June 29, 2005

Conjunction and punishment

Am I soft on conjunction abuse? A number of Language Log readers think so. I was surprised to read in the New York Times that "Infiniti also lets you choose your favorite satellite radio service, either XM and Sirius", and no one complained about that negative judgment. But because I tried to explore the root causes of this unfortunate phrasing, which I attributed to associative uncertainty about the expression of choice, several people wrote in to complain that I was muddying the clear waters of logic with fuzzy-minded ramblings about pragmatic influences. So let me try again.

When you offer someone a choice, you can indicate the range of alternatives with a plural noun phrase:

On our web site, you can chose from over 25 furry friends...
...you can chose from many tables with varying limits.
There'll be barbeque with all the good stuff that goes with it and your choice of desserts.

It's no surprise that this plural noun phrase can be conjunctively modified:

You can choose from Dell and HP laptop computers
...you can choose from mechanical and computerized models.
Ability to choose from low and high ISO settings to increase effectiveness.

Nor are we shocked to find that the range of alternatives expressed in a noun phrase with conjoined heads:

Choose from 180000 photographs and illustrations.
Choose from different styles and colors.

In the examples above, the conjunctive phrases are just being used to denote the relevant set -- there is no notion that the alternatives in the world are aligned one-to-one with the conjuncts in the words.

However, in other examples this is not so clear:

Choose from ENERGY, BOSE, and SONANCE.
Players can choose from .25, 50, and 1.00.

Here it's simultaneously true that the conjunctive phrase denotes the set of alternatives, and also that each element of the conjunction denotes one of the alternatives.

In most of the cases just sketched, we can find similar examples with or instead of and:

With this plugin you can choose from low or high ISO settings.
You can choose from different colors or cute doggie prints.
Choose from 2 oz or 4 oz bottle.

The two connectives and and or are not equivalent in meaning or frequency in all contexts, but sometimes both meaning and frequency seem similar:

  DVD and VHS VHS and DVD total "and" DVD or VHS VHS or DVD total "or"
choose from ___
choose between ___
choice of ___
choice between ___
choose ___
either ___

What's going on here?

Phrases of the form "choose from A and B" are inevitable, given the fact that you can say "choose from the members of set X" and the fact that a nominal conjunction can be used to denote a set. What about "choose from A or B"? That's surely not short for "choose from A or choose from B". It's possible that it's just a mistaken form of "choose A or B", but that seems unlikely to me, especially because "the choice of A or B" seems to be absolutely the normal form. Pending clarification of the details from some insightful semanticist, let's assume that "A or B" is also a sound way to express the set of alternatives that includes A and B -- at least in some contexts.

OK, now what about either? Leaving aside the constructional status of "either ... or ...", we're talking about a word that means something like "one or the other [of two]".

Since one of the possible syntactic frames for either is "either of <plural-noun-phrase>",

You can download the latest browser from either of the locations listed below.

it's not surprising that there can be a conjunction inside the plural-noun-phrase part:

In any triangle, if one of the sides be produced, the exterior angle is greater than either of the interior and opposite angles.

In this last sentence (which is proposition 16 of Euclid's elements), the phrase "either of the interior and opposite angles" collectively names a set of two, as this alternative translation makes clear:

An exterior angle of a triangle is greater than either remote interior angle.

It's possible to find a few examples of the form "either of the A and B Xs" where the meaning allows us a choice of "the A X" or "the B X":

(link) Either of the CD45RB and CD45RO Isoforms Are Effective in Restoring T Cell, But Not B Cell, Development and Function in CD45-Null Mice

However, this sort of construction seems to be quite rare, and I haven't been able to find any similar examples involving conjoined nominal heads. This may be related to the relative rarity of phrases like "choice of A and B" compared to "choice of A or B"; it might also reflect the influence of the constructional pattern "either A or B"; and it might have something to do with the fact that either as a modifier takes singular rather than plural heads ("either man", not "either men" -- though a disjunction of plural heads like "either men or women" is fine).

Since several readers brought it up, let me note in passing that none of this seems to have anything to do with any implication of exclusivity associated with either. Like disjunction in general, either often suggests exclusive choice, but doesn't force it, since the implication can be cancelled:

This is either brilliant or embarassing, or both.
Either vote or donate. Or both.
Thus the number of positive integers less than 11 are divisible by either 2 or 5 or both is 5 + 2 - 1 = 6.
The output is "true" if either or both of the inputs are "true."
A domain already exists on the system that matches either or both the type or the name that has been specified.

OK, now back to the poor old Infiniti and its choice of "either XM and Sirius". That unlovely sequence, you'll recall, was tacked on as an adjunct to the object of choose:

Infiniti also lets you choose your favorite satellite radio service, either XM and Sirius.

Phrases of this general pragmatic shape are common, with either and or or as the conjoiner of alternatives:

While in port, guests can choose from many activities like kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, bird watching and visits to sites of international importance.
Plus read about your favorite books like Harry Potter, Animorphs, Goosebumps, Captain Underpants and more.
Serve with your favorite toppings such as sour cream, guacamole, cilantro and green onions.
Organic gardeners choose from various products like fish emulsion or concentrated sea-weed products.
For a break from intense mint, they can choose from fruit flavors like tropical twist or candy-coated strappleberry...
...participants will appreciate event updates and articles about their favorite sports like hiking, kayaking, or snowboarding.

My point? The NYT writer Michelle Krebs (or her editor) probably started out by thinking about the pragmatics of available alternatives, and wound up aground on the syntax (and semantics?) of either.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 29, 2005 08:50 AM