The semantics thread

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The semantics thread

#1  Postby don't get me started » Feb 15, 2016 8:16 am

There are many and varied threads that involve posters discussing the meanings and usages of words. I thought I’d start a thread dedicated to discussions of words and their meanings.

I’ll get the ball rolling with something that came up here:
http://www.rationalskepticism.org/news-politics/richard-dawkins-has-suffered-a-stroke-t51659.html

The word meaning that came under scrutiny here was the word ‘hope’, and to a lesser extent the word ‘wish’.

As is so often the case native/proficient speakers have an intuitive sense of the meaning(s), but it might be more difficult to tease out the actual meanings of any given word when pressed. My Japanese students often quiz me on the meanings of these two words and it is often difficult for them to make a clear distinction between the two. (The way Japanese expresses these kinds of ideas is a bit different, often using the word 夢 Yume = dream, and having a fuzzier relationship between factuals and counterfactuals in some situations where English is precise.)

So, let’s start with ‘hope’. The example in the thread in question was ‘I hope he has a full recovery.’ I usually explain to my students that ‘hope’ is rooted in future possibilities. That is, there is more than one possible future outcome. In this case it would be Richard Dawkins making a full recovery or not making a full recovery. The speaker recognizes both outcomes as being possible, and states that the situation referred to with the ‘hope’ clause is preferable to any other situation. Tacit within this utterance is the admission that the speaker is essentially powerless to bring about the desired situation.

If we contrast this to ‘wish’ in its verb form we can notice several differences. If we take an example sentence such as ‘The Republicans wish that the abortion issue would go away’ (Selected at random from a corpus search) we can see that the situation is different. Whilst still expressing preference for some future state of affairs, in this case there is no suggestion that this outcome is at all feasible or likely or even possible. (E,g. I wish I was a bird.)
The counterfactual nature of ‘wish’ is also illustrated in the way it can be used to refer to past events as well. E.g. (Again, selected at random from corpus): ‘I wish that Andrew and Grace and I had never moved to Denver.’ It is to enter the realm of the counterfactual to state that an extant past (moved to Denver) is the dispreferred situation, and that the now unrealizable situation (we didn’t move to Denver’) is the preferred one. The word ‘Hope’, because it deals with plausible and possible situations cannot be applied to the past. (I hope that we had never moved to Denver. ???)

An interesting thing to note here is that the word ‘wish’ generally collocates with past tense (or so called past tense forms of the verb. E.g ‘I wish I was a fly on the wall, not ‘I wish I am a fly on the wall.) This is a point of English grammar that I find fascinating. Rather than being called the ‘past tense’, this form of the verb has sometimes been referred to as the ‘remote tense.’ We find it in counterfactuals such as ‘wish’ statements and also in the contrast between 1st and 2nd conditionals. Compare: ‘If it rains tomorrow, we will cancel the picnic’ and ‘If it snowed in July, I would be surprised. The use of the past tense form of the verb (snowed) indicates the speaker’s view of its counterfactuality. That is, the situation is removed, distant, remote from reality.

We also find it in English in modality used to express politeness. Compare ‘can you open the window’ with ‘could you open the window.’ The second version, using the form ‘could’ is generally perceived to be more polite, that is, to indicate a distance of social relationship.

And in time relationships, it is not when the action happened (past, present or future) that is the only consideration, it is also its connectedness to the here and now. Compare A: ‘I drank a load of beer last Saturday’ and B:‘I have drunk a load of beer.’ Although the drinking of the beer in both cases was in the past, the connectedness to the present is manifest in the tense choice. One would feel safer getting in a car with A than B. A’s drinking is removed/ distant / far from the present.

Back to the word ‘hope’. Apart from its semantics, there is also its social function to be considered. When we talk about hoping that someone makes a full recovery, we are going on record as saying that the outcome of full recovery is the desirable one. We are engaging in a finely tuned piece of social action, demonstrating our affiliative, sociable and positive orientation towards others, asserting that other’s wellbeing is important to us.
Although our big brains and opposable thumbs are very important to us, it is our extreme sociability, our ability and even need to constantly ratify our membership of co-constructed social groupings that most define us, I believe.
I hope that any readership has found this a worthwhile read….
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Re: The semantics thread

#2  Postby Arnold Layne » Feb 15, 2016 9:10 am

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Re: The semantics thread

#3  Postby zoon » Feb 15, 2016 9:42 am

don't get me started wrote:............

