Quantifier scope in the comics

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Today's For Better or For Worse:

It's not clear whether Annie means that she has only one maternity outfit, which she wears every day, or only one style/type of maternity outfit, of which what she's wearing is an instance. The second reading seems more plausible, and opens up a new range of answers to the question "How Many Readings Do Donkey Sentences Have?"


  1. philip cummings said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 5:36 am

    Is the joke not actually the ambiguity between every day of the week and each day of the week?
    An outfit for each day of the week = 7 outfits
    An outfit for every day of the week = 1 outfit

    [(myl) That's certainly the most obvious ambiguity, which is just a matter of scope between "every" and (the existential quantifier implicit in) "an". But the idea that Annie owns only one maternity outfit is culturally implausible, suggesting that some sort of type/token or generic/specific issue might be involved. And that opens the door to the "donkey sentence" controversies. (At least at the level required for a blog post about a cartoon…)]

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 5:55 am

    It brings to mind some of the "again" jokes (which are really just the same joke).

    "I'm thinking of going on a diet again."

    "You've gone on a diet before?"

    "No, but I've thought about it before."

  3. coleman said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 6:17 am

    If it wasn't as p cummings suggests, what would be funny about it? I'm open to suggestions, I suppose.

  4. Robert said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 7:05 am

    This is the standard "pointwise convergence" vs "uniform convergence" joke. The version I am most familiar with is "I have one pair of underpants for every day of the week".

  5. davep said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 7:45 am

    The second reading doesn't seem plausible.

    "Maternity clothes" in the first frame implies she's talking about more than one outfit.

    "This is it" implies there is only one (it is a reference to "outfit" said by the woman on the right).

    If it was multiple outfits of the same style, she would have said "They are all the same".

    The "humor" is based on things no one would actually say.

  6. davep said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 8:17 am

    "Every woman who owns a donkey beats it."

    No one intending to satisfy logical truth would use that sentence to convey either possible meaning.

    Somebody using such a sentence would is focusing on acts of donkey beating by the owners (of one or more donkeys). Analyzing the "logic" of that sentence (in the way done in the link) ignores what that sentence is really talking about.

    Whether or not it's the beating of every donkey owned isn't the concern (in the same way the frequency of beatings isn't the concern) of that sentence.

    If some one was interested in conveying the other odd meaning they would say "every woman who owns a donkey beats every donkey she owns".

    In the face of the ambiguity, it's much more likely to assume that one (or more) donkey is being beaten rather than all of them.

  7. neminem said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    Heh. Bet whoever came up with that donkey sentence *very* intentionally chose the subject to be a woman, or college kids in intro-linguistics classes would completely ignore *all* the possible variations in scope in favor of the version with no scope but which would allow nonstop snickering. >.>

    [(myl) In fact the original version (Peter Geach, 1962) referred to "every farmer", not further identified as to gender, and I think farmers continued to be the theme through Hans Kamp's work on such sentences in the development of Discourse Representation Theory around 1980. I don't recall any snickering, though philosophy and linguistics grad students tend not to snicker a lot, at least about example sentences.]

  8. kevinm said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 10:38 am

    In the United States a man is run over by an automobile every seven minutes.

  9. Simon Wright said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 10:50 am

    "Somewhere in the world, a woman gives birth every 80 seconds.” – "We have to find that woman and stop her!"

  10. Rodger C said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 11:20 am

    Old SNL: Here in New York City a man is mugged every eleven seconds. Today, we talk with that man." Interview, repeatedly interrupted by muggings.

  11. Karl Weber said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 11:41 am

    Bono addressing a crowd at a concert: "Every time I clap my hands, a child dies of malnutrition."

    Voice in the crowd: "Stop clapping!"

  12. AnnDeeQ said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    You guys have obviously never been pregnant. I've heard similar sentiments from women of my age (I'm probably old enough to be your grandmother).

    At the time this comic was written, women bought loose maternity clothes. You reached a point where hardly anything was comfortable to wear (being tha t pregnant isn't comfortable anyway), and you're so close to giving birth that buying something new isn't practical–you just wouldn't get enough use out of the outfit to justify buying it when there are more important things to buy, like baby clothes and diapers.

