Before or after?

In the 9/14/19 One Big Happy, Ruthie wrestles with a workbook question, apparently something along the lines of “Does 4th Street come before 6th Street or after it?”:


There’s a lot packed in here. Crudely. the strip is about what before conveys, and that turns out to be dependent on the context. Ruthie takes before to refer to the ordering of a particular 4th and 6th Street in her own actual neighborhood, taking herself to provide the point of view for the spatial ordering (every spatial ordering via before rests on some point of view). But what’s the point of view of a workbook exercise? Who’s asking the question? For what purpose?

Now we’re out in the pragmatic weeds. Crucially, Ruthie has to understand that the workbook question is not an attempt to elicit useful information from her, but instead aims to get her to perform in a test of her sociocultural knowledge.

Previously on this blog:

on 7/31/19 in “Locatives, inalienability, and determiner choices”


The question in the second panel [Where was the Declaration of Independence signed?] is ambiguous, as between two understandings of locative where: where within the document is the signature located? vs. where did the event of document-signing take place? What I’ll call, faute de mieux, position location (within some domain) vs. event location

(featuring Ruthie’s brother Joe), about asking questions / giving answers, quoting  this earlier posting:

on 8/21/18 in “Asking questions and giving commands”, about Ezra Beavers, age 3 and his question, to his mother, Do boy and toy rhyme?; and the question, from his mother, Do “boy” and “man” rhyme?: about

a significant ambiguity in the use of interrogative sentences: between information-seeking interrogatives (infoseek questions, I’ll call them), … and examination interrogatives (test questions, I’ll call them; they’re also known as quiz questions).

… Infoseek questions are the pragmatically prototypical interrogatives, acquired first and statistically dominant in conversation and texts. In its simplest variant, the speaker lacks some piece of information I (or is unsure about it), wants to acquire I, believes the addressee might be able to supply I, and is requesting the addressee to do so. Infoseek questions are a basic tool in coping with ignorance about things in the world; we are all ignorant of a great many things, small children especially so — so once they have the linguistic resources, they ask an enormous number of infoseek questions.

In test questions, the speaker has the relevant knowledge about I and is asking the addressee to perform by displaying the extent of theirknowledge. This performance might be intended as part of a learning routine (the assumption being that the addressee should have I and so needs practice and correction), as an evaluation exercise (about the addressee’s knowledge), as part of a competition, whatever.

Infoseek questions can be directed at a wide range of addressees, but test questions are heavily loaded socioculturally: only certain speakers can direct them at only certain addressees, and only in certain contexts. One of the burdens of being a child in our culture is that all sorts of adults subject you to barrages of test questions, to which you are expected to respond cooperatively. (Similarly for people in an assortment of interview circumstances — for jobs, for school admission, to receive awards, in medical evaluations, etc. — where infoseek questions and test questions are likely to be mixed together.) Ezra has (apparently) not yet twigged to this fact: he asks infoseek questions and expects that others are doing the same. So if his mother asks if boy and man rhyme, that must be because she doesn’t know whether they do, which means that there’s a lot about rhyming that she doesn’t know.

In #1, Ruthie is confronted with a classic test question, but doesn’t treat it as such: she takes it to be an infoseek question, and answers in terms of her personal experience. In so doing, she’s failed to appreciate that a workbook question requires her to view things as without personal context, but to respond only in terms of the larger, impersonal, sociocultural context. This is how she’s supposed to be acculturated.



2 Responses to “Before or after?”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Ruthie’s dilemma reminds me of a “Frank and Ernest” cartoon that a long-ago colleague posted on the wall outside his office (and which I tried to find online, but an admittedly brief search didn’t turn it up). They are making a presentation to a city planning board of some sort, explaining that they’ve simplified matters by putting the streets in alphabetical order: Fifth, First, Fourth, Second, Sixth, Third. (Evidently this city only had six numbered streets.)

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Driving through San Francisco to the Bay Bridge, the exits for numbered streets are Third (at the south end of SF), then eventually Seventh and Fourth (LAST S F EXIT). Being bent is OK in SF.

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