An interesting thing to note here is that the word ‘wish’ generally collocates with past tense (or so called past tense forms of the verb. E.g ‘I wish I was a fly on the wall, not ‘I wish I am a fly on the wall.) This is a point of English grammar that I find fascinating. Rather than being called the ‘past tense’, this form of the verb has sometimes been referred to as the ‘remote tense.’ We find it in counterfactuals such as ‘wish’ statements and also in the contrast between 1st and 2nd conditionals. Compare: ‘If it rains tomorrow, we will cancel the picnic’ and ‘If it snowed in July, I would be surprised. The use of the past tense form of the verb (snowed) indicates the speaker’s view of its counterfactuality. That is, the situation is removed, distant, remote from reality........

Was this use of the past tense originally the subjunctive mood:
Wikipedia wrote:The English subjunctive also occurs in counterfactual dependent clauses, using a form of the verb that in the indicative would indicate a time of action prior to the one implied by the subjunctive. It is called the past subjunctive when referring counterfactually to the present, and is called the pluperfect subjunctive when referring counterfactually to the past. It occurs in that clauses following the main-clause verb "wish" ("I wish that she were here now"; "I wish that she had been here yesterday") and in if clauses expressing a condition that does not or did not hold ("If she were here right now, ..."; "If she had been here yesterday, ...").

You give the example of "I wish I was a fly on the wall": in old-fashioned or very formal English, this would be "I wish I were a fly on the wall"? This is an example of the English language changing through the way people use it?
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Re: The semantics thread

#4  Postby Blackadder » Feb 15, 2016 9:45 am

Great thread dgms.

The only issue I have with your analysis of "I wish I was a fly on the wall", is that I believe this is actually the subjunctive mood rather than a form of past tense. The subjunctive mood seems to be less well understood in the English language than say French. The phrase "I wish I was..." Is actually shorthand for "I wish that I were...", which makes it clearer that we are dealing with the subjunctive. There is a past tense subjunctive version of the verb to be, which is "I wish I had been..."

Excellent first post though.
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Re: The semantics thread

#5  Postby Blackadder » Feb 15, 2016 9:56 am

One question that I encounter quite a lot in legal drafting is the difference between "shall" and "will". In English, the convention is that "will" is used to denote an action that one of the parties to the document must perform: "The Buyer will pay the purchase price on the Due Date" for example. Whereas "shall" is used for stipulations not involving a party: "The Due Date shall be 21 days after the date of this Agreement".

Problems arise when translating legal documents from other languages, as I've found "shall" being used throughout, maybe because the equivalent distinctions don't appear increasingly those languages (I'd be fascinated to hear from German and French speakers on this).

In colloquial English, shall seems to be disappearing gradually in favour of will.
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Re: The semantics thread

#6  Postby Animavore » Feb 15, 2016 9:58 am

I feel like I'm being scrutinised.

:think:
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Re: The semantics thread

#7  Postby Blackadder » Feb 15, 2016 10:21 am

Animavore wrote:I feel like I'm being scrutinised.

:think:


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Re: The semantics thread

#8  Postby surreptitious57 » Feb 15, 2016 11:20 am

A public school is a private school even though the words mean the complete opposite to each other

Words with the same meaning but different spelling which can be confusing such as adviser / advisor

I not me as in for example the Queen and I and not the Queen and me
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Re: The semantics thread

#9  Postby don't get me started » Feb 15, 2016 12:22 pm

Blackadder wrote:Great thread dgms.

The only issue I have with your analysis of "I wish I was a fly on the wall", is that I believe this is actually the subjunctive mood rather than a form of past tense. The subjunctive mood seems to be less well understood in the English language than say French. The phrase "I wish I was..." Is actually shorthand for "I wish that I were...", which makes it clearer that we are dealing with the subjunctive. There is a past tense subjunctive version of the verb to be, which is "I wish I had been..."

Excellent first post though.


Yes Blackadder, the subjunctive mood is less well understood in English. If memory serves, when I was studying German there was a much bigger chunk of learning involved in getting the subjunctive right.
I think that the direction that I'm coming from is not really focusing on the labels of 'subjunctive mood' or 'past tense'. Indeed, it might be true to say that the so called past tense has been mis-labelled in English. Michael Lewis in 'The English Verb'

http://www.amazon.co.jp/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?__mk_ja_JP=%E3%82%AB%E3%82%BF%E3%82%AB%E3%83%8A&url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+english+verb

eschews this label completely and refers to these forms as 'The second form', noting that this form is recycled for uses such as counterfactuals, past events that are psychologically removed from the here and now and politeness. Only on closer inspection does it seem that there is a kind of coherence based on some notion of remoteness, of time, factuality or social distance. The past is only one function of these forms.
Gallons of recondite ink have been spilled in the literature battling it out about what precisely constitutes the 'subjunctive mood' in English. Traditionally it could be identified by the use of this second form of the verb (i.e. the so-called past tense) combined with the peculiarity of non-agreement of verb and pronoun. (If I were, If you were, If he were, if they were...).
This usage is becoming marginal and corpus studies find that speakers retain the use of the second form of the verb but now follow the agreement rules. (If I was, If you were, If he was, if they were...) Whether this still counts as a strict subjunctive or not, I couldn't say.

