How many sides does an equation have?

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Tim Finin writes:

President Trump said Fauci wants to "play all sides of the equation" about reopening schools. I thought that was an unusual phrase and used google to search for it without the token Trump. There were three hits.

Here they are:

[link] Whether you switch between or within different relationships or are just curious to see how people play all sides of the equation, this class will explore the different aspects and appeal of service topping.
[link] I'm not saying I'm completely buying into that one plus being worth the cap as well as the fact that my assets are essentially non-liquid for a period of time, I'm just trying to play all sides of the equation here.
[link] And remember, if you want to be taken seriously, go play all sides of the equation that you complain about.

For Donald Trump's version, see e.g. Caitlin Oprysko, "Trump tweaks Fauci on school reopenings: ‘He wants to play all sides of the equation’", Politico 5/13/2020. The relevant passage — in which the reporter repeats the expression using "both sides" rather than "all sides":

Q: Dr. Fauci yesterday was a little cautious on re-opening the economy too soon
uh do you share his concerns?

A: About re-opening what?

Q: Re-opening the economy too soon in some states

A: Look he wants to play all sides of the equation
uh I think we're going to have tremendous fourth quarter
I think we're going to have a transitional third quarter
and I think we're going to have a phenomenal next year.
We want it open.

Q: When you say Dr. Fauci is playing both sides,
are you suggesting that the advice he's giving is (())

A: Well I was surprised- I was surprised by his answer actually
uh because uh you know uh it's just
to me it's not an acceptable answer
especially when it comes to schools

Let's note that most linguists would take the view that "all sides" can truthfully refer to two sides, if that's all the sides that there are — the oddity of the expression comes from a Gricean implicature generated by the maxim of manner (and maybe a bit of the maxim of quantity), suggesting that "all" would not be chosen instead of "both" if there were only two sides.

And both sides of an equation have infinitely many forms, in pretty much any algebraic system, so there's a concept of "equation" that could be said to have infinitely many sides.

On the other hand, there's the question of what it means to "play" any side of an equation.



  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 13, 2020 @ 9:06 pm

    I wonder if there's some contamination here from "play both sides against the middle".

  2. Michael Watts said,

    May 13, 2020 @ 10:51 pm

    My interpretation would be that whoever chose this wording (1) wanted to use the phrase "both sides of the equation", but also didn't want to imply that there were only two sides. I find it totally plausible that there are more than two things to consider. Substituting "all" for "both" is actually a way to draw attention to the idea that there are several different perspectives in play.

  3. Viseguy said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 12:00 am

    1+1 = 3-1 = 2 = 5-3 = 1,000,000-999,998 = …

    By definition, aren't "all sides" of the equation, um, equal?

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 3:00 am

    Personally I like the idea of "the token Trump". We've long had "the token woman", more recently "the token black/Asian/whatever", so I am delighted that "the token Trump" has now joined that exalted group …

  5. Duane Hardy said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 5:14 am

    I concur with Michael Watts. Both is suggesting there are only two options. Yes or No. Good or Bad. One answer is correct so the other answer must be wrong. All areas of the country are not affected equally so there could be many different solutions to consider.

  6. Dave said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 6:06 am

    The trouble here is likely not with the meaning of "play", or of "all sides", but with the notion that a Trump utterance has semantic meaning instead of being expressed purely for phatic value.

    GIGO. ex falso quodlibet.
    (yes, I am aware that fiddles are an anachronism)

  7. Dave said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 6:27 am

    A restatement wiith more charity: he was probably just undertaking the XXI equivalent of flyting, and as such, should only be held to the informational/semantic standards of oral, not literary, culture.

  8. Twill said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 7:18 am

    I would almost certainly peg it as "play both sides" mashed with "both sides of the equation" with both varied to all for good measure. Discerning what was exactly the intended meaning is a tougher question, as clearly "play both sides" is malapropos, and while it sounds like he's trying to say that Gauci wants to have his cake and eat it, contextually it seems he meant to say he advised a wait-and-see approach, which probably also crossed wires with "see how things play out".

  9. Mark Meckes said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 7:58 am

    I'd also note that most mathematicians would take the view that "all sides" can even correctly refer to just one side, or to none at all, if there is only one side or none, respectively. Many of the implicatures discussed in the linked article are explicitly rejected by mathematical English.

  10. Kenny Easwaran said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 8:56 am

    I often find myself wanting to say "both A and B and C". It definitely feels wrong to use "both" for more than two, but it feels even wronger to try to use "all" in this particular context.

  11. Orbeiter said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 10:25 am

    Here's how I imagine Trump's subconscious line of thought went.

    #1 To approach a problem from all sides/ all angles of attack/ full coverage
    #2 To approach a binary problem from all sides (still makes sense)
    #3 Make it critical and slightly pejorative
    #4 To approach glibly (play) a binary problem (equation) from all sides (all sides of the equation — is an oxymoron).
    #5 Also leaving the connotation that said problem (equation) already has a predetermined outcome. You can play with the numbers on either side but x will turn out to have the same value.

    This is of course charitable to Trump in assuming that he isn't just careless with his language.

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 11:04 am

    I'm skeptical that the choice of "equation" was in any sense deliberate or premeditated. I think it's entirely plausible that Trump was doing something roughly akin to what Google Translate does: stringing together fragments of phrases he's heard used in similar contexts, without having any firm grasp of their actual salience.

  13. tim finin said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 7:28 pm

    Both (i.e., all) sides of an equation are by definition equivalent.

  14. Florida Vermont said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 10:40 pm

    Searching for deep meaning in extemporaneous celebrity expressions is a Fool’s Errand. However, polemics postulated from partisan parsing of political prose is pustulant.

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