they haven't; as of 9:38 AM EDT, it's exactly the way Mark quoted it. You're not by any chance looking at the photo caption, are you?

  36. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    It would be ok spoken, it's unnatural to read.

    the "most/few" is jarring, as is the like … "countrymen/hanoian"

    Should have done something like "Hanoians, like all North Koreans, are mostly busy getting and spending and don't live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week".

    Although I'd guess the spending the average Hanoian is absorbed in is fairly modest by the standards of people who can afford an LL subscription ;-)

  37. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    ops, wrong country. :-((

  38. Ellen K. said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    No, Language Hat, it does not clearly state that "most Vietnamese live their lives to the rhythms of patriotic marching tunes". At least, to me, "clearly states" means clear to readers in general, just not to one reader. And I just can't see that reading. For me, that natural reading is that most Vietnamese, and most Hanoans, do not live their lives that way. And if I try to logic it out, what I see is that it logically doesn't work at all. It can't be puzzled out logically.

  39. language hat said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:21 am

    For me, that natural reading is that most Vietnamese, and most Hanoans, do not live their lives that way.

    Yes, of course that is what the sentence is trying to say. But that is not what the sentence says. You are letting your understanding of what the author is aiming at distort your reading of what the words actually say. It's formally equivalent to "Like most of his countrymen, Nguyen lives his life to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week." Is that in any way ambiguous?

  40. Clare said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    As can be said of most Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan.

    That seems to work. It seems to be a better option than any of the others, because it's not clear what the scope of the comparison is under "like". It could be that you're singling out the Tibetan language skills of most Americans for comparison with the few New Yorkers who have them. And that suggests that most Americans have Tibetan language skills. Whereas with "as can be said of" it's clear that you need to look at the entire statement that follows about New Yorkers — and then it's clear that you're only talking about a small per¨centage, few, only 137 or whatever.

  41. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    Ah, yes, LOGICALLY it probably means that most non-hanoians DO live their lives to said marching tunes, in common with only a few hanoians.

    Question is: is prescriptivism as respectable in logic as it is looked down upon in language?

  42. Ellen K. said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    Language Hat, in the future, please read my whole post before replying to me. Thanks. Because your reply does not take into account the whole of what I wrote.

  43. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    The sentence strikes my as a bad translation from another language, maybe French.

    Comme la plupart des Vietnamiens, les Hanoïens, [...] sont peu à [...]

    But because are few to is not idiomatic English, the writer may have decided to change the predicative few to an attributive one without rewording the rest of the sentence, creating the mess that he did. Would the slightly more idiomatic are few in number to have worked?

    The logical structure of the sentence, to me, is this (italicized words added):

    Hanoians, absorbed in getting and spending, are like most of their countrymen in that few of them live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week

  44. George said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    I agree with a number of other commenters that the sentence is logically inconsistent and awkwardly structured. But, I don't think many readers would be confused and think that the author is making a distinction between Hanoians and Vietnamese in general. I think we intuitively make the necessary modifications. The "like" instead of 'unlike' may be the clue we need.

  45. KWillets said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    Argh, I was wrong about them fixing it. I read through the article, but somehow missed the payload. How Hanoiing.

    Another solution is to speak probabilistically:

    "Like his countrymen, the typical Hanoian, absorbed in getting and spending, doesn't live his life to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week."

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    @Nick Fleisher: I'm comforted that somebody who knows linguistics took a similar approach to mine.

  47. Russell said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    On singling out negation, but with cross-sentential anaphora rather than a "like"-clause.

    Few Hanoians live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last weekend. The same/that is true of most of their countrymen.

    That seems pretty good to me. Though, it seems like in order to do this you have to (1) let "the same" pick out the property of "few X live their lives…", and (2) let "most X" denote a set of things that you can quantify with "few." [obviously impossible in a normal NP: *few (of the) most (of the) people is straight out.]

    If that's rightish, then the question is: what is it (if there is anything) about "like" that prevents this sort of semantic computation?

  48. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    "Like their compatriots, most residents of Hanoi are too busy 'getting and spending, laying waste [their] powers,' to live their lives to the drum-beat of patriotic hymns."

  49. George said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    @Russel: "what is it (if there is anything) about "like" that prevents this sort of semantic computation?"

    I would guess that we hear misspeech frequently and listen for salient clues as to meaning. When 'like' conflicts with 'most' + 'few,' we correct the latter go with 'like.'

  50. Nijma said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    Languagehat: ["Like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians...live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week" is] formally equivalent to "Like most of his countrymen, Nguyen lives his life to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week."

    Not quite, because "few Hanoians" is a negation of "Hanoians", with some qualification to keep the categorization from being absolute. If you want to keep the structure parallel, you would have to say something like "Like most of his countrymen, Nguyen rarely lives his life to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week."

  51. unekdoud said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    The way I read it, the sentence comes in 3 parts:
    (1) "Few Hanoians live their lives to the rhythms…"
    (2) "Hanoians are absorbed in getting and spending"
    (3) "The same is true for most of their countrymen"
    where 3 is taken to refer to either 1 or 2. But statement 2 could also be "Most Hanoians are absorbed…" or "Few Hanoians are absorbed", the latter of which is not true and doesn't fit logically.

