Annals of indirection

Chip Dunham’s Overboard strip from December 28th:


(#1) Captain Crow and his dog Louie

An exercise in both syntax/semantics and semantics/pragmatics: on syntactic constructions and their semantics, and on the indirect conveying of meaning in context.

Above, what will become example (c) in the syntactic discussion:

(c) I don’t think I’ve told you today what a wonderful dog you are

which will lead to a related example, Sir Van Morrison’s song line in (d):

(d) Have I told you lately that I love you?

(Hat tip to Geoff Nathan.)

Warning: even when stripped to the barest of skeletons, what I have to say about syntax, semantics, and pragmatics has an irreducibly technical core. Do not despair. (On the other hand, I have deliberately avoided much technical terminology and virtually all careful conceptual analysis, in favor of merely suggestive exposition, designed to give a feel for the ideas rather than an academically respectable presentation and cutting corners everywhere. Semanticists, forgive me.)

Syntax 1: NEG-Raising with THINK. Some complement-taking verbs of mental action (THINK among them) allow an alternation between occurring with a negative direct object and having the negation “raised” to their own clause:

[with NEG-Raising] I don’t think that’s ethical ≈  [without] I think that’s not ethical

The ≈ sign indicates near-equivalence. (The sentences are certainly not mutually substitutible, without consequences, in all contexts. At the very least, the NEG-Raised examples are muted in effect, conveying weaker or hedged assertions.)

Then, with TELL in the object clause , more generally:

[with NEG-Raising] I don’t think I’ve told you X ≈ [without] I think I haven’t told you X

Syntax 2: WH-Exclam with TELL. Meanwhile, exclamatory WH clauses are in alternation with plain declarative variants; for what-a WH-Exclams:

main clause: [WH-Exclam] What a wonderful dog you are ≈ [Decl] You are a wonderful dog

object clause: [WH-Exclam] I’ve said / revealed today what a wonderful dog you are ≈ [Decl] I’ve said / revealed today that you are a wonderful dog

object clause of TELL: [WH-Exclam] I’ve told you today what a wonderful dog you are ≈ [Decl] I’ve told you today that you are a wonderful dog

and a negated version of such a clause: [WH-Exclam] I haven’t told you today what a wonderful dog you are ≈ [Decl]  I haven’t told you today that you are a wonderful dog

Syntax 3: putting the two together. With that negative clause as an object of THINK:

(a) I think I haven’t told you today what a wonderful dog you are ≈ (b) I think I  haven’t told you today that you are a wonderful dog

Then, from the above discussion on NEG-Raising,

(c) [with NEG-Raising] I don’t think I’ve told you today what a wonderful dog you are ≈ (a) [without]  I think I haven’t told you today what a wonderful dog you are

and (a) ≈ (b), so

(c), the sentence in the cartoon, ≈ (b) I think I haven’t told you today that you are a wonderful dog

From semantics to pragmatics. That is, the sentence in the cartoon literally conveys (b), but, as Louie the dog observes (in his thought balloon), his owner Captain Crow hasn’t actually complimented him on being a wonderful dog, because (b) is, technically, not a compliment, but a report of a mental state, the state of Captain Crow’s thinking something, that something being that he hasn’t told Louie something, that something being that Louie is a wonderful dog — and that‘s the compliment.

Getting from what Captain Crow actually says to what he implicates — conveys by indirection — takes several steps. Compressing things a great deal:

(i) I think X implicates X; asserting that you think something is so indirectly asserts that it is so

(ii) I haven’t done X implicates that I should have done X (in the case at hand, that I should have told you that you’re a wonderful dog)

(iii) and that, in turn, indirectly does X — in this case, tells Louie that he is a wonderful dog

Each of these steps is backed by a kind of commonsense reasoning, based on (Gricean) relevance: Why is the speaker telling us what he thinks, what he hasn’t done, what he should have done? Surely not just to inform us about his mental state, his failure to act, his obligation to act; all this talk on his part must somehow be relevant to the situation he’s in. He tells us what he’s thinking because he wants us to share these thoughts, and he chooses indirection over flat assertion because that’s more polite (more face-saving for the person he’s talking to), though he could have chosen the more direct

I haven’t told you today that you are a wonderful dog

Introductory I think is one way to moderate the assertion; an interrogative variant is another way:

Have I told you today that you are a wonderful dog?

(implicating that I haven’t — but I should have, so you’re a wonderful dog). (This interrogative example has the same crucial features as the song line in (d), to which I’ll return below.)

In outline, that’s how (i) works; (ii) and (iii) can be similarly unpacked.

Now, no one thinks people work through such reasoning in real time as they process what other people say; like pairings of syntactic form with semantics, implicatures are conventionalized, automatized, and can be processed in a flash. Kids have to learn how to understand this stuff, and how to wield it themselves, and that takes a while .

One more semantic twist: the presuppositions of TELL. Now compare three complement-taking verbs:

REVEAL: I revealed (to them) that I’m a Martian.

SAY: I said (to them) I that I’m a Martian.

TELL: I told them that I’m a Martian.

