Archive for the ‘Implicature’ Category


May 28, 2011
In today’s Zits, Jeremy insists on understanding dishes as the plural of dish and nothing else (as a way of avoiding work), so as to put his mother into the position of having to inventory the contents of the dishwasher or refer to these contents with a phrase like everything in the dishwasher:

He’s messing with words here, deliberately disregarding dishes as a label for a higher-level category of artifacts, as in do/wash the dishes (and in fact in compounds like dishwasher and dishcloth, where the first element dish is understood as a reference to this higher-level category; a dishwasher washes dishes in the broad, not the narrow, sense). Dishes are the central members of this category, but it includes a lot more than dishes.


A little more on optative if … only

February 16, 2011

In my brief posting on optative if … only, in examples like

If only you had asked, I would have explained.
If you only had asked, …
If you had only asked, …

I focused on the truncated (protasis-only) versions of such examples and how they have become conventionalized as free-standing optatives. But I merely asserted that all the examples, truncated or not, were in fact optatives, distinct from ordinary conditionals with only in them. That assertion — which amounts to a claim that these sentences have a special sense or use of only in them (as distinguished in the OED) — could use some defense.


Warning signs

April 26, 2010

From the “Metropolitan Diary” feature of 26 April in the New York Times (it’s a regular Monday thing): “Signs of the Times”, a wry poem by Mel Glenn about the following warning posted on the Q train:

Assaulting M.T.A. personnel
is a felony punishable by
up to 7 years in prison.

Why would the MTA [here I do not follow the NYT‘s fanatic attachment to periods in initialisms, though I do wonder what was on the actual sign] caution people against assaulting its personnel? Would potential assaulters be deterred by the warning? Would they not already understand that assault is a serious matter?

Glenn’s poem went on to suggest:

Maybe other signs should be
displayed as well:

Do not trip strangers on the

Avoid attacking people who sell

Refrain from accosting
reference librarians.

[I would add: And do not deface subway signs.]

The implicated event of pizza-eating

October 10, 2009

I have a large and ever-growing collection of notes to myself on linguistic topics. This morning I came across one of these notes, a slip of paper with the following example on it:

(1) They came by bearing pizza, after which we watched The Music Man.

(The note doesn’t identify the source of the sentence or the date when I collected it.)

On the most straightforward reading, this sentence has a summative relative clause, “after which we watched The Music Man“, in which the relativizer which refers to the event of some people’s coming by bearing pizza; that is, (1) asserts describes two events, an arrival-with-pizza event and a movie-watching event, occurring in that order. In still other words, (1) is paraphraseable as

(2) They came by bearing pizza, after which event we watched The Music Man.

(In fact, some usage writers insist that (1) is unacceptable, because which has no noun antecedent in the sentence — so that (1) is “vague” — and that something like the clunky (2) must be used instead. See the summatives posting linked to above.)

And now for a subtlety. Although (1) describes only two events, most readers will understand (1) as implicating a third event, of pizza-eating, intervening between the other two, and the author of (1) surely intended this implicature. A nice little case of how sentences can end up conveying more than they literally mean. (The sentence is true if no event of pizza-eating occurred on the occasion in question.)