contractions

The One Big Happy from May 11th, in which Ruthie discovers that there are contractions and then there are contractions:

From NOAD:

verb contract: [no object] decrease in size, number, or range

noun contraction [-(t)ion nominalization of the verb]: [a] the process of becoming smaller: the general contraction of the industry did further damage to morale. [process nominalization] [b] the process in which a muscle becomes or is made shorter and tighter: neurons control the contraction of muscles | repeat the exercise, holding each contraction for one second. [specialization of [a] in an anatomical context] [c] (usually contractions) a shortening of the uterine muscles occurring at intervals before and during childbirth. [further specialization of [b] in a obstetric context, in an event interpretation] [d] the process of shortening a word by combination or elision. [specialization of [a] in a linguistic context] [e] a word or group of words resulting from shortening an original form: “goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with you.”[result interpretation of [d]].

Ruthie’s mother uses contractions in sense [c], Ruthie understands it in sense [e]. And these are in fact different lexical items, not merely different understandings in context of [a] (which has a very general and unspecific meaning). NOAD is right to list these separately; treating [c] and [e] as “the same word” would predict that the ellipsis in

(1) Her most recent contraction (on the way to the delivery room) lasted a minute, his (affecting do not) lasted mere centiseconds.

(where her most recent contraction refers to an obstetric event, the elliptical his (representing his most recent contraction) to a linguistic one) should parallel the ellipsis in

(2) Your cousin is buxom, mine is hung like a horse.

(where your cousin refers in this context to a woman, the elliptical mine (representing my cousin) to a man) — but (1) is a joke (in fact, a joke that’s hard to appreciate), while (2) is linguistically unremarkable (though perhaps entertaining). That is, contraction is ambiguous with respect to obstetric vs. linguistic interpretations, while cousin is merely vague (general, neutral, unspecified) with respect to sex. A good dictionary should list obstetric and linguistic contraction separately, but should not provide separate entries for cousin ‘female child of a parent’s sibling’ and cousin ‘male child of a parent’s sibling’.

(This is the linguist’s and philosopher’s distinction between ambiguity and vagueness that I went on about in my June 3rd posting “What happened in vagueness?”.)

Blogging note. WordPress supplies daily (and longer-term) statistics on the number of views of items on this blog, the countries the readers are from, and the terms people use in searching on this blog. These statistics could provide me with a sense of what my readers are interested in (and give the Stanford administration some gauge of the audience for my writings, now that I’m no longer teaching in classes), but, as I’ve noted in the past, they appear to be seriously inaccurate, and seem to have been getting worse in recent months.

These WordPress reports say that my readership has been steadily declining, from what was once a bit over 1000 views a day to less than 500 now, and is still dropping. In particular, WordPress tells me that my posting on ambiguity and vagueness has had only 18 views (on June 3rd-5th, with none yesterday or today). That can’t be right, and I conclude that there’s no point at all in looking at the WordPress statistics; all I have to gauge my readership is comments on this blog, on Facebook, and on Google+ (and these tend to come from a hard core of regular readers). Sigh.

 

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