Thanks for the positive comments :)
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Re: The semantics thread

#10  Postby don't get me started » Feb 15, 2016 12:25 pm

Animavore wrote:I feel like I'm being scrutinised.

:think:


Nah, Animavore, the discussion merely piqued my interest. There was a discussion a while back on the difference between 'know' and 'believe'. (Can't remember where it was...maybe in the philosophy section.) I had thought about starting a thread like this since that exchangee.
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Re: The semantics thread

#11  Postby don't get me started » Feb 15, 2016 12:55 pm

Blackadder wrote:One question that I encounter quite a lot in legal drafting is the difference between "shall" and "will". In English, the convention is that "will" is used to denote an action that one of the parties to the document must perform: "The Buyer will pay the purchase price on the Due Date" for example. Whereas "shall" is used for stipulations not involving a party: "The Due Date shall be 21 days after the date of this Agreement".

Problems arise when translating legal documents from other languages, as I've found "shall" being used throughout, maybe because the equivalent distinctions don't appear increasingly those languages (I'd be fascinated to hear from German and French speakers on this).

In colloquial English, shall seems to be disappearing gradually in favour of will.


That's fascinating Blackadder. I had no idea of these legal conventions.
I just did a quick corpus search and most of the occurrences of 'shall' seemed to be archaic/biblical or legal.
When I teach the word 'shall' to students, I usually tell them that its use outside of offers framed as questions is rare.
Occurrences such as 'What shall I do?' and the like were pretty common in my corpus search. Positive sentences such as 'We shall fight them on the beaches' or 'You shall go to the ball' are not common and have a slightly archaic ring to them.
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Re: The semantics thread

#12  Postby logical bob » Feb 15, 2016 2:12 pm

surreptitious57 wrote:A public school is a private school even though the words mean the complete opposite to each other

There are plenty of places that are open to the public even though you have to pay to enter. Once upon a time schools were either run by religious orders or trade guilds and so open only to members of those orders/guilds. Public schools were an innovation in being open to anyone who could pay. In an age of free education for everyone the same schools now look exclusive rather than inclusive, so they're called private.

I not me as in for example the Queen and I and not the Queen and me

Think about what the sentence would look like if it was just about you.

I got so shit-faced that the barman called a taxi for me.
The Queen and I got so shit-faced that the barman called a taxi for the Queen and me.
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Re: The semantics thread

#13  Postby LucidFlight » Feb 15, 2016 2:32 pm

logical bob wrote:
I not me as in for example the Queen and I and not the Queen and me

Think about what the sentence would look like if it was just about you.

I got so shit-faced that the barman called a taxi for me.
The Queen and I got so shit-faced that the barman called a taxi for the Queen and me.


Ah, ye olde aversion to the intensive reflexive. Quite common these days, ol' chap. Only the common folks say me, don't they, guv? Great thread, by the by, dgms.
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Re: The semantics thread

#14  Postby logical bob » Feb 15, 2016 3:20 pm

don't get me started wrote:We also find it in English in modality used to express politeness. Compare ‘can you open the window’ with ‘could you open the window.’ The second version, using the form ‘could’ is generally perceived to be more polite, that is, to indicate a distance of social relationship.

In my experience if you say to a pedant "can you open the window?" or "could you open the window?" they will say yes (they are able to do so if they choose) and then not move, because the request would be "will you open the window?" or "would you open the window?" I agree that the past tense version seems more polite, though it's difficult to put my finger on why. "Will you do it?" sounds slightly exasperated. It might also mean that I don't know whether you will, in fact, open the window or not without necessarily implying that I have a preference, whereas I don't think "would you open the window?" could be understood in that way.
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Re: The semantics thread

#15  Postby don't get me started » Feb 16, 2016 12:50 am

logical bob wrote:
don't get me started wrote:We also find it in English in modality used to express politeness. Compare ‘can you open the window’ with ‘could you open the window.’ The second version, using the form ‘could’ is generally perceived to be more polite, that is, to indicate a distance of social relationship.

