Archive for Pragmatics

Violent destruction as excellence

In the title of yesterday's post about the Apple ad where a giant industrial press compresses all human creativity into an iPad Pro, I started with the weak pun "Tim Cook crushes it" — which led me to think about  idioms where violent destruction conveys high praise, and to wonder about other cases of this metaphor, and the analogies across languages and cultures.

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LÀ encore…

Continuing my anecdotal exploration of "focus"-like phenomena in French, I dove into a random point in the middle of a random Radio France podcast ("Libre Pensée – L’Europe, l’Union européenne et les élections européennes", 4/14/2024). And within a few seconds, I heard this, where the apparent "focus" on caught my attention:

Euh mais pour bien comprendre il faut là encore revenir à l'histoire —
décidément nous faisons un peu un cours d'histoire aujourd'hui

(Google translation for those who need it…)

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Victor Hugo, hélas

Focus is perhaps the single most perniciously ambiguous word in the field of linguistics. In Beth Ann Hockey's 1998 dissertation, "The interpretation and realization of focus: an experimental investigation of focus in English and Hungarian", she wrote:

Linguists have associated the word “focus” with a wide variety of phenomena. In addition a wealth of other terms including “new,” “emphasis,” “stress,” “rheme,” “comment,” “accented,” “prominent,” “informative” and “contrast” have been attached singly or in combination to phenomena that seem to be the same as, similar to or overlapping with those that have been called focus.

Beth Ann quotes a few relevant passages from Lewis Carroll, including

‘That's a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

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Normative language

A matter that requires nuancing: Jinyi Kuang and Cristina Bicchieri, "Language matters: how normative expressions shape norm perception and affect norm compliance", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2024:

Abstract: Previous studies have used various normative expressions such as ‘should’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘approved’ interchangeably to communicate injunctions and social norms. However, little is known about whether people's interpretations of normative language differ and whether behavioural responses might vary across them. In two studies (total n = 2903), we find that compliance is sensitive to the types of normative expressions and how they are used. Specifically, people are more likely to comply when the message is framed as an injunction rather than as what most people consider good behaviour (social norm framing). Behaviour is influenced by the type of normative expression when the norm is weak (donation to charities), not so when the norm is strong (reciprocity). Content analysis of free responses reveals individual differences in the interpretation of social norm messages, and heterogeneous motives for compliance. Messages in the social norm framing condition are perceived to be vague and uninformative, undermining their effectiveness. These results suggest that careful choice of normative expressions is in order when using messages to elicit compliance, especially when the underlying norms are weak.

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"…like this one"

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"Made from 100% VERBed X Y"?

As discussed in "this post" from 9/5/2017, the label "100% grated Parmesan cheese" means only that the product's Parmesan cheese is 100% grated, or maybe that the cheese in it is 100% Parmesan — never mind the cellulose powder that's also in the mix.

So I wondered about the grocery bags that are labeled


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Just sayin'

The third verse of Ben Sidran's song Can We Talk (track 5 on the 2013 album Don't Cry For No Hipster) repeats the couplet "I'm not sayin'; I'm just sayin'":

This reminded me of a LLOG Post of Yore: "Just sayin'", 1/11/2012, which tried to answer a question about the meaning and origins of that phrase.

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Retraction Watch: Swamp Man Thing

A recent Dinosaur Comic features a passionate investigation into alleged philosophical plagiarism:

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TEAR here

The hotel where I'm staying in Morgantown, West Virginia kindly gave me a complimentary rectangular packet of freshmint toothpaste.  At the top right corner of the packet, there was a dotted, diagonal line with the words "TEAR HERE" printed above it.  Alas, no matter how hard I tried, I could not tear it open.

Then I thought that maybe I could RIP it open by pulling on the serrations along the upper edge of the packet.  No luck.

Then I tried to BITE and GNASH the packet with my teeth.  Abject failure.

Of course, I've been through all of this countless times before, and not just with toothpaste, but with packets of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and all sorts of other things.  It is especially dismaying when — after making a supreme effort — the packet bursts open and the contents spurt all over the place, including your clothing.  The worst case is when soy sauce flies out and drips everywhere.

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Implicatures of the week

Marcus Hayes, "Eagles players, including A.J. Brown, say ‘No thanks’ to Odell Beckham Jr.", The Philadelphia Inquirer 12/8/2022:

The question was simple. A.J. Brown, the Eagles’ $100 million No. 1 receiver, understood all of its ramifications and implications.

Would injured free-agent receiver Odell Beckham Jr., a diva’s diva, fit in with the culture and chemistry that has helped the Eagles start the season 11-1? After all, malcontent running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, preseason and deadline additions, nested nicely with the Birds during the Super Bowl run in the 2017 season.

“I think OBJ would be … would be OK to be … I mean, why not?” Brown told me.

He adjusted his hoodie. He smiled.

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Illusions of understanding

Lau et al., "The extreme illusion of understanding", Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2022:

Though speakers and listeners monitor communication success, they systematically overestimate it. We report an extreme illusion of understanding that exists even without shared language. Native Mandarin Chinese speakers overestimated how well native English-speaking Americans understood what they said in Chinese, even when they were informed that the listeners knew no Chinese. These listeners also believed they understood the intentions of the Chinese speakers much more than they actually did. This extreme illusion impacts theories of speech monitoring and may be consequential in real-life, where miscommunication is costly.

The paper begins with a quotation attributed to George Bernard Shaw: "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Ironically, this attribution seems to be apocryphal, though the false attribution was not invented by the authors.

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The pragmatics of nyms, hyper- and hypo-

When I saw this sign in a local state park yesterday, it reminded me of the recent discussions about "Pregnant people" and "People with erectile dysfunction".

In the background of the sociocultural issues about inclusive or exclusive language, there's a general problem about choosing terminological levels in taxonomic hierarchies. Having just spent a couple of hours swatting at mosquitoes and gnats, I wondered whether this sign's assertion that "It is unlawful to chase or disturb wild birds or animals" might put me at risk of legal penalties.

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I recently learned by email that an acquaintance is planning to return from London to Philadelphia, and started to close my response with "Bon voyage!" Then I thought about using English instead, but realized that "Good trip!" doesn't work at all. So I chose "Safe travels!", which does work.

This made me wonder about the usage patterns involved — why does French "Bonne chance!" translates to "Good luck" but "Bon voyage" doesn't work as "Good trip"?

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