  13. davep said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    AnnDeeQ: "You guys have obviously never been pregnant. I've heard similar sentiments from women of my age (I'm probably old enough to be your grandmother)."
    No has expressed they are confused by or disagree with the sentiment. It's not hard (even for guys) to understand that wearing one or 7 outfits for 6 months might get tedious.

    Regardless, if some one says they have "an outfit for every day of the week", they (likely) never mean they have only one outfit that they wear always (some one with only one outfit would never really say they have "an outfit for every day of the week").

  14. Ross Presser said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 3:08 pm

    > (some one with only one outfit would never really say they have "an outfit for every day of the week")

    In a *joke* they would. In a *comic strip* of course they would.

  15. flow said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 3:50 pm

    To me this intercourse sounds fully plausible, even if there will be people (at which time?:-) who complain about the usage being incorrect.

    In so-called High German, we have two popular pet peeves: "das Gleiche" vs "das Selbe" and "so groß wie" vs "größer als". Many people don't use these correctly and say things like "er hat das selbe Auto wie sie" (lit., *"he's owning the identical same car as she"), "dieser Baum ist größer als wie das Haus" (lit., *"this house is taller than as the house"). BUT that's what people do say, and given they're coming from all sorts of sociolinguistic / dialectal backgrounds that are all closely related to what is considered "correct High German", it's hardly surprising that they take over speech habits from more in-group settings to more formal settings.

    Which brings me to my question: in my perception, the High German distinction between "das Gleiche" (the same by looks and intents) and "das Selbe" (the identical piece; this very same thing) might well be an invention of High German speakers (more probably, 'writers') who wanted to explain a synonym away by attributing different shades of meaning to two originally exchangeable items, and the same goes for "so groß wie" vs. "größer als"—southern dialects tend to use "so groß als wie" and "größer als wie", whereas in the north, they say "wie" in both cases. Could it be that English "every" vs "each" have similar origins?

  16. mae said,

    April 1, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

    Headline I read today: "Identical triplets marry on same day in same dress."

  17. davep said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    mae: "Headline I read today: "Identical triplets marry on same day in same dress.""

    Ideally, no one is using what's in headlines as a guide for usage!

    Presumably, the unlikelihood that a single dress was big enough to accomodate all three at the same time or the impracticality of there being three serial weddings is enough to figure out what was meant.

    Headlines are weird. They don't use hyphens for some reason (it's not space) and, sometimes, the hyphens would eliminate bizarre interpretations.

    "British left waffles on Falklands" -> "British-left waffles on Falklands".

  18. davep said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    flow: "To me this intercourse sounds fully plausible, even if there will be people (at which time?:-) who complain about the usage being incorrect."

    The usage might be correct but I doubt that anybody is confused by the meaning. The problem with the unfunny cartoon at the top isn't that the usage is wrong. The problem is that the person is talking about multiple things (a single dress isn't "clothes") in the first panel and one thing in the last panel. That some one fluent in English would contradict themselves in that way is not plausible.

  19. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

    If "clothes" is necessarily plural, what is the singular? Surely not "cloth." A person would never say, "I have only one cloth, this dress that I'm wearing"? To me, a single dress can be considered "clothes."

    "Do you have any maternity clothes?"

    "Only this dress."

    That's a perfectly reasonable, even likely, exchange.

    "I bought some maternity clothes today–this dress" would also be perfectly acceptable.

  20. etv13 said,

    April 2, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

    When I say, e.g., "I'm going home to change out of my work clothes," I don't mean I'm wearing more than one outfit (and I might very well say it while wearing a dress).

  21. Largo said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 7:11 am

    Robert: It depends on the compactness of the language.

  22. Terry Collmann said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    Perhaps the most famous use of this sort of sentence was by Harry Furness in Punch magazine in 1884, with the tramp writing an endorsement for Messers Pears: "I used your soap two years ago and have not used any other since."

  23. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 3, 2015 @ 9:40 am

    I'm finding this discussion very hard to follow, but as far as I can see there is no reference to a dress. The singular thing to which the character refers is an outfit. 'Outfit' is a singular term which can refer to a set of clothes, not just one item.

  24. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 4, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    There's no reference to "outfit" either :) In my experience (I have seven kids) a pregnant woman's outfit is commonly a dress, although there are other possibilities. Of course, that may not be true today (my youngest child is 28).

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