In my experience if you say to a pedant "can you open the window?" or "could you open the window?" they will say yes (they are able to do so if they choose) and then not move, because the request would be "will you open the window?" or "would you open the window?" I agree that the past tense version seems more polite, though it's difficult to put my finger on why. "Will you do it?" sounds slightly exasperated. It might also mean that I don't know whether you will, in fact, open the window or not without necessarily implying that I have a preference, whereas I don't think "would you open the window?" could be understood in that way.


Yes logical Bob, the pedantic response to 'can' fronted requests often involves pedants saying that they are indeed able to but not willing.
It is a strange quirk that the modal verb 'can' sometimes get singled out and refused any polysemy, whilst the other modal verbs are left unmolested.

Should:
1) Advice meaning: You should quit smoking.
2) Logical outcome meaning: We shipped it today so it should be with you by Friday.

Must:
Obligation meaning: I must remember to pay the bill
Recommendation meaning: It's a great movie, you must see it.
Speculation meaning: Wow, you must be exhausted.

May:
Permissive meaning: May I leave the table?
Possibility meaning: They may have taken it by mistake.

And then poor old 'can'.
Ability meaning: I can speak three languages.
Offer meaning: Can I help you with that?
Request meaning: Can you pass me the salt?

No questions are ever raised, it seems, over the multiple meanings and uses of the other modals but people (pedants) seem to get their knickers in a twist over 'can' and suggest that it only means ability and nothing else.
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Re: The semantics thread

#16  Postby The_Piper » Feb 16, 2016 3:20 am

:popcorn:
Blackadder wrote:
Animavore wrote:I feel like I'm being scrutinised.

:think:


Be inscrutable. That way nobody can give you scrutes. Innit. Bro.

Be not able to be scruted?
I'd have a lot of learning to do of definitions and concepts before I understood the bulk of these posts. Allow me to coin the phrase "not even confused". I hate that phrase, "not even wrong", btw. :yuk:

surreptitious57 wrote:A public school is a private school even though the words mean the complete opposite to each other

Words with the same meaning but different spelling which can be confusing such as adviser / advisor

I not me as in for example the Queen and I and not the Queen and me

Not trying to single you out, but I know the meaning of all of these words and sentences. I just don't understand what they were in response to. Just semantics in general? :scratch:
Is I used when I am referring to myself from my own "point of view", and me used when referring to myself from an outside "point of view"?
I am cold. That will make me cold. I need help. Will you help me?

Who is it? It's me. (smee. :mrgreen: ) Hmm, I think some would say, It is I? :lol:
The Queen and I got so shit-faced that the barman called a taxi for the Queen and me.

Wouldn't I be the proper word at the end? Well, us would be, but that's probably pedantic.
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Re: The semantics thread

#17  Postby don't get me started » Feb 16, 2016 6:32 am

The_Piper wrote:

Is I used when I am referring to myself from my own "point of view", and me used when referring to myself from an outside "point of view"?

The difference between 'I' and 'Me' is to be found when one considers the concepts of 'subject' and 'object' in language.
Basically, the subject of a sentence is the the person or thing that performs the action. The object of a sentence is the person or thing that receives the actions.
So, if we take a sentence like 'The dog bit the man'. We know that it was the dog doing the biting and the man getting bit.
English indicates these relationships primarily by word order. That is, the person who does the action comes first, then the action, and the the receiver of the action. If you change the word order, you change the meaning. (Consider 'The man bit the dog'. Same words, different order, different meaning.)

Not all languages create meaning this way. For example, Latin indicates who is the doer of the action and who is the receiver of the action by changing the form of the word. (My Latin is a bit rusty, but I think this is more or less right)

Thus: Agricola vocat puellam means 'The farmer called the girl. But if you want to reverse the meaning, you have to change the form of the noun.
So, Puella vocat Agricolam means that the girl called the farmer.
Girl as a doer of an action is 'puella' and girl as a receiver of an action is 'puellam'. Agricola is the doer of an action, Agricolam is the receiver of an action.
So, if we take our original sentence. Agricola vocat puellam, if you change the word order but not the form, it still means the same thing. Puellam vocat agricola still means that the farmer called the girl. (Maybe with a different nuance, such as 'It was the farmer and not someone else who called the girl) Who is doing the calling is still clear from this sentence because of the word form.

