January 11, 2004

The Legal Treatment of Quantifiers

Geoff Pullum and I had dinner Saturday night at Legal Sea Foods with a couple of other friends. The menu of desserts and after-dinner drinks featured "Tasting Flights" of various types of fancy alcohol, such as port, cognac, single-malt scotch and so forth. Each "flight" consisted of three different instances of one type (e.g. three single-malts from Skye, or three Martell cognacs), and the menu promised "Three 1 oz. pours of each".

All of us at the table agreed, in our professional capacity as native speakers of English (two British, two American), that this unambiguously promises nine ounces of drink. While this quantity seems more likely to lead to a crash than a flight, at least in a single customer already fortified with a glass or two during dinner, we felt that it would work out well if somehow shared among the four of us. Needless to say, our server maintained that the correct interpretation of this menu item is a total of three ounces of drink, one ounce of each kind.

It's clear that pragmatics was on the server's side, even if semantics was on ours. As it turned out, she was a speech therapy student at a local university. Therefore she was pleased to learn that we were attending the Linguistic Society of America meeting, and that Geoff is co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, but she knew enough not to fall for an appeal to linguistic authority. So Geoff had a single glass of Laphroaig, party animal that he is, and I had a cup of coffee.

However, I continue to think that we were right. Here's a pragmatically identical example that helps make the point. The website for the '21' Club offers a similar "flight" of fancy alcoholic beverages:

"Three-ounce servings of First Growth Bordeaux will be available for $45.00 a glass, or $80.00 for a flight of the two wines being offered (three ounces of each will be served)."

The '21' Club has got its pragmatics in tune with its semantics -- I read this offer as promising that you get 6 ounces of wine for your eighty bucks, and I'd be happy to bet anybody $80 that I'm right (loser pays). Legal Seafoods needs to trade up to a better semanticist-in-residence, who would advise them to promise that "a one-ounce pour of each of the three selections will be served", or something similar, rather than promising "three 1 oz. pours of each." Perhaps this is the menu-writer's equivalent of misleading journalistic concision, but there was plenty of white space on the menu...

And by the way, who decided that a serving of several different beverages of a certain class should be called a "flight"? The closest thing in the OED's entry for flight seems to be sense 8:

A collection or flock of beings or things flying in or passing through the air together: a. of birds or insects. Also the special term for a company of doves, swallows, and various other birds.

but since when are scotches and ports classified as birds or insects? And does this term apply only to fancy alcohol, or would (say) a small diet Coke and a small diet Pepsi be a "Cola flight"?

[Update: Geraint Jennings writes to point out:

"flight" as in "flight of drinks" - a calque from French "volée", I'd have said, via the art of the sommelier. Perhaps using the borrowed "volley" might give a better idea of the effect!

Tonnerre de Brest! But of course! "Flight" has a gentle, refined character that is somehow missing from volley much less barrage, which seems like a better translation in phrases like "volée de coups". Legal Seafoods is a no-nonsense kind of place. When I first ate there, the restaurant part consisted of a wooden picnic table at a fish store, where you could eat your take-out fried clams. Even now, their "tasting flights" are a bargain compared to 21's -- the prices were about $12-$25 for three drinks, not $80 for two. So maybe they should switch to "tasting volley" or even "tasting barrage", and show the power of reverse snobbery.

I'm reminded of an interaction at dinner in an upscale Los Angeles restaurant with Jean-Roger Vergnaud. The waiter delivered a long, poetic description of a wine that Jean-Roger had chosen, including the phrase "with a hint of earth in the nose." Jean-Roger paused for a carefully calculated moment, and then pointed to another choice. "And what about this one? Does it also have dirt on its nose?"]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 11, 2004 06:37 PM