“we don’t have any bananas”

Kai von Fintel‘s inaugural post at LanguageLog. Click here for the full post.

The Supreme Court’s doctrine therefore seems to be that “any” like other quantifiers can be contextually restricted, that what the restrictions are depends on the intentions of the speaker (here: Congress), and that one can infer the intentions by seeing what interpretations make sense in the context of other utterances in the same text. What makes “any” so interesting in this context is that there is a tension between the natural tendency of quantifiers to be contextually restricted and the peculiar properties of “any”. (…) Nirit Kadmon and Fred Landman argue that what “any” contributes is a widening of the meaning a sentence might otherwise have. They suggest that the difference between “we don’t have bananas” and “we don’t have any bananas” is that in the latter case we claim to not even have questionable bananas. Justice Breyer argues in his decision, quite plausibly, that this widening effect has its limits. “Any court” can mean “any court in the US” without being interpreted as widely as “any court anywhere in the world”.

(via. And yes, I’ve been reading the Log so infrequently that I needed outside prompting to see this post)

Everything sounds better with Science!

Some recent nonsense (especially the publication of The Male Brain, the newest installment of what one expects again to be the usual dose of bad science by Louann Brizendine), and the generally dismissive attitude towards alleged ‘non-scientific’ knowledge that swamps so much impoverished contemporary intellectual discourse, have reminded me of “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanation“, a 2008 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Here is the abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

(via the always excellent Language Log)

Flat One-er with no Bobble

Names for things. Giles Turnbull in the Morning News about kids and names for things. Endlessly fascinating. Read it. Direct link here. It’s a linguistic study with a, uh, very small but cute sample group. This is the insight that led to doing the micro-survey:

Of course! This language of Lego isn’t just something our family has invented; every Lego-building family must have its own vocabulary. And the words they use (mostly invented by the children, not the adults) are likely to be different every time. But how different? And what sort of words?

Hence, a survey. I asked fellow parents to donate their children for a few minutes, and name a selection of Lego pieces culled from the Lego parts store.

(via languagelog)


Here’s a tasty bit from an older post over @ Helen DeWitt’s paperpools

Most fiction does nothing to make us aware of the gulf between cases where intution serves us well and those (surely far more common) where it does not. It does nothing to show where we should be wary, or how to think through tough cases. Most fiction is confined to the realm of false intuition; it offers us no viewpoint with a better understanding of chance. Which is simply to say that, because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it. Among other things, this means that someone like my friend Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt, tends to be both underrepresented and misrepresented among fictional characters.

"Prescriptivist Poppycock"

I think this is the first time -and it’s about time- I direct yr attention to the language log’s heavy attacks on what they call “prescriptivist poppycock”, a side-product of which are the frequent attacks on the Strunk & White, just as this reviewish comment:

Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post published a piece of pompous, sentimental mush yesterday. It’s all about a little book he learned about in college and still carries around to this day and will love till he dies (yadda yadda yadda; violins, please); and yes, you guessed it, the book is E. B. White’s disgusting and hypocritical revision of William Strunk’s little hodgepodge of bad grammar advice and stylistic banalities, The Elements of Style.

It’s all a load of fun, sensible, and highly recommended. The language log posts, I mean, not the Strunk & White.

Tous leurs trémolos

This @ xkcd:

There is a followup discussion @ the Bremer Sprachblog, which googlesearches for Gender differences. The results look pretty interesting but they aren’t really, as they could mean anything, depending on the premises. As the Bremer Sprachblog has not, apparently, invested time and effort into transforming the results into something truly interesting, and my own pitiful self does not have the time to do it, I will not post the graphs, since they will, at best, be misleading. Can’t really say why I mentioned them at all. Well. What’s done is done. (via)


The gorgeous M. Liberman is angered by David Brooks again and writes a hilarious putdown:

The relation between Brooks’ column and the facts inspired me to model my discussion after the Radio Yerevan jokes that arose in the Soviet Union as a way to mock the pathetically transparent spin of the Soviet media:
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn’t win it, but rather it was stolen from him.

Do read the whole piece. It’s less hilarious but instructive, and, as always, very much worth reading.