Data points: sloppy identity 6/19/11

Over on Language Log, Mark Liberman has posted about “sloppy identity” in anaphoric expressions, using an ambiguous exchange in a cartoon as a starting point:

(A) Woman 1 [talking about romance with her husband]: I close my eyes and imagine he’s Tom Hanks.

(B) Woman 2: What if he’s doing the same?

Do the same in Woman 2’s question can be taken in (at least) three ways: as referring to Woman 1’s husband imagining that he’s making love to Tom Hanks (the gay reading, which then becomes the comic point of the strip, since this wasn’t what Woman 2 intended); as referring to Woman 1’s husband imagining that he’s making love to a celebrity (parallel to Woman 1’s imagining that she’s making love to a celebrity); and as referring to Woman 1’s husband imagining that he’s Tom Hanks. This is an exceptionally complex example — more complex than the standard examples in the literature on syntax and semantics — but the second interpretation clearly illustrates “sloppy identity”, with a shift, between the speakers, in how Tom Hanks enters into the love-making.

Simpler examples from Mark’s posting:

George is losing his hair, but Bill isn’t [losing his hair].
Sally forgot her mother’s birthday, but Julia didn’t [forget her mother’s birthday].

The first would normally be understood as having sloppy identity, while the second is ambiguous between strict and sloppy readings (you just have to know the context).

(I was a bit startled to discover that sloppy identity hadn’t come up on Language Log before this posting of Mark’s. On this blog, I’ve touched on it only one time, briefly (here).)

Now, from my files, another example about as complex as the cartoon example. From the tv show Bonanza:, the character Hoss speaking:

You can’t blame yourself for that [the death of the addressee’s father], no more than I can.

This would at first appear to be straightforward  — Hoss takes no blame for the addressee’s father’s death  —  but in context it’s to be understood as something like

You can’t blame yourself for that [the death of the addressee’s father], no more than I can blame myself for this.

with this referring to the addressee’s being crippled. And in the episode this stunning shift in implict referents works. Most of the time, sloppy identity isn’t problematic (and it’s something of a marvel that it isn’t), though of course you can use it to float a joke, as in the cartoon exchange.

3 Responses to “Data points: sloppy identity 6/19/11”

  1. F. Escobar Says:

    I get a sense, though, that Mark’s example 1 (“George is losing his hair, but Bill isn’t”) is different from Mark’s example 2 (“Sally forgot her mother’s birthday, but Julia didn’t”). The reason comes from semantics: “his hair” would be immediately and generally understood to be George’s own hair that the possessive there is intimate to the point of being implied. No reasonable person would understand that Bill isn’t losing George’s hair, but, rather, Bill’s own hair. It would be analogous to, say, “George hurt his thumb, but Bill didn’t.”
    I may be biased when I say this. In Spanish, that intimacy (in the relationship between a person and his or her own body) is understood to be so strong that it is considered grammatically incorrect to use a possessive when connecting a person with the parts of his or her own body. For instance, if you were going to translate “George is losing his hair” into Spanish, it would become: “George está perdiendo el [and not “su”] pelo.”
    So my bias may be coming from Spanish, but then again Spanish has this bias because it is very likely that we (and by “we” I don’t mean just Spanish speakers) perceive such a strong bond between a person and his or her body that this bond has an impact on grammar. This would require much more research, of course. However, if it’s right, then example 1 wouldn’t be a case of sloppy identity, but of a sentence completed grammatically by a semantically hard-wired connection.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I think the point above about Bill losing George’s hair is valid, but I would add that it’s hard to imagine something belonging to George that Bill might plausibly lose, and that adds to the difficulty of genuinely giving the sentence two readings.

  3. johnwcowan Says:

    S. Robert Ramsey gives a couple of excellent examples of sloppy identity in The Languages of China:

    (1) Wo3 shi bing1qi2lin2.
    I be ice:cream
    I am (the one who ordered) the ice cream (said to a waiter).

    (2) Ta1 ye3 shi yi2ge Mei3guo zhang4fu.
    3sg also be one American husband
    She is also (a case of being married to) an American husband.

    Out of context, (2) could equally well mean “He is an American husband”, of course. (No same-sex marriage in China.) Chinese is much more elliptical than English generally, being grammatically pretty free to omit anything at all that can be readily reconstructed from context. This is often seen as vagueness by Americans and others from low-context cultures.

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