(Not?) Including myself

« previous post | next post »

Jonah Markowitz, "Remote Work Is Here to Stay. Manhattan May Never Be the Same.", NYT 3/29/2021:

“I could find few people, including myself, who think we are going to go back to the way it was,” said Joseph J. Palermo, the firm’s chief operating officer.

Matt Hutson, who sent in the link, wrote:

Presumably he meant: "I could find few people, not including myself, who think we are going to go back to the way it was.”
Or: "I could find many people, including myself, who don’t think we are going to go back to the way it was.”

I'm not sure about this. I agree, it's clear that the writer meant to include himself in the majority group who don't think we're going back to the way it was. But if this is a mistake, it's a common one — though of course many negation-related mistakes are common.

When few people refers to a small set with some affirmatively stated property, there's no problem including someone in that set, e.g. "They showed it to a few people, including myself."

But a problem arises when we want to include someone in an explicitly empty set, e.g.

[link] No one, including myself, knows that he has hands. No one, including myself, knows anything at all about the external world.

What's meant here is that I (allegedly) share with everyone else the property of not knowing certain things. But it's perhaps problematic to express that with a phrasing that seems to include me in the null set. (Read the article to see why the intended meaning, including the writer in the universal set rather than the null set, is not as epistemically ridiculous as it seems.)

But here's an Op-Ed writer who explicitly argues for "No one, including myself, is safe" as the right way to answer a question about "How to include the speaker in the sentence 'No one is safe'".

The sentence that bothered Matt involves a different but related problem. A phrase like "few people" is implicitly negative  (= "not many people" = "most people … NOT"), as shown by its licensing of negative polarity items like any or ever:

[link] And speaking of facts, another lesson Lindahl mentions is the importance of acting quickly once the facts are clear. His example: the Asian economic crisis that began in mid-1997 with the collapse of Thailand's currency. "Very few people, including myself, had any sort of expectation that would come."

[link] What I find interesting about this and numerous other studies is the reference to the sterile conk as the fruiting body. It is not! Very few people, including myself, have ever seen these ubiquitous bodies.

If I say that "Most people, including me, don't own any gold coins", it's clear that I'm including myself in the no-gold-coins crowd. (And never mind the me/myself issue for now.)

If I say that "A few people, including me, own gold coins", I'm clearly claiming the opposite, namely that I'm one of the gold-owning few. (False, as it happens.)

But leave out the initial indefinite article, and things get murky.

If I say "Few people, including me, own coin coins", which group am I claiming to belong to? It's clear that many people, including the author of the NYT article, think that I'm claiming membership in the set to which the implicit negation attaches.

Personally, the construction gives me a sort of Escher Sentence vibe.

 



22 Comments »

  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 7:40 pm

    Arguably "I could find few people, including myself, who think X" means something like "I surveyed a number of people, including myself, and few of them think X".

  2. DaveK said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 7:53 pm

    If I click on the link, I get attacked by pop-up ads but “no one, including myself, is safe” seems fine. It’s a way to steer the statement to the “I” and notify us that the next sentence will be about my own lack of safety.
    If it’s illogical, then isn’t “Everyone, including myself, is unsafe” redundant?

  3. RfP said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 9:28 pm

    “I could find few people who think we are going to go back to the way it was. I sure don’t,” said Joseph J. Palermo, the firm’s chief operating officer.

  4. RfP said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 9:30 pm

    (That was my suggested rewrite. Once an editor, always an editor.)

  5. Duncan said,

    March 29, 2021 @ 10:48 pm

    "Escher Sentence": I wasn't on LL back in 2004 when that post was apparently created, but that seems the /perfect/ description. The quintessential pop-culture example is surely Carly Simon's "You're so vain" (…you probably think this song is about you)", which I never had the verbal acumen to properly describe. Now I do!

    And agreed, "Escher sentence" would seem to describe the present case as well.

    @ DaveK: Yes I'd argue that "everyone, including myself" is redundant, and "no one, including myself" is illogical as such. However, that does /not/ mean they're entirely free of signal content, and I can see your argument for the notification functionality. While it's a new thought to me with this article, I can (now) see myself arguing that much like graphic Escher illustrations, "illogical" sentences (and songs! =:^) often have their purpose, sometimes (as in the case of "Vain") even emphasized by the logic gap. =:^)

    (BTW, for the archive Firefox says SSL_ERROR_BAD_CERT_DOMAIN and I had to (after examination/consideration) force-continue. Seems the cert is for *.ldc.upenn.edu while the archive is at itre.cis.upenn.edu, missing the ldc. Now that the major browsers are defaulting to https (apparently chrome will from version 90, April 13, and FF has had its "HTTPS-only" option for several versions now, since 83, tho IDRC what its default is as I simply ensured it was on at the upgrade) that might be worth trying to fix, if possible of course.)

  6. maidhc said,

    March 30, 2021 @ 2:59 am

    This is not an empty set case, though. That would be "I could find no one".

