Saturday, November 17, 2007


After reading a Language Log post today on Low Attachment, I fortuitously heard this warning on a Celebrex commercial:

"People taking other NSAID's or the elderly should consult their doctor."

What, may I ask, are the elderly prescribed for? The correct parsing is, of course, [[people taking other NSAID's] or [the elderly]], but our syntax really wants to interpret this as people taking [[other NSAID's] or [the elderly]], however much our knowledge of semantics forbids this interpretation. I now know, thanks to Arnold Zwicky, that this is because of our attachment (if you will) to Low Attachment. That is, we want to attach that second constituent to the closest phrase-level category. In this example, that means interpreting "the elderly" as a second object of the verb "taking," as opposed to interpreting it as a second subject of the VP "should consult."


Alex Remington said...

I think part of the problem is that the sentence should read: "People taking other NSAID's or the elderly should consult their doctor."

If someone should consult their doctor, there shouldn't be an or.

Alex Remington said...

Ahem, let me clarify. The sentence should read "People taking other NSAID's and the elderly should consult their doctor."

Semantically, the "or" doesn't make sense. The sentence is saying that two separate groups of people ought to consult their doctor: the "or" comes in with the implication that if the viewer falls into one group or the other, he or she should heed the advice. However, the advice is intended for members of both groups, and to capture that an "and" is necessary.

Alex Remington said...

Here's a question from Joe Posnanski's blog:

RT 10: If not.

So I got an email the other day who said that I was “one of the goofiest, if not the goofiest, writers in America.” I appreciate the sentiment though to be honest, the word he used was somewhat more pungent than “goofiest.” Anyway, it gets to a question that has been bugging me forever … How would you define “if not?”

See, in my view, the sentence above can be translated to mean that I am one of the goofiest writers in America and I also may be THE goofiest writer in America. I translate “if not” to be inclusive of both propositions.

However, there are people who read it exactly the opposite way. They believe “if not” excludes the second choice. So reading it that way, the sentence would actually be saying that I am one of the goofiest writers in America but I’m definitely NOT the goofiest writer in America.

I’ve emailed my concerns about “if not” to various writer friends, and they have given me conflicting points of view. So I remain confused. If not baffled.

If that guy who wrote me that email saw THIS post, he probably would not have qualified his statement in the first place.

Any thoughts?