January 13, 2004

In, out, up, front, back, minimal, maximal

Geoff Pullum pleads with us to tell him what incall and outcall mean, so that he can order massages from hotel rooms without wondering whether he is supposed to head across town to the massage parlor or relax and wait for the expert to ring his doorbell. I venture that the answer is that there is no answer: these directionals are ambiguous, and they are not alone in this. In support, I offer four similar examples as well as a private confusion.

Where I grew up (the Tri-State Area), order (food) in and order (food) out both describe having food delivered to one's house. This is mostly harmless. The phrases are used when everyone is hungry and nothing has been prepared. In such situations, one is unlikely to propose sending some food out of the house.

When someone says that an appointment has been pushed back, there is no telling whether it is now set to begin earlier than it was originally scheduled to begin or later than that. The phrase pushed up is equally unhelpful. In this case, we can usually recover the intended meaning by gauging whether the speaker has grown more frantic or less so.

Imagine that you are looking down a row of automobiles, each with its driver's side door facing you. A new car pulls up and stops at the end of the row that is farthest from you. Would you say that this car pulled to the front of the row or to the back of row?

Linguists often talk about tree-structures. These generally involve a binary relation on nodes that is called the dominance relation. There is always exactly one node, the root, that is not dominated by any other node (except perhaps itself). Is the root maximal or minimal with regard to the dominance relation? If you think in terms of bottom-up derivations for sentences (if you like to begin with the words and imagine projecting structure from them), then the root is likely to be maximal in your mind. If you think top down, the root is probably your minimal element. Happily, it doesn't matter which perspective you adopt for the dominance relation. Just be consistent. (As you probably gathered from my brief description, linguists draw their trees upside down, with the root at the top of the page.)

And my own private confusion: I have trouble remembering how former and latter work, because I can never remember whether one is supposed to begin counting from the beginning of the relevant phrase or backwards from where former or latter occurs. Posted by Christopher Potts at January 13, 2004 10:19 PM