    He says "I could find few people". To me that means that he did find some people, just not very many. So both sets are populated, but in an uneven way. But the unanswered question is which set is HE in.

    In a way this relates to the confusion between "few" and "a few" which is frequently found with ESL speakers, often Indian English speakers.

    "I have few friends."
    "I have a few friends."

    If he had said “I could find a few people, including myself", it would be clear. But the way we use "few" has a sort of negative meaning without actually being negative. Kind of "not actually zero, but such a small number that it's not worth bothering with".

    Escher Sentence is a good descriptor.

  7. Mark W Meckes said,

    March 30, 2021 @ 6:21 am

    The construction feels pretty natural to me, with an interpretation similar to Gregory Kusnick's. "Few people / no one, including myself" sounds to me like it just means "Few people / no one, in a group that includes myself".

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 30, 2021 @ 9:49 am

    "Some people" implies more than "few people" but still a minority of the total set of people — fewer than "many people" or "most people."* But "Some people, including myself, [think/don't think] we're going back to the way it was." seems to unambiguously include the speaker within the "some." There's no a priori reason there can't be a relevant breakpoint in between "few" and "some" when it comes to implicit polarity, of course. But the sentence under discussion here seems genuinely ambiguous, meaning perhaps that the polarity of "few" is itself ambiguous and/or context-dependent. And as noted above there it is easy to find unambiguous examples of "inclusive few."

    *Even "many" can be <50% – that's how it contrasts with "most."

  9. Batchman said,

    March 30, 2021 @ 12:07 pm

    And even "most" in the sense of >50% is getting misused. In a recent news article about the results of a poll about returning to work post-pandemic, the following statement appeared:

    "…most respondents (46 percent) opted not to ditch remote work entirely, but instead preferred a hybrid model."

    46% is not "most" by any conceivable definition. However, if the writer had written accurately that the option receiving the most support among those given in the poll was the hybrid model, that would have been OK, using "most" in the ranking sense.

  10. B said,

    March 30, 2021 @ 12:27 pm

    And I just noticed that both the original passage that inspired this thread and the passage I quoted above were from the boston.com web site and are about the same topic. Probably even both written by the same reporter.

  11. JPL said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 2:01 am

    The initial example is like an Escher sentence in that, in spite of the fact that the meaning apparently expressed by the sentence (which could be paraphrased by something like, "I could find few people, but myself included, who think we are going to go back to the way it was" (and it would be interesting to try to figure out how that fixes it)), while not incoherent, is not what the writer intended to mean, the reader has no problem giving the expression the interpretation the writer intended, which could be paraphrased by something like, "Amongst people who think about these matters, including myself, I could find few who think we are going to go back to the way it was", which would conventionally imply that the writer is not included among "the few", and it's probably this background vibe that allows that matching to happen. (This is, e.g., the way Mark W Meckes interprets it above.)

    WRT the example, "No one, including myself, knows that he has hands", etc., I'm not going to follow the link and get attacked by popups, but it looks like a description of a "brain in a vat" experiment by someone other than Putnam, and could have been expressed with more faithfulness to the intended meaning by "not even myself", a fix that could be applied to some of the other similar examples as well.

    Speaking of Escher sentences, let me take this opportunity to report a possible "Escher sentence in the wild" that I heard a few weeks ago: "I think this is a much, much better political issue than most people do". This sentence was uttered — twice!, so it was probably not just a slip of the tongue — by James Carville on Brian Williams's MSNBC show (12 Mar 21), and the participants in the conversation seemed to have no trouble interpreting it in the way intended, which could have been expressed with more faithfulness by something like, "I think this is a much, much better political issue than most people think it is". I wrote this sentence down because I thought it was odd: the meaning expressed by the sentence appears to be incoherent, that is if we demand some adherence to logical norms for the structure of propositions.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 5:43 am

    JPL — leaving aside your "I could find few people, but myself included, who think we are going to go back to the way it was", which I do not understand, I am intrigued by your final para. in which you report someone as speaking of "a […] better political issue". I don't know what a "better political issue" is. Had he said (or been reported as saying) "a much more important political issue", then it would have been transparent, to me at least. But the idea of something being "a better political issue", or a poorer one, does not convey anything to this reader at all.

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 10:34 am

    Without knowing what issue Carville was referring to, I'm guessing what he meant is that it's an issue that can effectively be turned to political advantage by one party or the other, i.e. a better weapon of political combat.

    I'm not seeing what's problematic about Carville's phrasing. "..than most people do" seems like a straightforward and perfectly cromulent shorthand for "…than most people think it is".

  14. Lugubert said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 11:10 am

    maidhc, seconded re: Indian English.

    I'm on a message board for Bharatophiles. and "few" for "a few" occurs quite often.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 2:55 pm

    maidhc: But the way we use "few" has a sort of negative meaning without actually being negative.

    That sense of "few" is a negative-polarity trigger, right? "I asked them to give me some room, but few of them moved at all. Few of them even budged."

