Ambiguity and vagueness

… in the comics. Specifically in today’s revival of a Calvin and Hobbes strip:

Just what sort of description is called for? It depends on the context.

NOAD2 on the verb describe:

give an account in words of (someone or something), including all the relevant characteristics, qualities, or events: the police said the man was described as white, 6 ft. tall, with mousy, cropped hair.

The definition is consistent with a variety of types of describing, in particular covering both physical descriptions and character descriptions; the verb is vague on this point, just as English brother is vague as between younger brother and older brother. If I tell you that I got two different descriptions of a friend, those could be two different types of descriptions (one of appearance, one of character or personality). If I tell you that I have two brothers, one could be older, the other younger. But if I tell you that there are two chips on the table, where one is a potato chip and the other is a computer chip, that’s a joke; chip is ambiguous, as between these two senses (and some others).

But even when an item is vague, one range of referents, as opposed to another, can be picked out (and intended to be picked out) by it. As in the cartoon. Calvin is composing a description of a lost Hobbes, in the hopes of finding him; for that purpose, in that context, a physical description is what’s called for (similarly in NOAD2’s example sentence, involving a police search). On the other hand, if Calvin was seeing a therapist for help in repairing a troubled relationship with Hobbes, and the therapist asked him for a description of Hobbes, a character description (such as the one Calvin provides in the strip) is just what’s called for, and a physical description would be odd.

Context, context, context.

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