Now, English doesn't really have much change of words to show doer (subject) and receiver (object) except in the case of pronouns. When speaking of yourself as the doer of an action you refer to yourself as 'I'. (I called the girl), and when you refer to yourself as the receiver of an action you use 'me'. (The girl called me).

The original question was whether one should say 'The queen and me got so drunk.' or 'The queen and I got so drunk'. If you are following the rule that 'me' refers to the receiver of an action, then 'me' is incorrect, because in this case you and the queen, the pair of you, were doing the action, not receiving it. However, if you follow the rule that whatever comes before the verb is the doer of the action, and pay no attention to the form of the word, then 'The queen and me' coming before the verb is till perfectly understandable.
Seeing as English is mainly a word-order language (analytic) not a word change language (inflected) then I see no problem with 'the queen and me' or 'me and the queen'.

Part of the problem is that educated people in the past were all taught in Latin and they often tried to transpose Latin rules onto English, even when it was not really appropriate. In Latin, it's vital to get the form right, to say agricola or agricolam, but the word order is of secondary importance. In English, getting the words in the right order is the primary means of sense making and most words do not even have any change in the subject or object position. It's only really the pronouns.

My own hunch (and I've nothing to back this up) is that, because 'me' with its consonant vowel combination is more hearable in rapid talk than 'I' with no consonants present. So speakers opt for the more hearable of the two words.

Anyways, that is a brief overview of Me and I in English.
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Re: The semantics thread

#18  Postby Blackadder » Feb 16, 2016 8:09 am

The_Piper wrote::popcorn:
Blackadder wrote:
Animavore wrote:I feel like I'm being scrutinised.

:think:


Be inscrutable. That way nobody can give you scrutes. Innit. Bro.

Be not able to be scruted?
I'd have a lot of learning to do of definitions and concepts before I understood the bulk of these posts. Allow me to coin the phrase "not even confused". I hate that phrase, "not even wrong", btw. :yuk:

surreptitious57 wrote:A public school is a private school even though the words mean the complete opposite to each other

Words with the same meaning but different spelling which can be confusing such as adviser / advisor

I not me as in for example the Queen and I and not the Queen and me

Not trying to single you out, but I know the meaning of all of these words and sentences. I just don't understand what they were in response to. Just semantics in general? :scratch:
Is I used when I am referring to myself from my own "point of view", and me used when referring to myself from an outside "point of view"?
I am cold. That will make me cold. I need help. Will you help me?

Who is it? It's me. (smee. :mrgreen: ) Hmm, I think some would say, It is I? :lol:
The Queen and I got so shit-faced that the barman called a taxi for the Queen and me.

Wouldn't I be the proper word at the end? Well, us would be, but that's probably pedantic.


dbms's explanation of Latin grammar is on point. A simpler rule of thumb when trying to decide between "me" and "I" when talking about two people, is to see what would happen if the sentence were just about yourself. You wouldn't say "the barman called a taxi for I". You would use "me" and it's fairly obvious because it sounds correct.

The one verb where this trick isn't so obvious is "to be". In its forms such as "is" or "was", we are used to saying "It was me" so this sounds correct. It's not, technically.
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Re: The semantics thread

#19  Postby Fallible » Feb 16, 2016 8:17 am

logical bob wrote:
don't get me started wrote:We also find it in English in modality used to express politeness. Compare ‘can you open the window’ with ‘could you open the window.’ The second version, using the form ‘could’ is generally perceived to be more polite, that is, to indicate a distance of social relationship.

In my experience if you say to a pedant "can you open the window?" or "could you open the window?" they will say yes (they are able to do so if they choose) and then not move, because the request would be "will you open the window?" or "would you open the window?" I agree that the past tense version seems more polite, though it's difficult to put my finger on why. "Will you do it?" sounds slightly exasperated. It might also mean that I don't know whether you will, in fact, open the window or not without necessarily implying that I have a preference, whereas I don't think "would you open the window?" could be understood in that way.


This reminds me of a pedantic (one of many) and common response from my dad when asked ''can you...'' - ''I can, but may I?''
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Re: The semantics thread

#20  Postby Fallible » Feb 16, 2016 8:22 am

The_Piper wrote:Wouldn't I be the proper word at the end? Well, us would be, but that's probably pedantic.


No - or at least, not as I learnt it. Would you say ''...called a taxi for I'''? No, You'd say ''...called a taxi for me''.
She battled through in every kind of tribulation,
She revelled in adventure and imagination.
She never listened to no hater, liar,
Breaking boundaries and chasing fire.
Oh, my my! Oh my, she flies!
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