  16. Russinoff said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 8:07 pm

    There is a difference between

    Few people, including me, …

    and

    Few people, including myself, …

    The first can mean only that the reader is one of the few, whereas in the second, it could be argued, the speaker is including himself in the survey. In fact, it might be further argued, if that is not the meaning of the second, then it has none.

  17. JPL said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 8:20 pm

    I think if Carville had said something like, "I consider this a much, much better political issue than most people do", I would not have sensed any weirdness.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 8:33 pm

    I agree with Jose Carrillo's Op-Ed that "No one, including myself, is safe" (with its variations) is grammatical in the sense that many native speakers use it in all registers, despite the difficulty of analyzing it. I don't agree that it's good style or the right way to mention yourself in the sentence, much less the only way. Normally you'd add yourself if it's somehow surprising that the universe excluded by "no one" really does include you. In that case a better alternative is "No one is safe, not even me."

    If that's not surprising but you want to mention yourself anyway for some reason, I think it's better to break down and say something compositional such as "Everyone, including me, is in danger." Or you could save "No one" with something more elaborate such as "No one is safe—not you, not me, not anyone."

    Carrillo's argument for "myself" instead of "me" may be based on the unstated assumption that the speaker is doing the including. I think the idea could just as well be that the statement includes me (not myself) or the set of people covered includes me. Anyway, if that's really his logic, it gives the interesting result of requiring "Everyone, including myself, is in danger" but "She warned me that everyone, including me, is in danger," since in the second sentence, "She" is doing the including. A new prescription?

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 31, 2021 @ 8:34 pm

    Sorry, Carillo with one r.

  20. Timo Kinnunen said,

    April 2, 2021 @ 2:28 am

    All it takes is few doing little.
    vs.
    All it takes is a few doing a little.

    This happens more often in Spanish:

    Es un poco raro = It's a bit weird
    Es poco raro = It's all-too-common

  21. JPL said,

    April 4, 2021 @ 1:20 am

    When I made my comment above about Carville's innocuous looking sentence I was not really aware of why it struck me as weird and incoherent. Apparently other people do not see any weirdness in it. I still see weirdness in it, but now I think I understand that whether or not one senses weirdness in that sentence probably depends on whether or not you heard Carville say it, because the difference in the perceived weirdness seems to depend on differences in the prosody of the utterance. I think you can get an idea of what I mean by considering this simple sentence:
    1. I think it's better than most people do.
    First, say the sentence to yourself with low pitch and loudness on "I think", with primary stress on "better", and with the normal lack of emphasis of the rather colourless "sentence adverbial" use of that expression to indicate a hedge on the degree of belief of the truth of the proposition expressed in the subordinate clause. Then, say the sentence with contrastive stress (with higher pitch and loudness) on "I" and secondary stress on "most", indicating a more contentful sense of "think" as including active evaluation of some object, in this case the referent of "it". (As in, "I [as opposed to most people] think it's ridiculous".) To me anyway, the first case seems weird and incoherent, while the second case seems OK and naturally interpretable. In the first case, the anaphora by substitution device "do" sends us back to find an antecedent in the second term of the comparison ("better than what?"), but it's not there; the sentence-initial "think" does not qualify because it does not involve a comparison. In the second case, "do" can find an antecedent in the "think" in "I think", because it seems to provide the first term of a comparison (with "most people" the second term). Carville did not use contrastive stress on "I"; his "I think" sounded more like the sentence adverbial 'think', so I interpreted the sentence as if it were equivalent to "This is a much, much better political issue than most people do", along with a hedge on his propositional attitude, and I did think to myself, "than most people do what?". (I've used "I think" in this sense twice in the first paragraph above.)
    2. I think this is a much better political issue than most people think it is.
    3. I consider this a much better political issue than most people do.
    4. I believe that this is a much, much better political issue than most people do.
    Sentences (2) and (3) are effective expressions of coherent propositions, making the two types of comparisons I just mentioned; sentence (4), a perhaps more obvious example of the problem with Carville's sentence, to me, does not express a coherent proposition, but does express something weird. If Carville had given his "I" contrastive stress, I probably wouldn't have sensed any weirdness, since the anaphoric "do" would have an interpretable antecedent in "think". So I think that it's weird that a simple difference in a prosodic feature can make such a difference in the syntactic structure of the sentence.

  22. Batchman said,

    April 10, 2021 @ 2:48 pm

    The crux of the conundrum appears to be "than", which sets up an expected comparison of similar items, of which the first is a syntactical comparative. The word "better" fulfills that role, which creates an expectation that the goodness of the "political issue" is being compared with some other expression of goodness. But in actuality what is under comparison is how good the speaker believes the political issue is, not the actual goodness thereof. It's hard to come up with a construction that works, something like

    "My personal estimation of the degree of goodness of this political issue is more than what most people's is."

    Not Carville-speak by a long shot.

    If there were a single verb that could perform this function in English, the sentence could be generated without this problem. Say we define "like" to mean "attribute some degree of goodness to." Then he could say "I like this political issue more than most people do."

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment