Memorial Saturday 4

Four recent cartoons in my feed that have to do with language: Mother Goose and Grimm (attachment ambiguity), Zits (greetings), Bizarro (labeling a bat(h)room), xkcd (knowledge about the referents of names).

(#1)

(#2)

(#3)

(#4)

MGG. The relevant expression is the NP anyone he sees on a bike. The PP on a bike is serving as an adverbial here, but the question is where the adverbial is attached: high, at the level of anyone; or low, at the level of the immediately preceding V sees.

Mother Goose’s intention is that the adverbial is understood as a postnominal modifier of anyone, “extraposed” from anyone on a bike: anyone he sees on a bike is understood as ‘anyone on a bike who he sees’.

But the doctor takes the adverbial to be an adverbial denoting the place where the seeing takes place, in which case the adverbial locates the referent of the subject (he), that is, the dog. So if the problem with the dog comes when the dog is on a bike, Mother Goose should take the bike away.

Zits. Jeremy, at work at the market, uses a series of greeting devices, of three different types (interjection, formulaic question, address term), but in all three cases Jeremy fails to appreciate the social conditions on using the particular device he chose: hey is too peremptory, ‘sup? too familiar, dude inappropriate for addressing an older woman.

Bizarro. How to label a toilet for bat-heroes? None of the obvious choices will quite do: bathroom fails to specify the intended users of the room; batroom fails to specify the intended use of the room; bat bathroom sounds like stuttering.

Maybe Batman and Robin should abandon the idea for having a toilet reserved for bat-heroes.

xkcd. Here the problem lies with what some scholars of pragmatics / semantics call the common ground — very roughly, the presuppositions shared by the participants in a conversation. Left in #4 takes the identity of Katie, Adam, and Brian to be part of the common ground with Right, but (it seems) is mistaken in this belief.

Young children are especially bad at gauging the extent of shared knowledge; they are sometimes said to be “egocentric” in this respect, inclined to assume that their conversational partners have the same knowkedge that they have.

In any case, failures of common ground of the sort in #4 are regrettably common in real life.

One Response to “Memorial Saturday 4”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    About the last item (not knowing who people mentioned are), that is not a new phenomenon. I knew an elderly lady in Dover, Delaware many years ago; we’ll call her Cornelia, because that was her name. She was active in the radio listening hobby, as I was, and we used to talk on the phone fairly regularly. I went down there to meet her on a weekend called “Great Dover Days”, where historic Dover was celebrated (it’s the capital of Delaware). Cornelia escorted me around Dover, pointing out the historic sites and mentioning people she had known in the state judiciary and government. I believe she introduced me to the Chief Justice. But what flummoxed me is that she assumed that I knew or knew of a goodly portion or the high society of Delaware. I was from Massachusetts and New York and knew none of these people to whom she was referring. I felt it to be impolite to stop her while she was in full flow, however.

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