Language: December 2007 Archives

I read a lot of student papers and exam essays. I see a lot of repeat errors. It gets really annoying after a while, but one interesting fact about language acquisition becomes pretty clear after a number of instances of the same error. Some of these errors seem to be a result of people learning vocabulary by hearing without ever reading the term in question.

One common error I see (and I see it online quite a lot also) is referring to a transition between one subject and another as a segway. No, a segway is a two-wheeled device that moves around while you stand it. A transition between two subjects is a segue. But you don't have to be a non-reader to make this mistake. It took me until well into my undergraduate years to figure out that the word that I thought was pronounced "seeg" was the same word that people kept pronouncing "segway". I don't know how anyone ever does figure this out, in fact, including me.

But not every instance of what I have in mind is like that. For instance, I sometimes see people referring to the "rank-in-file", which is not a normal English expression at all. They meant to be talking about the rank-and-file. One of the most annoying is one I see extremely frequently in philosophy papers, especially on issues in metaphysics. Spiderman and Peter Parker are one and the same person. It's sort of an old-fashioned expression (which I sometimes see written as "old-fashion", a bothersome construction in itself). I would never use it. But if I were to use it, I'd get it right and not speak of Spidey and Peter being "one in the same".

I'm convinced that these mistakes result mostly from people who never read (or perhaps only read people writing on the internet who never read). There are certain mistakes that people who read would never or almost never make. These students are basically signaling to me that they hardly ever read anything when they do this sort of thing. Yet they have no idea that they're doing it, and they wouldn't be in a position to know that unless they read more.

Lying By Imperatives

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I'm stuck in grading and can't get finish off a post I'm pretty excited about but am not ready to post yet, so here's something in the meantime from a while back: lying by imperatives. I saved this and never got around to posting it, probably because I had something to say about it, but I don't have the time to read it carefully again and see what that might have been. I suspect it had something to do with the ethics of lying. Maybe I'll post an update tomorrow if I come up with anything once I'm through my last class of the semester.

Update: I think I remember what I might have wanted to say, but I'm not entirely sure this is exactly the point I had in mind. The lying guard says. "Don't bite me" in place of the usual "Bite me", as if the imperative has a truth value, which it doesn't if you're actually going to be precise about the semantics. But we understand what's going on here when someone commands the opposite of you want to do as an instance of being a complete liar, because there's something truth-related about imperatives. Imperatives often assume propositional content that does have a truth value, and they communicate propositional content that does have a truth value.

Another example would be if I tell you to stop poking me. That's an imperative, but the act of saying the imperative, even though it has no semantic truth value, does pragmatically convey the information that I think you're poking me and the information that I want you to stop. So whether a speech act counts as lying might depend not just on whether you deliberately communicate false semantic content. Deception can occur when you communicate false information pragmatically, and the cartoonist seems to understand that in having a lying guard present the opposite imperative of what the guard wants the person to do. It doesn't even have to be a speech act. It can simply be an act. You try to communicate that you're home by leaving the lights on when you're out. If lying is a deliberate attempt to deceive by communicating false information, then you don't need to say something that's semantically false to lie. You can say something semantically true but misleading, expecting to communicate an additional falsehood. You can say nothing at all but by your actions intentionally communicate something false.

This has implications for the moral issues involving lying. Some people hold that lying is always wrong no matter what. I know people who hold such a view but then stick to the letter of the law about not expressing falsehoods semantically while being fine with deliberately deceiving people pragmatically. I would suggest that what's bad about lying is still present in such cases, whether we call it a lie or not (but I would prefer to call it at least a lie of sorts). If any case of deception is ok, why shouldn't it be ok to lie semantically in such cases?

[For more on the ethical issues, see my earlier post on the ethics of lying.] 

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