For REVEAL, the verb brings with it the semantic content of its complement, pretty much no matter what you do to it.

I revealed (to them) that I’m a Martian I’m a Martian

I didn’t reveal (to them) that I’m a Martian I’m a Martian

Did I reveal (to them) that I’m a Martian? ⊃ I’m a Martian

If I revealed (to them) that I’m a Martian, I was stupid ⊃ I’m a Martian

So it’s inconsistent to deny this content, as here:

I revealed (to them) that I’m a Martian, but I lied

The verb SAY has no such baggage:

I said (to them) that I’m a MartianI’m a Martian

and there’s no inconsistency in denying it:

✓ I revealed (to them) that I’m a Martian, but I lied

Verbs like REVEAL, with baggage, are called factive verbs; those like SAY, without it, non-factive.

And then — surely you saw this coming, since why would I be telling you about factivity? — there’s the verb TELL, which is ambiguous between factive and non-factive. Now, there are circumstances in which TELL is just factive, period. In particular, if it lacks a direct object, it seems always to be factive:

(They suspected I was a Martian, so) I told (them) ⊃ I’m a Martian

But otherwise, TELL can go either way, acting like REVEAL or like SAY, though there seems to be a considerable bias towards factive uses. (I hope someone has investigated this, but if no one has, someone should.)

factive: [Uncle Martin, the title character in the American tv sitcom My Favorite Martian:] The Army came by this morning on a sweep of Martians in the area, but I didn’t tell them I’m a Martian.

non-factive: [bullied kid at school:] The kids were razzing me about my funny looks, so I told them I’m a Martian.

non-factive: My latest draft was a piece of crap, but to cheer me up, everybody told me it was brilliant.

The base assumption seems to be that TELL is factive unless there’s a good reason in the context for a non-factive use, but that idea needs to be refined and investigated.

To get back to Captain Crow and Louie: in the strip, Louie might have been satisfied that Captain Crow has said that — uttered words to the effect that — Louie is a wonderful dog. That might be enough of a compliment for him; insincere compliments can be issued for any number of reasons, including politeness as well as flattery, and we don’t always want to inquire into the the sincerity of compliments. But Louie might think that Captain Crow has committed himself to a belief that Louie is in fact a wonderful dog (so that the compliment is a heartfelt one); that’s a matter of the interpretation of the verb TELL, which is ambiguous on just this point. But I think that Louie was hoping for a heartfelt compliment.

“Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You)?” From Wikipedia:


(#2) The Van Morrison cover art; note: singing this song can get you a knighthood (Morrison and Stewart, both in 2016)

(#3) The Rod Stewart 1991 version, with lyrics, which you can listen to by clicking above

“Have I Told You Lately” is a song written and recorded by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison for his nineteenth studio album Avalon Sunset (1989). It is a romantic ballad that is often played at weddings, although it was originally written as a prayer.

… Rod Stewart covered the song for his album Vagabond Heart (1991). A live version from his album Unplugged…and Seated (1993) was released as a single, becoming a number-five hit in the US and the UK.

Lyrics for verse 1:

Have I told you lately that I love you?
Have I told you there’s no one else above you?
Fill my heart with gladness, take away all my sadness
Ease my troubles, that’s what you do

Clearly, factive TELL is intended; this is a heartfelt protestation of love.  Meanwhile, as sketched above, the interrogative conveys (indirectly) that the singer hasn’t told the person he’s singing to; but that he should have; and that consequently he’s now doing so. Awww.

On Overboard. The strip was new to me. It has a wondefully goofy premise; from Wikipedia:

Overboard is Chip Dunham’s daily newspaper comic strip about a shipload of incompetent pirates. It debuted in 1990 and is distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication.

Overboard derives much of its humor from having its characters anachronistically placed in modern times. For instance, they put quarters in dockside parking meters, order pizza by cellphone, and have a company health insurance plan.

These pirates are much less fearsome than their ruthless predecessors. In the early years of the strip, much of their activity involved standing around on deck drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Recent strips feature golf, pet care and gardening. Their enemy is the Green Ship and its rival band of pirates, but giant rabbits attacking the garden, sharks, octopuses, and the Internal Revenue Service also are threats.

Competence is also an issue. While the Overboard crew carries cutlasses and makes raids, most often their treasure is stolen by disgruntled shipmates or by more able pirates. The captain has made a horrendous mess of the investments for their pension fund (at one point, he adjusts his failed investment strategy by flushing cash straight down the toilet).

The pirates actively pursue dates with women but instead repulse them with poor hygiene, fleas, disgusting table manners, immaturity, cheapness, and a lack of interest in the arts.

… Captain Henry Crow — the bland skipper of their ship, the “Revenge”. Crow seems a little smarter and more sophisticated than the crew, but he is far too decent to be a successful pirate, even if he were otherwise capable. Regularly participates in large battles but, curiously, reacts to duels with cowardice.

… Louie — Captain Crow’s pet dog. He doesn’t speak but rather projects thought balloons, in the manner of Snoopy or Garfield. … He is a yellow Labrador Retriever, … and many of Louie’s behaviours are considered stereotypical of the breed.

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