number format and semantic hairsplitting in China

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri May 8 14:08:38 UTC 2009

At 5:20 AM -0700 5/8/09, Arnold Zwicky wrote:
>On May 7, 2009, at 9:46 PM, Randy Alexander wrote:
>>And now a slightly related anecdote, for those who might be
>>interested. I often get asked questions like this by English students
>>and teachers here in China. A pair of semantically identical or
>>nearly identical phrases or sentences are presented to me and I'm
>>asked to choose the right one for a certain situation.  I tell the
>>asker that either one is OK. They step back and look at me with utter
>>disbelief, saying one *must* be correct and the other wrong.
>yes, this attitude is what i've called One Right Way.  i've written
>about it a number of times, in various contexts.  it's come up again
>and again here on ADS-L, for instance in a pointless discussion of
>whether it's REALLY "close enough for government work" or "good enough
>for government work".
>usage critics tend to be great fans of One Right Way.
>a related attitude is One Right Meaning.
I'm not sure either is (solely) a result of prescriptive attitudes.
A lot of work on acquisition (cf. Eve Clark on the Principle of
Contrast, Ellen Markman et al. on Mutual Exclusivity) points to the
conclusion  that children are even more disposed than adults to
expect the one-form-to-one-meaning mapping, barring even overlap
("That's not an animal, silly, it's a *dog*!)   I remember my own
son, at an early age, being surprised that some pair of homophones, I
forget which, were spelled alike--he had obviously formed the
generalization (based on e.g. "too", "to", "two") that one function
of orthography is to keep homonyms distinct. And we know from
Bolinger and others that true synonymy in adult language--if
interpreted as equivalence of felicity as well as truth conditions
across the full range of distribution of the two expressions--is
vanishingly rare, given syntactic and register differences as well as
differences in conventional meaning.  Examples like "one hundred
fifteen" vs. "one hundred and fifteen" show that such synonymy does
exist, but it makes sense for speakers to be predisposed to be


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