Scalar implicature reversal of the week

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From "How to Complain at a Restaurant? Just Ask Our Critic", NYT 2/5/2019:

In general, the more specific your complaint, the more likely it is to be understood. The worst, most useless and potentially dangerous complaints are broad, sweeping condemnations.

“There is complaining that makes you think about what you’re doing, and there is complaining where everybody thinks they’re entitled to say anything,” said Rita Sodi, the chef and owner of the Tuscan restaurant I Sodi in Manhattan. “Saying, ‘This is terrible’ is not complaining. That is being rude. It’s like, ‘You’re ugly.’ It’s telling me that I’m ugly. It’s personal. It’s my food.”

Even when the person you’re grousing to did not cook your pasta personally, you should proceed gently, in nonconfrontational terms. It may be helpful to imagine that you are speaking with an air traffic controller trying to land 20 jets during a snowstorm; you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower, even if your child was on one of those jets.

If it's not obvious to you what's gone wrong in the highlighted sentence, consider the alternatives

…even if the passengers on those jets were all strangers to you.
…especially if your child was on one of those jets.

This is the OED's sense 8.a. for even:

Used to convey that what is being referred to is an extreme case in comparison with a weaker or more general one which is stated or implied in the adjacent context. Now the prevailing use of the word in English.

As the cited gloss indicates, there's a directionality involved in the notion of X as an extreme case in "even X", so that "…even if your child was on one of those jets" assumes a gradation of passengers for whom you'd have different degrees of concern, with your child at an extreme of the concern scale.

But which extreme, and from what direction are we approaching it?

Normally "X (happens), even if Y", where Y is a point on some scale S, implies that X would also happen in some circumstance whose value on the scale S is less extreme than Y. But "less extreme" has to be interpreted in terms of the contextually implied direction of the scale.

For example, the 2016 NYT headline "Automakers Go Electric, Even if Gas Is Cheap" implies that the automakers would also go electric if gas were more expensive — and in fact would be naturally more likely to do so.

But if we predict that "Customers will buy more trucks, even if gas is expensive", the implied scale (price of gas) is the same, but the implied direction is reversed.

Returning to the cited sentence about restaurant complaints, and the hypothetical conversation with a harried air traffic controller: The contextual interpretation of the "even if" clause is that you would also be polite if the passengers on the jets were people that you care less about than your child — and that in fact you'd naturally be more likely to be polite in that case.

This set of issues was first (?) explicitly discussed in Larry Horn's 1969 CLS paper "A presuppositional analysis of only and even". See "What does even even mean?", 2/8/2011, for some further discussion.

You've probably noticed that it's really hard to explain the contextually implied meanings in this case — presumably that's why the writer and editors didn't notice the problem. In fact, as in the related problems of misnegation, it's kind of amazing that any of us ever gets this right.

[h/t John O'Meara ]


  1. Matthew Hunt said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 9:24 am

    I disagree that this is an error in the article. Yes, it's always in your interest to keep the control tower calm, and more so if your child is on the plane. But I think the point of the sentence is that it would be harder, as a human being, to remain calm in that case. That is: "you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower, even if your child was on one of those jets[, making it hard for you to remain calm]."

    [(myl) Good point. On your interpretation, I guess the implied choice is not to be polite or not, but rather to be agitated or not. But the context is about rudeness — or at least starts by framing things that way — which naturally leads to the interpretation that surprised John O'Meara (and me).]

  2. FM said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 9:29 am

    I came here to say the same thing as Matthew Hunt.

  3. Alison said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    Isn't it in fact true that "you would also be polite if the passengers on the jets were people that you care less about than your child — and that in fact you'd naturally be more likely to be polite in that case"? I imagine people have more trouble holding it together when their child is at risk than when strangers are.

    I think the problem here is "try very hard". The scale that makes the sentence fail isn't "passengers for whom you'd have different degrees of concern", it's "level of effort needed to remain calm". The sentence works for me if rewritten something like "You would know better than to add to the overall stress level in the tower, even if your child was on one of those jets and so you were tempted to freak out."

