Fruits and veggies would be healthy

A famous example by Sperber & Wilson shows the context dependency of conversational inferences:

He: Will you have some coffee?

She: Coffee would keep me awake.

Depending on whether one surmises that she would like to stay awake, one can infer either a positive or negative answer to whether she would like some coffee.

The April 7, 2014 issue of the “Zits” cartoon gives us a new illustration:


In today’s Boston Globe baseball preview section: “Jake Stahl (1912), Ed Barrow (1918), Terry Francona (2004), and John Farrell (2013) are the only Red Sox managers to win the World Series in their first season.”

Hmm. Yeah, no. The Red Sox have had 44 managers in their history, so when 4 of them win the World Series in their first season, does that really merit an “only”? I mean, what is the expected frequency of a manager winning a world series in their first season? Almost certainly a lot less than 4 in 44.

But the more astonishing fact is that of the 8 World Series wins the Red Sox have had, half of them were by rookie managers. (And one of those, Francona, won another one. So, 5 trophies belong to managers who won one in their first season.) That’s definitely not an “only”.


Up-goer five semantics

A couple of months ago, Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic explained the design of the Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most common words of English: “the Up Goer Five explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often”.

Explaining hard things in simple language has now become an internet meme. Just this morning, I found Walton Jones explaining his lab’s work on the genetics and neuroscience of olfaction in Drosophila: “We are interested in how little animals with six legs smell things”. There is a tumblr blog with many of these summaries.

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor makes it easy to experiment with writing down your research in the ten hundred most used words. Here’s an attempt at an up-goer five abstract for my upcoming colloquium talk at McGill (“Hedging your ifs and vice versa”, joint work with Thony Gillies):

How does the word “if” help things we say mean what they mean? It can work together with other words like “maybe” and “probably” to make things we say less strong. But how does it do that?

Many people have tried to find out how this works, but we will show that they face a big problem when one looks at people talking to each other and pointing to things the other said.

Can we do better?

There are some obstacles for a linguist. You often need to mention linguistic expressions that you work on. I was lucky that if, maybe, and probably are licit. On the other hand, “sentence” is not allowed.

Related: George Boolos’ classic exploit “Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable”.

Morris & Noam Recursion

I’ve already shared this picture via the requisite social networks, but here it is for the blog:

A picture taken after Noam Chomsky’s keynote talk at Ling50@MIT, the scientific reunion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MIT Linguistics phd program. Morris and Noam are holding a 1988 picture of them holding a 1953 picture of them … Or, as Bob Frank put it: “The linguists the colleagues the department invited applauded posed for a picture.”

Modal Semantics in the News

Wired reports on the brouhaha surrounding the security of Dropbox, a geek favorite (I am including myself). Dropbox used to say that

Dropbox employees aren’t able to access user files, and when troubleshooting an account, they only have access to file metadata (filenames, file sizes, etc. not the file contents).

Now they say

Dropbox employees are prohibited from viewing the content of files you store in your Dropbox account, and are only permitted to view file metadata (e.g., file names and locations).

Any normal natural language user would interpret these two statements as distinct, I would think. (not) able to is a modal typically understood as talking about what is practically possible, while prohibited is all about things that are practically possible but circumscribed by rules and regulations.

Dropbox takes the heroic stance that the statements are equivalent:

In our help article we stated “Dropbox employees aren’t able to access user files.” That means that we prevent such access via access controls on our backend as well as strict policy prohibitions.

As Kratzerians, we’re used to modals being heavily context-dependent, but I think Dropbox has almost no leg to stand on. Does anyone care to defend Dropbox’s semantic analysis of able to?