Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Linguistic underdeterminacy gags

From the 'clippings' (i.e. attested examples) sent in to last week's News Quiz:

Heard on Radio Newcastle:

In the news at six: the queen visits the north-east as part of her jubilee tour and road deaths increase for the first time since 2009.

Seen on a poster:

Would customers please note that from Jan. 1st 2011 the following left-luggage charges will apply:
£5: large suitcase or rucksack
£4: medium case or holdall
£3: senior citizens

The humour obviously in both cases due to a kind of pragmatic garden-pathing which makes an absurd (unintended) interpretation come to mind before the right one.

There's quite a literature on the enrichment of 'and' to 'and as a result of that' (or in other cases 'and after that', or 'and during that time') much of it summarized and discussed in ch 3 of Robyn Carston's 2002 book Thoughts and Utterances. Clearly the meaning of the word 'and' falls well short of fixing (i.e. underdetermines) what it may be used to convey on a particular occasion. (The scholarly debate hasn't been about that, but about i) whether 'and' is linguistically ambiguous; and ii) whether the different readings affect the proposition expressed by the speaker or just what the speaker implies.)

I can't think of any discussion of cases like the second one, but it's clearly another example where the form of words used leaves the hearer with quite a lot of working out to do, and – more interesting to me: it's an example of another kind of working out that needs to be done.

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