June 18, 2005

Vietnamese restaurant and Google threaten strike?

I was in the Dakao Vietnamese restaurant/snack bar in San Jose yesterday and saw the following sign:

We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

I had an image of the serving staff having a collective bad hair day and refusing to serve anyone. Not the intended reading of course. Whereas my reading has them potentially giving no service to anyone (at all), on the intended reading they reserve the right to give anyone (they choose) no service.

This is a classic case of the difference between what semanticists call "free choice any" and "negative polarity any". The free choice any is the intended one, and you find it in sentences like: she can do anything and anyone can be a semanticist. In this case, the sentence is of the form we reserve the right to do X to anyone, where the X that will get done in this case is refusing service. It is relevant that reserving the right is an action implying plenty of choice. Suppose the potential refusal was not a matter of free choice by the refuser, but instead was externally mandated. In that case, a quite different effect would have resulted, and my zero service reading would be much more prominent:

We have been instructed to refuse service to anyone.

Negative polarity any, as the name suggests, is found in negative contexts. Often these involve explicit negation, as in I don't like anything on the menu. But sometimes the negativity is more subtle, as in I doubt I'll eat anything, I regret I ate anything or indeed I refuse to eat anything. There is a nice literature on what exactly makes words like doubt, regret and refuse sufficiently negative, but I'll leave that for another time. What matters here is that in negative contexts, we often get a negative polarity reading of any, with a result that has a universal flavor: if you don't eat anything, then everything is such that it does not get eaten. And though there remains disagreement as to whether these are really distinct meanings of any (or, in this case, anyone), the difference between the readings of sentences including these words is uncontroversial. Incidentally, Language Loggers have written about negative polarity several times: see e.g. this discussion of Mark's.

The restaurant's formula turns out to be an incredibly common one. Google claims it can find 102,000 occurrences of the quoted string refuse service to anyone, and as far as I know its web crawling technology does not yet include restaurant walls. Google itself includes the following terms on its Google Answers service:

Further Google reserves the right to refuse service to anyone at any time without notice for any reason [....]

On my reading, that would be one very quiet Google.

Posted by David Beaver at June 18, 2005 03:04 AM