  4. Scott P. said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    I agree with the previous posters that that was the meaning that was intended, but I will admit that I read it like Dr. Mair on the first pass.

  5. Trogluddite said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 10:40 am

    The sentence preceding the highlighted one tripped me up before I even got that far; and for exactly the same reason…

    "*Even* when the person you’re grousing to *did not* cook your pasta personally, you should proceed gently, in nonconfrontational terms." (my *emphasis*)

    This seems to be saying that it is more acceptable to be impolite and confrontational if the person to whom you are complaining is merely an innocent intermediary. Has the writer never heard the old saying, "don't shoot the messenger"?

  6. John from Cincinnati said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 10:54 am

    I find no "implicature reversal" and here is why. The NYT article suggests that you should not be rude in voicing a problem, because this agitates the person you are speaking to and makes it less likely they will try to correct the problem. (If you agitate the waiter, for example, then your complaint might go no further.) In order for you to not induce agitation, the highlighted sentence recommends a stratagem of imagining what would be constructive behavior in a much more troublesome situation — that is to say, even if (= especially if) you have a significant personal stake in the outcome. The takeaway is that your non-confrontational behavior in the imagined, stressful situation should be productive in lesser situations as well.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 12:21 pm

    Trogluddite: The previous paragraph says you can expect the cook to take criticism of the cooking personally, as they'd take "You're ugly," so that's a good reason not to say to the cook, "This is terrible." The "even" means that you should be gentle even if the person you're talking to won't take the criticism so personally.

  8. ohwilleke said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 12:44 pm

    I looked at the highlighted section and thought, what's wrong with this? It reads just fine.

  9. Miles said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 1:49 pm

    I agree with the interpretations of Matthew Hunt and Alison….

    ATC in a snowstorm: an intensely stressful situation, so you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower.

    Mark Liberman suggested extension:
    ATC in a snowstorm and you know no-one on the planes: you would still recognise the stress on the ATC, so even then you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower.

    Extension that others are attributing to the original author:
    ATC in a snowstorm and your child is on the plane: even with your emotions heightened, you would recognise that it would be a bad idea to add to the stress level in the tower and would still strive hard to speak in a cool-headed way.

    I favour this latter interpretation because it's saying that even feeling angry (or some other intense emotion) you should still deliver your complaint in a calm, rational way.

  10. Trogluddite said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 2:02 pm

    @Jerry Friedman
    Ah, the penny drops; thankyou. I think the inter-paragraph switch from a quoted 'third-party' anecdote back to the voice of the author somehow broke my sense of pragmatic continuity at that point. I can't help but wonder how much my often wonky understanding of connotation might have been improved had Language Log been available when I were much younger!

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

    I get the "don't overreact, even if overreaction would be natural" interpretation, now that it's been pointed out, but for the record, my initial reading was the same as MYL's and John O'Meara's: "Let them do their jobs, even if you really want them to do their jobs."

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 2:56 pm

    I wonder whether the difference in interpretation of the planes-in-snow situation has to do with whether readers imagine themselves as likely to overreact in that situation, or whether they imagine themselves or generic parents.

    Who, by the way, would be talking to an air-traffic controller in a crisis? Could it be anyone but a pilot or another air-traffic controller?

  13. Chandra said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 3:55 pm

    I interpreted the analogy as other commenters have, but the thing that makes it not quite land for me (npi) is that in the restaurant scenario given, the thing you're personally invested in is your meal, which by the time you're complaining has presumably already fallen victim to the culinary equivalent of a plane crash. As a former server I'm familiar with the attitude that you should be polite to waitstaff in order to ensure that nothing terrible befalls your meal before it arrives (cue ominous music), but that isn't the scenario described here.

    Civility is of course still important in the scenario that is described, but to me a more apt comparison with the ATC analogy would be if you suffer from a life-threatening allergy, and you want to be absolutely sure that the chef will know about it and the server will bring you the correct meal. In such a scenario, it's best to remain calm and polite, but if your meal later arrived containing the offending ingredient anyway, a certain amount of emphatic affront would be perfectly understandable.

  14. Viseguy said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 4:14 pm

    @John from Cincinnati: I, for one, don't read "even if" in the highlighted sentence as being synonymous with "especially if" — in fact, I read them as diametrically opposite in meaning, which is why the passage as written left me ineffably uneasy (until Prof. L. explained why).

  15. Michael Watts said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 5:11 pm

    I read the highlighted section as the writer intended it, with no clue what the problem was supposed to be. It seems intuitive that you're more likely to throw a fit if your child is in danger than otherwise.

  16. Ellen Kozisek said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 5:16 pm

    I can imagine either meaning being intended. That if you had a kid on the plane, you would try harder to remain calm, because you'd be more motivated. Or, if you had a kid on the plane, it would be very hard to remain calm, yet, nonetheless, still, you would try.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 5:32 pm

    The most recent comments bring to mind the awful dilemma in which the British Intelligence services were placed once they had enigma up and running and could decrypt the German cyphers. It would have been very easy thereafter to warn an allied convoy that it was shortly to be the subject of a torpedo attack, but to have done so and allowed the convoy to change course could easily have tipped off the Germans that their cyphers were no longer secure. One convoy diverted we could get away with; all convoys diverted would have caused German Intelligence to immediately change all their cyphers, and the intelligence battle would have started all over again.

  18. ft said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 7:33 pm

    nothing has "gone wrong" here for me. you would naturally be expected to be less polite if your child was on the plane, but to ensure a good outcome, you must _try to_ be polite _even if_ your child is on the plane.

    "X, even if Y" -> "X. it might be the case that Y, and we would expect that if Y then the likelihood of X is reduced, but despite that, X."

    "you must eat this soup, even if you don't like it" -> "you must eat this soup. it might be the case that you don't like it and therefore you would be expected not to eat it, but despite that, you must eat it".

    "you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower, even if your child was on one of those jets" -> "you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower. it might be the case that your child is on one of those jets and therefore you would be expected not to try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower, but despite that, you would try very hard not to add to the overall stress level in the tower".

    if i try very hard i can read the quoted passage in the sense i believe myl has, which is something like "if only strangers were on the plane, you would try to do the right thing, but if your child was on the plane then you wouldn't really care what happened (but you might try to do the right thing anyway)"; this would indeed be a very odd thing to say, rather like "you should care about other people, even if they're your own children". but i think this is a misreading of the article, not a problem with the article itself.

    using "especially" in place of "even if" doesn't work for me at all, because it doesn't convey the sense of doing something against expectations. you're not doing it _especially because_ your child is on the plane, you're doing _despite the fact that_ your child is on the plane.

  19. D.O. said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 8:58 pm

    Maybe I am overthinking it, but my guess is that "even" means that by loudly complaining in an air traffic control room might be tempting if the only thing you care about is the plane with your child on board lands safely. Then the people in charged might pay more attention to that particular plane. But that would be counterproductive because it will only increase the confusion. In other words, even if you care only about yourself, it sometimes pays off not to be a jerk.

  20. D.O. said,

    February 7, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

    Please, do not overthink grammatical errors in the previous comment. My fat fingers blame autocorrect.

  21. dainichi said,

    February 8, 2019 @ 12:06 am

    Looking at the sentence in isolation, both "even if" and "especially if" make sense, as people have explained.

    But in the context of the previous sentence, I think "even if" works better. The structure "A, even if B" is clearly meant to mirror the structure of the previous sentence, "even when B', A'". Without this parallelism, I don't see why B' (i.e. "your child was on one of those jets") should be there at all.

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 8, 2019 @ 8:36 am

    I read it like Matthew Hunt et al. and couldn't figure out what was supposed to be wrong until myl's explanation, which nevertheless struck me as an unnatural construal.

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    February 9, 2019 @ 2:37 pm

    I likewise concur with the majority; I never read the highlighted sentence any other way.

    The other one, though, that Trogluddite pointed out, is a problem, though he didn't express why:
    Just as the air-control sentence assumes it would be harder to remain calm and polite if your child were involved; it should be taken that it would be similarly harder if you were addressing the person directly responsible for the error (I hope!) – so the 'even' _there_ is misleading when closely parsed.

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