Archive for the 'Meaning' Category


No shelf life

USA Today has an article on Bill Cosby with the headline Bill Cosby prides himself on comedy that has no shelf life. I thought that was an odd thing to have pride in: comedy that’s out of date as soon as it’s out of your mouth. But then the entire piece was about how timeless his comedy is.

Google, please! On the one hand,

Young Coconuts are perishable and have virtually no shelf life at all. (link)

Unlike our regular growler selections, cask ale has no shelf life and is highly perishable. (link)

There is basically no shelf life on expensive caviar, two or three days so plan to plan accordingly. (link)

On the other hand,

If you want a safer product that will last much longer in the fridge, add a bit of acid blend or citric before its cooked. Pomona is a citrus based product that has no shelf life like regular and no/low sugar types. (link)

REAL black powder has no shelf life if stored well. Substitutes like pyro and trip 7 im convinced loose effectiveness if several years old. (link)

Flashlight Batteries – 10 years (the flashlight can be recharged forever and has no shelf life) (link)

As far as distilled spirits go, like your Bacardi Limon (YUM!), or your whiskey, an unopened bottle has no shelf life. (link)

Excellent. I think the “lasts forever” meaning is more common, but for whatever reason it’s not what came to my mind first when I saw the headline. I guess it sort of means, “it has nothing which you would call a shelf life, i.e., lasts forever,” as opposed to “it has a shelf-life value value at or near zero.”

I was trying to think of other expressions like this. What first came to mind was what I (once upon a time ) thought “priceless” and “no/little love lost” meant. (apparently originally the latter was in fact ambiguous, but I don’t know if anyone still uses the “they’re still good buds” meaning anymore).

What a linguist does

This past Friday I went with my fiancée to Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley to see Deborah Tannen talk about her new book about communication between sisters. She told some great stories about the interviews she conducted while researching the book. I got the impression that the book is mostly about the relations between sisters, and how these are reflected in (and can be discerned by looking at) their conversations. But I’m still not sure how much of the analysis comes from author-sister interaction, or sister-sister interaction (I bought the book as a gift, so I haven’t looked inside).

The last several questions afterward had to do with how a linguist’s perspective on communication might differ from that of a psychologists (or a sociologist, etc; no one actually mentioned other fields, though Tannen mentioned psychology). That lead to wondering what the heck linguistics was anyway. After briefly explaining that, Tannen offered something that Robin Lakoff had once said (light paraphrasing on my part):

I know what I do is linguistics, because I’m a linguist, and I do it.

Most of them always men

Okay, this I just had to share. It’s on the boundary, I’d say, between mess-up and something a competence-grammarian should account for (I’m currently waiting for Mark Liberman to get back of my latest comment on that topic).

And like you, I have significant difficulties with women. Most of my friends are and always have been men. (link

I really want to know how most people (whose brains haven’t been fried on syntax and semantics) react to this sort of sentence.

Another accident

Thanks guys for all the great comments about accidentally taking another guy’s loaf of bread. I share all your intuitions, and I definitely should have realized the parallels to accidentally kicking someone you didn’t mean to kick, or accidentally eating something you didn’t mean to (being a vegetarian myself). So let me ask a follow-up, which will lead to why I asked the first question.

Question 2: could you describe the situation as Sal accidentally took a loaf of bread?

I think not. Without anything in the sentence to contrast the real state-of-affairs with Sal’s mistaken view of the world, “accidentally” doesn’t work. Everything in the sentence is consistent with what Sal meant to do.

The first thing this means is that accidentally is one of those adverbs that creates a non-monotonic context. That is, normally Sal took Tom’s loaf of bread entails Sal took a loaf of bread because a loaf includes Tom’s loaf. But when you add accidentally, the entailment stops working (assuming my intuitions about Question 2 are correct).

Now, why did I ask the original question? It seemed that in many “accidentally”-sentences, there are alternatives: Jack’s ass vs Sal’s in Erik’s comment. If there were two loaves of bread, then there would be an alternative: Sal took Tom’s loaf instead of his own. But in the situation I concocted, there was really only one loaf: just different ways it could relate to different people. Sal didn’t take one loaf rather than another; he took a loaf thinking it had property X when it really had property Y. And that’s enough, I suppose, to license the description “accidentally.”

