Saturday, December 3, 2011

some, or all?

I ran into some difficulty during a LING 101 lecture the other day. I was talking about entailments, and focusing specifically on superset/subset relations. I started with some simple examples: "I eat bacon" entails "I eat meat", because bacon is a type of meat. I then moved on to what I considered were essentially identical statements. One of these was "John hates music" entails "John hates country music". Here I started getting blank looks. Several people didn't understand why this was the case, since John could hate some other type of music. After a second of musing, I found the problem: mass and bare plural nouns in English. If I say "John hates music", this can mean one of two things. The first is what I had in mind: that John hates all music. On this reading, "John hates music" entails "John hates country music", because country music is a subset of all music. However, there is another reading for "John hates music": that there is some type of music that John hates. On this reading "John hates music" does not entail "John hates country music", because John's hating black metal could satisfy the "some music" reading of "John hates music" without satisfying "John hates country music". General plurals (and mass nouns like "music") have a funny way of interacting with verbs in ambiguous ways, a fact that has led Mark Liberman to propose a voluntary ban on generic plurals to express statistical differences between populations.

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