long / tall

A recent Strange Planet cartoon by Nathan Pyle has the aliens not quite getting the English distinction between long and tall:


— while introducing the subsidiary theme of tall people graciously accepting the social function of fetching items for their shorter companions (as someone who’s lost 3 inches in height over the years, I am grateful to those who’ve been willing to take on this role).

long and tall in NOAD:

adj. long: 1 measuring a great distance from end to end: a long corridor | long black hair | the line for tickets was long. …

adj. tall: 1 of great or more than average height, especially (with reference to an object) relative to width: a tall, broad-shouldered man | a tall glass of iced tea.

That is, both are used for extent in space (and both of them have short as their ordinary opposites), but (crudely) long denotes horizontal extent, tall vertical extent.

There are many wonderful wrinkles to the distinction, however. To appreciate one of these, consider this Sports Illustrated cover showing a big surfboard and two surfers standing next to it. The board is extended in space, but is it tall or long? You look at the photo and say tall, but you would be wrong.


In the photo, the board is standing on end, but surfboards in actual use lie flat, moving on the tops of waves. So their conventional presentation is as object extended horizontally: a long object, not a tall one. Consequently, big surfboards are long; their conventional use determines the usage, not the way they happen to present themselves on a particular occasion.

The reference to conventional use is important. See my Stanford Semantics Fest handout of 3/16/01, “Counting Chard”. Highlights from this paper:

There is a default association between the syntactic classification [C(ount) vs. M(ass) of nouns] and [their] semantics: taCisM (things are C, stuff is M). taCsiM competes with a variety of other principles. taCsiM is not an objective principle, but instead takes into account [the conventional uses of the referents]

[on conventional uses:] Plants like box and privet, which occur in nature as easily separable individuals, are referred to by M nouns, because their conventional use is in overlapping or mingled hedges; but rose plants, which can be so grown but are not mostly so grown – it’s not what they’re for – are referred to by a C noun.

[a subsidiary principle:] IPP, Inheritance from Principal Product: a N denoting a plant inherits its C/M classification from a homophonous N denoting its principal product. [Note that what is a principal product is a matter of conventional uses.] IPP predicts that the culinary herb plant names TARRAGON and SAGE are M, that the medicinal herb plant names DIGITALIS and ACONITE are M, that the names of plants grown for salad greens, like KALE SPINACH ROMAINE are M, that the names of plants grown for their large edible roots, like CARROT BEET POTATO, are C, that the names of plants grown for their showy flowers, like ROSE TULIP LILY, are C, etc.

Strange Planet. As it happens, the Nathan Pyle strips first appeared on this blog a year ago, in my 12/29/19 posting “The time of mildly debasing yourself”, on the pleasures of the Christmas season, which are then followed by resolutions for the New Year.

That posting has a section on the strip: “Pyle’s beings seem to lack most of the framework of conventional knowledge of cultural practices and the vocabulary — idioms, especially — for talking about these practices, but otherwise have an excellent knowledge of English.” (There are 3 examples.)


4 Responses to “long / tall”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Then there’s the fact that German, French, and I guess the other Romance languages, all use the same word to mean big, great, and tall, which can lead to context errors when attempting translation.

  2. Mitch4 Says:

    Just yesterday I saw a TV crime episode in which a detective (forming a suspicion of dead-body substitution) phones the morgue and asks the medical examiner “How tall is that male corpse from the burning house we brought you yesterday”. (That’s from memory, so I can’t vouch for the tense or other details, but I’m sure it was *tall*.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Just so; nice example. The tall/long choice applies to canonical orientations, not acual ones. So a corpse (which is laid out horizontally) is still tall.

      • Jan Bobrowicz Says:

        Corpses may end up tall, but we begin long. The WHO charts for infant growth measure a baby’s length from 0-2 years. Only after our first steps do we acquire height.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: