number format and semantic hairsplitting in China

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Fri May 8 14:45:52 UTC 2009

We could also ponder the (non)distinction between "one thousand, seven hundred" and "seventeen hundred."  The latter form is more convenient for writing on checks . . . .


---- Original message ----
>Date: Fri, 8 May 2009 10:08:38 -0400
>From: Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>Subject: Re: number format and semantic hairsplitting in China

>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 fif!
en" vs. "one hundred and fifteen" show that such synonymy does exist, but it makes sense for speakers to be predisposed to be suspicious.

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