Archive for the ‘Context’ Category

deontic+, deontic-

July 28, 2016

(On the semantics and pragmatics of deontic should.)

I have a real-life example in mind here, from the NYT Magazine on the 17th, but I’m going to inch up to it, starting with these simpler examples:

(1) I should talk to my father.

(2) I should have talked to my father.

Both examples have the modal verb should, in its deontic sense, indicating obligation, duty, or correctness, incumbent upon some person, persons, or human institution; this is to be contrasted with its epistemic sense, indicating grounds for a judgment of truth — compare (1) and (2) with

(3) A sample this size should weigh about 10 kilograms.

(There are various ways to represent this difference, but that’s not my concern here.)

Then it turns out that deontic should can be used in (at least) two ways.

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Ambiguity and vagueness

May 25, 2016

… in the comics. Specifically in today’s revival of a Calvin and Hobbes strip:

Just what sort of description is called for? It depends on the context.

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Your money’s no good here

March 16, 2016

Today’s Bizarro, exploiting an ambiguity in pragmatics, use in discourse contexts:

(#1)

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

Your money’s no good here has a use as a pragmatic idiom, conventionally conveying that at this moment it’s of no use in the context because the services or goods it’s being offered for are being supplied for free, are complimentary, are “on the house”. But in the cartoon, the bartender is speaking literally, saying that the customer’s money is no good here because it’s not in fact legal tender.

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Signage

October 2, 2015

Yesterday’s Bizarro:

 (#1)

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Don Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

But all bits of language have to be understood in context — the immediate physical context, the immediate social context (who’s speaking, to whom, for what purposes), the larger socioicultural context, and the context of background knowledge about the world. The task of taking all this stuff into account is substantial, but we manage the task pretty well (though by no means flawlessly) all the time. Still, the task is especially complex for highly compressed material, as on signs.

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Context context context; and variation

September 26, 2015

Back in March, Luc Vartan Baronian posted on Facebook this semantics argument between his two children:

Daughter (4): I love my piggy bank.
Son (7): You mean your froggy bank?
Daughter: No! My piggy bank.
Son: But it’s a froggy, so it should be a froggy bank.
Daughter: No. It’s STILL a piggy bank.

Yesterday, Luc (recalling my immersion in penguiniana) sent this on to me, asking me if I had a penguin bank. My answer was fairly complex, though basically I spoke in favor of Luc’s daughter’s position.

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Semantic specialization and extension

August 2, 2015

First case: An NPR announcer warns the audience,

(1) Spoiler alert!

Second case: a site for tourists in Ghent, Belgium (linked to in a comment on my recent posting on the city), that tells us,

(2) Ghent is divided into two quarters: the historic centre and the artistic quarter

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30 twats in a field

July 19, 2015

Passed along by Mike Pope, this supremely annoying video clip in which a man poses what sounds like a question riddle to a woman, who can’t interpret the question, and the man, chuckling offensively, just goes on repeating the question. But if she didn’t get the trick early on, she’ll be stuck indefinitely in her incomprehension — and by the time her tormentor finally provides hints that might let her see the trick, there’s no hope she’ll get out of the processing hole she’s in.

I would label the man as an asshole or a total dick, but since the speakers are British, I prefer to call him a first-class twat.

But check it out for yourself:

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“beat a urine”

July 17, 2015

At first glance this looks like word salad, and things aren’t helped much if I tell you that it’s a VP, that it’s attested, and that it wasn’t an inadvertent error. Context, we need context.

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The hunted 95 per cent?

June 4, 2015

Let’s start with:

(1) Hunted for its horns, 95 percent of the population disappeared

This looks like a classic “dangling modifier”. We have a SPAR hunted for its horns (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), but the adjunct doesn’t obey the Subject Rule (doesn’t pick up its referent from the subject of the main clause: (1) doesn’t in fact tell us that 95 percent of the population was hunted for its horns). (On the concepts and terminology, see the material in the Page on “Dangler postings”, especially the “as a SPAR” posting.)

But even without context, (1) is easily understood: 95 percent of the population is a metonymic stand-in for a population of X, and it’s X that was hunted for its horns. But that takes some interpretive work. However, when more discourse context is provided, this work is no longer needed, and I’d expect that readers wouldn’t even notice that (1) is technically a dangling modifier.

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NEG + because

March 25, 2015

From yesterday’s NYT:

[Philadelphia police commissioner Charles H.] Ramsey has emerged recently as a national figure in the policing debate. He leads President Barack Obama’s policing task force, which recently made recommendations on how to improve trust between law enforcement and minorities. “I wasn’t selected because the president thought we had the perfect police department,” he told reporters Monday.

The crucial point is this quote from Ramsey:

(1) I wasn’t selected because the president thought we had the perfect police department.

Out of context, (1) is ambiguous, between a reading in which NEG has scope over the because clause:

(1a) It wasn’t because the president thought we had the perfect police department that I was selected.

and a reading in which the because clause is outside the scope of NEG:

(1b) It was because the president thought we had the perfect police department that I wasn’t selected.

Given the context in the story — Ramsey was in fact selected — (1a) must be the reading Ramsey intended, and I’d expect readers of the sentence in context would not even have noticed that it had another interpretation.

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