Booking in advance

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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!

The answer states (or so it seems to me) a cutoff, namely 2 hours prior to casting off, beyond which reservations cannot be made because it is too close to the sailing time. But that would be an answer to a question like "When is the latest I could make a reservation?"

The actual question, How far in advance can I make a reservation?, is surely asking something completely different: "What is the earliest I could make a reservation?"

That is, when someone asks a question making reference how far in advance of the sailing time something can be done, they are asking for a maximum time span that has the sailing time as endpoint.

If there is any answer given here to the actual question, it is entirely implicit: it is given by a conversational implicature. Since they do give a latest time for reservations but they do not say anything about an earliest time, we infer pragmatically that there is no limit: you can reserve as far in advance as you want. You can make a reservation right now for your kids to take a centenary-celebrating trip in 2112. Sure, there might not still be such things as boats by then, but right now it looks like the Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company assume that there will be, and will take your reservation.

However, being pragmatic in the other sense, i.e. simply practical, I went to the reservations page, and found that here in the real world they won't do any such thing. Only the years 2012 and 2013 were available as menu choices, and I couldn't even book for 2013. The error message said "No event times are available." So I don't think you can book your 2112 travel now. Good luck to you if you want to try, though. Bon voyage.

Bob Ladd, who spotted this, thinks the matter is more complicated than I have suggested above. He had earlier noticed a sign saying that buses in Cambridge (UK) run "up to every 10 minutes", which appears to mean that they run at intervals that can get as short as 10 minutes: since here low numbers (more frequent buses) are good, "up to" means "toward the good end of the scale". Well, that may also be in play in the ferryboat case. Their "up to 2 hours in advance" could mean "as little as 2 hours in advance": It is good to have the pre-sailing cutoff time so small (just as it is good to have the Cambridge buses running so frequently). Bob suggests that it as if "Y up to X(n)", where X(n) is a phrase involving the number n, means something like "on some pragmatic scale where X(n) specifies a quantity/frequency/extent that is somehow a reasonable limit or somehow surpasses expectations, Y reaches that limit or surpasses expectations to that extent". It's clearly not necessary for Y < n — in both the Bridgeport case and the Cambridge case, Y > n.

I hope you've followed all that, because there is going to be an "up to X" question on the final.

And by the way (added 14 June 2012), note that the Port Jefferson Patch newsletter is onto this story and is awaiting the ferry company's comment. Another sign of the rapidity of movement of the news cycle.

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26 Comments »

  1. Bob Ladd said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

    Just to clarify: I completely agree with GKP that the ferry people answered the wrong question. The only sense in which "the matter is more complicated" is that, even if we grant that their answer actually applies to the question, there's something weird about the semantics or pragmatics of "up to" expressions.

  2. nemryn said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    The bus example probably has something to do with the fact that 'six times an hour' is semantically equivalent to 'every ten minutes', but not syntactically.

  3. Martin Orr said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    It seems to me that both of the following are potentially correct answers to the specified questions:

    Q. When is the latest I could make a reservation?
    A. Up to 2 hours in advance of the departure.

    Q. When is the earliest I could make a reservation?
    A. Up to six months in advance of the departure.

    It is only knowledge about ferry services that allows you to conclude that in this example the wrong question is answered. In some cases (say a ride at a theme park) "up to 2 hours in advance" might specify the earliest you could book.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    I originally read it the way Bob Ladd suggested as an alternative reading. I think, if I followed that correctly.

    That is, originally, I was thinking it very strange that one could not make a reservation more than 2 hours in advance, and also wondering how they were answering the wrong question.

    On further reading, it because clear that, yes, they answered the wrong question.

    But, yes, something interesting about the semantics and pragmatics about "up to" expression.

  5. maidhc said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    Some other common uses of "up to":

    Weight loss of up to 100 pounds guaranteed in 4 weeks on the diet or your money back!

    The RIAA estimated that illegal downloads caused record companies to lose up to 10 trillion dollars in revenue last year. (Typical headline: "Illegal downloads cost $10 trillion")

  6. Seonachan said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    I always get confused when someone says they need to "move/push up/back" an appointment – I never know which means "make earlier" and which means "make later".

  7. Rubrick said,

    June 10, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

    In the olden days, this post surely would have been followed by "Comments will remain open up to 2 hours before this entry is posted."

  8. Yuval said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 12:46 am

    Following on Rubrick: I miss the days of Closed Comments(TM). No offense to commenters, but the closing sentences* of GKP's posts were becoming more fun than reading through comments.
    *pun intended? I'm not sure.

    [Half our readers loved me explaining in each post why comments couldn't be opened, and the other half began to hate me with a passion because they thought I was implying that they were dull-witted turkeys whose comments would be worthless garbage. Difficult to know what to do when your audience is split 50/50 between love and hate. Start killing the half that hate you, I suppose. I did once threaten to start killing Language Log readers who posted one or the other of two sorts of comments I do not want to see again. I thought the policemen who came round to see me about it were being unnecessarily uptight. It was as if they had some kind of beef against the very idea of Darwinism. —GKP]

  9. Mar Rojo said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:12 am

    ‎"Weight loss of up to 100 pounds guaranteed in 4 weeks on the diet or your money back!"

    So if I lose only 1oz. I don't get my money back?

  10. Mar Rojo said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:13 am

    "Bring the meeting forward" always gets me confused.

  11. Mar Rojo said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:14 am

    Or is it "put the meeting back"?

  12. Michael said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:34 am

    "Weight loss of up to 100 pounds" means exactly that: "you will lose a lot of weight, sometimes as much as 100 pounds, but don't expect more than that".
    This is analogous to price cuts "up to 70%", meaning that there will be at least one item in the store that will be cut 70%, and the rest may be cut as little as they want…

  13. Mar Rojo said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 6:27 am

    With price cuts, you can go round the store and check the promise. What do you do in the case of the weight-loss promise?

  14. George said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 7:05 am

    Maybe I am an overly pedantic person, but if I ask the question "How far in advance of a departure can I make a reservation?", I would expect the answer to be something like "You may make a reservation between 6 months and 2 hours in advance of the departure."

  15. Brian T said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 7:43 am

    Could be worse. It's not unheard of for advertisements to use phrases like "savings of up to 50% or more!" and I've had to edit new stories that said useless things like "Local authorities say the death toll could rise to as many as 10,000 or more."

  16. SeaDrive said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    It being an FAQ, I think it's probably more correct to say they asked the wrong question. When making up an FAQ, you start with the info you want to give the folks; that would be the answers. Then you create the questions to suit. Or, in this case, not to suit.

  17. Brett said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    @Brian T: What did you do when editing stories like that? I encountered statements like that while editing news copy a few times. I remember having a hard time deciding what I should do, since there was obviously an intent to convey something, yet the statement as written contained zero bits of information. I think I generally ended up calling the reporters and making them rephrase it.

  18. Ted said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    This seems to call for parentheses, to distinguish between

    (up to) (two hours in advance) and

    (up to two hours) (in advance).

    In the former case, "up to" refers to the ordinary rule in which time is counted upwards as it elapses; in the latter, it refers to time counted downwards from an arbitrary future point.

    Yes, the latter is somewhat counter-intuitive. But it isn't any different from saying that a smaller subtraction yields a larger result, and vice versa. It's counter-intuitive in the same way and to the same extent.

    None of which changes what I understand to be GKP's primary point, which is that even though "how far" could technically ask for both endpoints in a range, I think it's generally used to ask for a maximum only — and answering with a minimum only would generally be considered non-responsive.

  19. Ted said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    Meanwhile, Brian T and Brett:

    Refer to the first panel here: http://xkcd.com/870/

  20. Andrew said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

    I would understand Martin's examples as referring to two different scales – (up to six months) before departure – ie the period in which one can book extends to six months vs up to (two hours before departure) – ie the time by which I can book extends to the time two hours prior to departure. I can't, however, map the bus example to a number line with "up to" going in the correct direction without invoking the frequency of buses, which is divorced from the quantity of interest (A frequency of 6 buses an hour could mean waiting half an hour for three buses to come along at once)

  21. Andrew said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

    Oops, I managed to miss Ted's post which covered the first part of mine rather better than I did.

  22. Tim said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    Following on from Brain T, I have a sheet of Domino's Pizza vouchers, also from Cambridge UK, promising "savings of up to & over £350," which is of course mostly meaningless. Whatever the best analysis of "up to" is here, it's not very comprehensible in my (RPish) dialect.

  23. Barbara Partee said,

    June 12, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Another detail. I think their answer could also be a correct answer to the question "How far in advance must I make a reservation?". So there are at least 3 factors that make automated question-answering a non-trivial problem in this case, I guess: The meanings of "how far in advance", of "up to", and of "can vs. must". (Clearly their safest strategy, as others have noted, would be to answer all such questions with the full range of possible reservation-making times.)

  24. Mark Farey said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    …and then there's "he made the cut," which always implies to me that he didn't make it.

  25. bamako said,

    June 15, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    If "How far in advance can I make a reservation?" contains a typo and was meant to be written as "How far in advance must I make a reservation?" then the answer makes perfect sense without extra speculation or theorizing.

  26. Sandra wilde said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    The weightloss claim of up to 100 pounds is written to mean exactly what they inyend it to mean. Lose 1 ounce and they're covered.

    The one that drives me crazy is listing 12:00 am or 12:00 pm as a time. (e.g., "tickets go on sale at . . .") No such thing.

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