May 11, 2005

What's 420 feet high and travels at 120 mph?

Unmentioned in the foregoing post with the quote about the rollercoaster that can't get on track (but hasn't yet gotten untracked) is another interesting linguistic point. Here's the quote:

Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster stands 420 feet tall, goes from zero to 120 mph in four seconds and frequently doesn't work.

But of course the part that stands 420 feet high never goes over zero mph, and the parts that may attain 120 mph don't stand 420 feet high.

Linguists have often discussed other such anomalous examples of mixing the distinct modes of reference of polysemous words (anomaly is commonly marked with a # prefix). For example:

#The ham sandwich in the corner says he wants some mustard and should have been on wheat bread.

You can call him the ham sandwich, but then that phrase can't also refer to the sandwich.

#The Cambridge Grammar is careful in its scholarship and eleven pounds in weight.

The work in question is careful in a sense that would carry over to a CD ROM edition in a way that the weight would not. The abstract multi-authored entity must be distinguished from the heavy concrete objects through which Cambridge University Press permits it to intrude on the physical world.

It has also been noted that this sentence has a curious property which is perhaps worth mentioning in this context (though as John Baker has pointed out to me, this one slips down too smoothly to be regarded as anomalous):

The temperature is ninety and rising.

(Whatever the temperature is, if it has the property of being 90, and it has the property of being currently rising, then it would appear to follow by substitution that 90 must be rising.)

Semantics is not my thing, but the general recommendation here would appear to be that you should decide how you're going to conceptualize the referent of the phrase you're using, and stick with it consistently. The writer of the first quotation above didn't do that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 11, 2005 06:18 PM