So then there’s another question. Let’s say Sal walks through Tom’s property, and let’s say that (for some reason irrelevant to us) that is illegal. But Sal doesn’t know that. Did he accidentally walk through Tom’s property? Where Sal thinks Tom’s property has attribute X (legal-to-walk-through) when it has attribute Y (illegal-to-walk-through).

An accident?

Situation: Sal and Tom are office-mates. Sal eats sandwiches for lunch and so often has a loaf of bread in the office. One day, after a period of about a week without any bread in the office, Tom (in uncharacteristic manner) buys a loaf of bread that he intends to use for lunch – but Sal isn’t aware of this. Tom leaves it in the office and goes home. The next day it is gone: Sal took it home. Sal wasn’t able to recall if he had bought any bread recently (in fact he had not), but concluded it must be his because Tom never buys bread.

Question: can anyone (Sal, Tom, or some other individual) characterize what happened as: Sal accidentally took home Tom’s loaf of bread.

Younger than your parents

This week’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience contains a really cool article titled “Transgenerational Rescue of a Genetic Defect in Long-Term Potentiation and Memory Formation by Juvenile Enrichment.” Clear enough? From the abstract:

Here, we demonstrate that exposure of 15-d-old mice to 2 weeks of an enriched environment (EE), that includes exposure to novel objects, elevated social interactions and voluntary exercise, enhances long-term potentiation (LTP) not only in these enriched mice but also in their future offspring through early adolescence, even if the offspring never experience EE.

The effect lasts about three months in the mice exposed to the EE, but wanes much earlier in their offspring (and is not found in the next generation). At one point the authors note that

[T]he phenotype ends at an younger age in the offspring of enriched mice than in their parents

Then comes the fun part. A few sentences later, they say this:

Defining why the effect ends when the offspring are younger than their parents will require further experimentation

Totally sweet example of the omission of everything in the comparative clause except for the contrastive bit. Actually, it took me a couple reads to make sure of what they were saying, despite the same information having been just presented.

Processing the sentence was made more difficult (in my case) by the fact that the first time through I read “younger” as “older,” yielding a truly incomprehensible proposition (which, it should be noted, is still as grammatical as the actual sentence, just with a different meaning).

So…ever wonder if you’ve done something when you were younger than your parents? Or older than them?

I felt pain but not dizzy

Yesterday I was at a climbing gym working out on a treadmill (climbing isn’t my thing, generally), and noticed something interesting about the medical warning printed on it. It read (roughly):

If you feel pain, faint, or dizzy, stop exercising immediately.

Though I’d read that warning dozens of times on many occasions, this time it garden-pathed me. The structure is [if you [feel N, A, or A]], which involves coordination of a noun with two adjectives (or their phrasal projections). But thanks to the lexical ambiguity of faint, I parsed it as [if you [feel pain], [faint], or], at which point I was expecting another (finite) verb phrase, but instead got dizzy instead.

Read more »

Order strikes again

So, you know the old (?) ABC (?) Saturday morning cartoon jingle: “After these messages, we’ll be right back.” Well, back when I was in first grade or whenever it was that I remember them from, I thought, “Why do they have it in the wrong order?! Shouldn’t it be ‘We’ll be right back after these messages’?”

In my more advanced age, I had a rather different reaction to the Target Christmas commercial with a bunch of elementary school students reciting, “There’s no place like Target / at Christmas to save.” Since it’s in verse, the order isn’t so exceptional. What’s interesting is trying to figure out the semantic parse — and if any of the various parses actually means anything different from any of the others. What’s clear, I think, is that to save is an infinitival relative modifying place. What’s up for grabs, I suppose, is whether at Christmas hooks up with save or with be, and if like Target modifies place, place to save, or place to save at Christmas. I think basically all of these mean about or exactly the same thing.

Read more »

Next Page »