    Verdict: (d), as a special case of (b). Possibly (e): mind-blowing until it's taken out and shot.

  52. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    For me, the only one that works is
    "Like most Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan."
    and it isn't entirely satisfactory.

    I would interpret that as "Few Americans speak Tibetan. That holds for New Yorkers, too." without thinking too much.

    Looking at it closely, though, makes me shudder.

    The other sentences seem like complete gibberish.

  53. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    "Like most Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan."

    I think a funny thing happens if you take away the "most".

    What about

    "Like other Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan."

    For me, that goes down a bit easier. Not logical, though. Is it?

  54. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    Language Hat and others who assert that the illogic trumps the intended meaning are painfully aware, I feel, that many people write and speak without critically thinking. To many, if most of the right words are included in the sentence, then their mission is accomplished regardless of the literal sense of the utterance.

  55. john riemann soong said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    Funny — for some reason this sentence doesn't sound so wrong. "Unlike most of their countrymen" sounds weirder.

  56. john riemann soong said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

    Fnortner: language isn't meant to be strictly logical. Perfectly logical languages is an artificial and stilted standard.

  57. john riemann soong said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    also now it dawns on me: "like with most Americans" comes out perfectly.

  58. marie-lucie said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    Coby Lubliner: The sentence strikes my as a bad translation from another language, maybe French.

    Comme la plupart des Vietnamiens, les Hanoïens, […] sont peu à […]

    Your suggestion for a French sentence strikes me as a word-for-word translation from English: "Hanoians are few to …".

    I am not saying that this never occurs in Modern French, but when it does, it is a direct calque of English.

  59. groki said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 4:31 am

    @Mr. Fnortner: Seth Mydans, I feel, might have tried writing your point a little differently:

    Like most of their fellows, few speakers, absorbed in listening and expressing, use their words to the rhythms of the critical-thinking insights that fill LL's comments each week.

  60. Alen Mathewson said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    I don't know anything about Hanoi specifically, but it doesn't seem uncommon for the residents of the largest cities in a given country to see themselves as somehow different (and often in some implied way 'better') than their fellow citizens living elswhere in their country. The construction 'Like most of their countrymen, few Hanoians' seems to be stressing that in this one respect at least, the residents of Hanoi are *not* any different from their fellow citizens living elsewhere. It seems to be trying to say that in this respect the percentage of Hanoians who live their lives to the rythms etc. is similar to the percentage of Vietnamese in general who live thier lives etc.. I'm not sure, however, that it succeeds.

  61. Boris said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    ok, since you asked:
    > Like most Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
    This is fine until I stop to think and clearly means "Just like few Americans speak Tibetan…"

    > Like most Americans, a handful of New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
    This gets the opposite reaction to the above. On first reading it doesn't make sense, but once you think about it, it has a clear meaning. "Most Americans speak Tibetan, but only a handful of New Yorkers do.

    > Like most Americans, 137 New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
    This one seems at first glance to mean something similar to #1, but once I think about it, it actually means the same thing as #2.

    > Like most Americans, only a handful of New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
    This doesn't work for me at all. To get the #2 meaning you need "unlike" instead of "like"

    > Like most Americans, only 137 New Yorkers speak Tibetan.
    Same as above

    > Like most of their fellow citizens, few Americans speak Tibetan.
    > Like most of their fellow citizens, a handful of Americans speak Tibetan.
    These are completely illogical

  62. Acilius said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    I think Alen Mathewson makes an important point. Why is the meaning "Hanoi is like most other places in Vietnam, in that few of its residents live their lives to the rhythms of patriotic tunes" so easy to derive from a sentence that cannot grammatically support that meaning? Perhaps because the contrast "Hanoians"/"countrymen" calls to mind a metropolitan population overeager to see itself as distinct from a rural population (notice the word is "countrymen," not "compatriots.")

  63. Chandra said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

    Not only is it easy to derive the intended meaning, but would anybody really get the supposedly "logical", grammar-based, unintended meaning from it? I think there's very little likelihood that it would ever be (mis)interpreted as meaning that most Vietnamese live their lives to the rhythms of patriotic marching tunes. The only way I see to convey that meaning would be to add the word "a" before "few Hanoians".

  64. Chandra said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

    Thinking more about this, I think there's something weird about the modifier "few" in this type of phrase; it's not actually identifying a subset of people (or things), but rather sort of… negating a subset? Or identifying the opposite subset by process of elimination? Because it seems to me that when we talk about "few people", we're usually actually referring to the "many". For example, in my opinion the sentence "Few people would brave a snowstorm to drive at night" isn't really making a comment on the fact that there might be A few people who do this, but rather that MOST people wouldn't.

  65. George said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    @Chandra: I think that is right. 'Few' means not many and addresses the larger group where 'a few' addresses the smaller group.

    1. Few Americans speak Vietnamese. (a large proportion does not)

    2. A few Americans speak Vietnamese. (a small proportion do)

  66. Ellen K. said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    I still maintain that there isn't any "'logical', grammar-based, unintended meaning". "Few" (distinct from "a few") takes it out of the realm of grammar that can be analyzed logically. And I do agree with the analysis of "few" and "a few" in the posts above from Chandra and George.

  67. army1987 said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    This has gotta have something to do with Huddleston and Pullum's description of "few" (but not "a few") as a negator, as exemplified by the fact that the question tag to "Few of them realised it was an hoax" is not "didn't they" but "did they". Indeed, if in "Like most Americans, few New Yorkers speak Tibetan" we replace "few New Yorkers speak" with "New Yorkers mostly don't speak", we get a sentence which means exactly what it seems to and is supposed to.

  68. Chandra said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    Right. And you wouldn't, for example, say things like:

    *Few people drive on icy roads, so they should be sure to have good winter tires.
    *Few people came to the party, and they brought gifts.

    So comparing "few Hanoians" to "most of their countrymen" can really only be interpreted as comparing (the opposite, unmentioned set of) "most Hanoians" to "most of their countrymen".

  69. linda seebach said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    Another apple out of the same barrel:

    "Like many newspaper stories about Singapore Math, this one was no different. " (In a post on Kitchen Table Math)

    As to the starting example, I think it's confusing because few and most have different referents. The sense is, "Hanoians are like most of their countrymen, in that few of either group pay attention to . . ."

  70. GAC said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    I think I will go with "confusing." The logical inconsistency does make me double-take. Though oddly I had more trouble with the simpler "New Yorker" examples. Maybe it was the comparison that drew it out. I'm usually bad at spotting these sorts of inconsistencies — I prefer to read it on automatic and let my brain auto-correct content to a statement that makes more sense to me.

  71. GAC said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    I think I will go with "confusing." The logical inconsistency does make me double-take. Though oddly I had more trouble with the simpler "New Yorker" examples. Maybe it was the comparison that drew it out. I'm usually bad at spotting these sorts of inconsistencies — I prefer to read it on automatic and let my brain auto-correct content to a statement that makes more sense to me.

  72. David Walker said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    Mr. Fnortner said, wrongly,

    "The first four examples compare the population of a city to the population outside the city. The two sets do not intersect."

    Are you claiming that New Yorkers are not Americans?

  73. Croogs said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    Reminds me of Trás-Os-Montes, the Portuguese village peculiar in its ability to represent all of Portugal.

  74. Ian Loveless said,

    October 13, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    I think the intent of "most" is as an intensifier indicating the existence of a bona fide trend; "just like" does the same thing without causing a collision with "few". Stylistically I prefer the subject closer to the verb. Just because it's a complex sentence doesn't mean it has to be complicated.

    "Just iike their countrymen, absorbed in getting and spending, few Hanoians live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week."

  75. maidhc said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 4:56 am

    Addressing the "$m to $n, or more" construction, it would make sense to me when discussing a Chinese restaurant. If you said "$6 to $8, or more", it would mean that the usual dishes like Mandarin Beef or Kung Pao Chicken are in the $6-$8 range, but if you order the abalone or the king crab it's going to be a bit more.

  76. Ian Loveless said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    I'm pretty sure my attempted solution didn't fix the problem. The sentence will need a major revision. Some people I showed it to didn't agree that you could talk about "Hanoians and their countrymen. I don't see a problem unless the reader doesn't know that Hanoi is in Vietnam.

    Hanoians, like most their countrymen, are absorbed in getting and spending; few live their lives to the rhythms of the patriotic marching tunes that filled the air last week.

  77. David Fried said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    Hey, I know that this is "Language Log," and we're interested in whether this clumsy sentence parses. But has anyone noticed the larger problem? This sentence starts with a confused metaphor to express the idea that the 1,000th anniversary of Hanoi doesn't touch ordinary Vietnamese very much. This is, of course, a remark of stupefying banality, applicable to all official patriotic celebrations everywhere. But be that as it may, no Hanoians, no Vietnamese, no people of any sort anywhere live their lives to the rhythms of patriotic marching songs. What could that even mean?

    The awful metaphor then collides with the imperative of "objective journalism," which rules out commonplace generalizations, even obviously metaphorical ones, as expressions of fact which must be appropriately qualified if they cannot be proven. In other words, this bizarre sentence actually results from the journalist's or copy editor's concern that some few Vietnamese, somewhere, may actually live their lives to the rhythm of a marching band, and that the journalist has not done sufficient research to rule this out.

    This sort of writing is endemic at the Times, and is, in all seriousness, a principal reason I gave up reading it after more decades than I care to remember. I wasn't finishing many articles anyway, because of a self-imposed rule that I would stop reading as soon as I hit something like this.

    No doubt this is just be a hobbyhorse of mine. I have often produced the would-be mot: "It's not that the editors of the Times don't know what good writing is. They know, all right–and they hate it." Since no one has ever smiled or nodded in agreement, I have reluctantly retired this remark.

    Thoughts?

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