Archive for the ‘Context’ Category


October 2, 2015

Yesterday’s Bizarro:


(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Don Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

But all bits of language have to be understood in context — the immediate physical context, the immediate social context (who’s speaking, to whom, for what purposes), the larger socioicultural context, and the context of background knowledge about the world. The task of taking all this stuff into account is substantial, but we manage the task pretty well (though by no means flawlessly) all the time. Still, the task is especially complex for highly compressed material, as on signs.


Context context context; and variation

September 26, 2015

Back in March, Luc Vartan Baronian posted on Facebook this semantics argument between his two children:

Daughter (4): I love my piggy bank.
Son (7): You mean your froggy bank?
Daughter: No! My piggy bank.
Son: But it’s a froggy, so it should be a froggy bank.
Daughter: No. It’s STILL a piggy bank.

Yesterday, Luc (recalling my immersion in penguiniana) sent this on to me, asking me if I had a penguin bank. My answer was fairly complex, though basically I spoke in favor of Luc’s daughter’s position.


Semantic specialization and extension

August 2, 2015

First case: An NPR announcer warns the audience,

(1) Spoiler alert!

Second case: a site for tourists in Ghent, Belgium (linked to in a comment on my recent posting on the city), that tells us,

(2) Ghent is divided into two quarters: the historic centre and the artistic quarter


30 twats in a field

July 19, 2015

Passed along by Mike Pope, this supremely annoying video clip in which a man poses what sounds like a question riddle to a woman, who can’t interpret the question, and the man, chuckling offensively, just goes on repeating the question. But if she didn’t get the trick early on, she’ll be stuck indefinitely in her incomprehension — and by the time her tormentor finally provides hints that might let her see the trick, there’s no hope she’ll get out of the processing hole she’s in.

I would label the man as an asshole or a total dick, but since the speakers are British, I prefer to call him a first-class twat.

But check it out for yourself:


“beat a urine”

July 17, 2015

At first glance this looks like word salad, and things aren’t helped much if I tell you that it’s a VP, that it’s attested, and that it wasn’t an inadvertent error. Context, we need context.


The hunted 95 per cent?

June 4, 2015

Let’s start with:

(1) Hunted for its horns, 95 percent of the population disappeared

This looks like a classic “dangling modifier”. We have a SPAR hunted for its horns (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), but the adjunct doesn’t obey the Subject Rule (doesn’t pick up its referent from the subject of the main clause: (1) doesn’t in fact tell us that 95 percent of the population was hunted for its horns). (On the concepts and terminology, see the material in the Page on “Dangler postings”, especially the “as a SPAR” posting.)

But even without context, (1) is easily understood: 95 percent of the population is a metonymic stand-in for a population of X, and it’s X that was hunted for its horns. But that takes some interpretive work. However, when more discourse context is provided, this work is no longer needed, and I’d expect that readers wouldn’t even notice that (1) is technically a dangling modifier.


NEG + because

March 25, 2015

From yesterday’s NYT:

[Philadelphia police commissioner Charles H.] Ramsey has emerged recently as a national figure in the policing debate. He leads President Barack Obama’s policing task force, which recently made recommendations on how to improve trust between law enforcement and minorities. “I wasn’t selected because the president thought we had the perfect police department,” he told reporters Monday.

The crucial point is this quote from Ramsey:

(1) I wasn’t selected because the president thought we had the perfect police department.

Out of context, (1) is ambiguous, between a reading in which NEG has scope over the because clause:

(1a) It wasn’t because the president thought we had the perfect police department that I was selected.

and a reading in which the because clause is outside the scope of NEG:

(1b) It was because the president thought we had the perfect police department that I wasn’t selected.

Given the context in the story — Ramsey was in fact selected — (1a) must be the reading Ramsey intended, and I’d expect readers of the sentence in context would not even have noticed that it had another interpretation.


Taking offense: three stories

November 19, 2014

Three stories (two of them recent) about taking offense: on spear phishing; Illegal Pete’s; and frape. First, some background on taking offense.



November 14, 2014

Yesterday, we had One Big Happy‘s Ruthie and James at cross-purposes on the meaning of bigger (Ruthie was bent on teaching arithmetic, while James wandered into other territory). Another exchange today, on higher:


Putrid in context

October 27, 2014

Back on the 15th, I posted about the appearance of the adjective putrid in a NYT feature story. From that posting:

Natto for breakfast. From the NYT Magazine on the 12th, in “Rise and Shine: What kids around the world eat for breakfast” (photographs by Hannah Whitaker, text by Malia Wollan) … [in the section on a Japanese breakfast that included the fermented soybean dish natto]

I was taken aback by putrid [for natto], which struck me as much too negative in the context. [in fact, the article had “putrid soybean goop”]

In a comment on this posting, Steve Anderson wrote:

I don’t know whether you’ve ever eaten (or tried to eat) natto, Arnold, but in my opinion ‘putrid’ [meaning ‘rotten’, and by extension, ‘very unpleasant, repulsive’] is precisely descriptive.

Two comments here. First, note the “in this context” in my posting. I meant that seriously. My objection to putrid was to its use in the specific context of the NYT piece, not to its use in any context whatsoever (specifically, not to its use in a description of personal tastes). Second, a note on my own experiences of natto. I’ll reserve for another posting a (lengthy) discussion about rotten or rotted food, fermented food and drink, and related topics — a domain in which ordinary English is poor in vocabulary.



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