Illustrating the maxim of quantity…

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… or if you prefer, some aspects of relevance theory, the next-to-latest xkcd:


  1. acilius said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    The latest installment is a fine illustration of Grice's maxim of relevance.

  2. Shane said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    I'm glad you preserved the text that appears when hovering your mouse over the comic – most people who copy xkcd to another page forget to.

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    The browser in my Google Android phone thing appears incapable of displaying mouseover text. What shows up otherwise is ""She also starts every letter with 'Dear Future <your name>'".

  4. Faldone said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    My Junk Drawer Memory® has a note in it that says that the ancient Romans would always write letters in the past tense on the theory that any information in them would be in the past by the time the letter reached the recipient.

  5. Steve said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    I think your Junk Drawer Memory might have a flaw: the letters written by ancient Romans that I have read (Pliny, Cicero, the usual suspects) are predominantly written in the past tense because the events that they recount tend to have already happened at the time of writing, let alone the time of reading.

  6. majolo said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    It seems much worse than just a Gricean violation. The statement "I did X (in order) to do Y" is talking not just about doing X and then doing Y, but also about the purpose of doing X. I doubt that any part of her intention in living from 1983 till now was actually to utter that question.

  7. Faldone said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

    My JDM® has all sorts of worthless and questionable stuff in it. It's virtually impossible to clean out. The best I can do is mark a note invalid.

  8. acilius said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    @Faldone: I'm not sure your JDM is actually wrong about that. For example, Pliny does show marked tendencies to use the present tense in conditional clauses where we would expect the future, the perfect indicative in cum clauses where we would expect the present subjunctive, and the perfect subjunctive in quasi clauses where we would expect the present subjunctive. The overall effect is to create a sense of action displaced to the past. I don't know whether that is a stylistic quirk of Pliny's or a generic convention.

  9. Rubrick said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    Meanwhile, we all continue hurtling through the 4th dimension at the astounding speed of 3600 seconds per hour.

  10. un malpaso said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    Having traveled through the year 1983 myself when I was a teenager, I can say that it's a great place to visit… for, say, 12 months at the most… but you'd never want to live there.

  11. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    "The Roman letter-writer not unfrequently puts himself in the position of the receiver, more especially at the beginning and at the end of the letter, often in the phrase

    Nil erat (habebam) quod scriberem, I have nothing to write.

    This permutation of tenses is never kept up long, and applies only to temporary situations, never to general statements."

    Glidersleeve & Lodge, "Latin Grammar", section 252, "Tenses in Letters"

  12. Russell said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 5:39 pm


    Well, not all such clauses indicate purpose.

    1. I opened the front door to find a cat sitting on the porch.
    2. I came all this way (just) to get kicked out of my best friend's house?!

    Granted, interpreting the comic this way results in some funniness. But, there is a weird thing going on with "live":

    How I went a week without the internet and lived to tell about it.

  13. NW said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    I agree with majolo: I can only read the infinitival clause as purposive, I can't see any ambiguity, so the speaker is saying something literally false. It would be different if the sentence was slightly adjusted to a (?)Yiddishism: I travelled here from the year 1983, only to . . .?

  14. Bloix said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    Yeah, well, all I want to say is, the girls in xkcd are cute.

  15. Ellen said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:32 am

    I agree with Russell about the two examples he posted, but I think what's in xkcd is different and does suggest purpose.

  16. Charles Belov said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 2:29 am

    Yes, there are bagels left, but you have to go to New York or Los Angeles to get them.

    *Oops, off topic, think quickly*

    Oh, you meant you came here all the way from 1983 to ask whether there are any bagels left in this cartoon!

    Sadly, no, but there *is* a drawing of a bagel.

  17. Marc said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    Ceci n'est pas une bagel.

  18. Emily said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 10:42 am


    Isn't she allowed to have a sub-goal? Presumably her main goals since her journey started have been something like "live a long life", "avoid pain", etc (okay, maybe in 1983 these were subconscious goals). And clearly the next goal on her list in achieving all this is to find out whether there are any bagels left.

    Okay, my tongue is partly in my cheek, but the wording of the comic doesn't seem intuitively off to me.

  19. ø said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    I don't think it's anatomically possible to get your tongue entirely in your cheek.

    But, yeah, what Emily said.

  20. Matt said,

    September 10, 2009 @ 1:46 am

    Unlike most Quantity violations we know and love, I find it neat that this might be classed as a violation of the *second* half of Grice's Maxim — Don't be overly informative without reason — given that it's true but completely predictable.

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