People who rant about the way their language is used come at things
with theories about how the language works that are firmly held, but
are not made explicit and not examined. The problem is, their
premises are so often wrong.
With this in mind, let's take a brief look at Drone
on "pilotless drones".
Drone Man eventually froths himself up to the raving "Is it sinking
into your thick skull, you high school drop-out?", over the San
printed a reference to "pilotless drones". The idea is that a
drone (in the context of aircraft) is by definition pilotless, so that
"pilotless drone" is tautologous; "You tell me, is there any other kind
of a drone, other than a pilotless drone?", Drone Man demands as he
works himself into a frenzy of language rage.
Hidden in this is a theory about how the semantics of modification
Intersective modification: the
denotation of an Adj N combination is the intersection of the
denotations of the Adj and the N. That is, Adj N has the same
denotation as N plus a restrictive relative clause containing Adj: N that/who is/are Adj.
On this theory,
"pilotless drones" means 'drones that are pilotless', and that's just
stupid, because "pilotless" doesn't restrict the denotation of "drones".
Now, I grant right away that there's plenty of intersective
modification around. My "a brief look" above is understood
intersectively, and so for that matter is "intersective modification"
itself. The thing is that there's ALSO
amount of non-intersective modification around.
If I tell you, "My supportive friends helped me through tough times",
you'll probably understand me to be asserting that my friends are (all)
supportive and that they helped me through tough times, not that only
my friends who are supportive did so (implicating that I had
non-supportive friends, who were of no help), which would be the
intersective reading. In fact, "supportive friends" is ambiguous
between an intersective reading ('my friends who are supportive') and
this appositive one ('my friends, who are supportive'):
Appositive modification: the denotation
of an Adj N combination is the same as that of N plus a non-restrictive
(a.k.a. appositive) relative clause containing Adj: N, which/who is/are Adj.
Plenty of Adj N combinations are, out of context, ambiguous between
intersective and appositive modification; but context, background
information, and reasoning about other people's intentions are usually
enough for us to decide which reading is the appropriate one.
Back to Drone Man. What's his problem (beyond being appallingly
short-tempered)? He's assuming that all Adj N modification is
intersective. But this is just false. Drone Man's tirade is
entertaining, but it's based on a misunderstanding of English
grammar. (Cue Emily Litella: "Never mind!")
Now for the subtlety. You might think that even the appositive
reading of "pilotless drones" would be stupid, since drones are all
pilotless. But look at the explicitly appositive version:
"drones, which are pilotless". This isn't stupid at all; it REMINDS
us, in a helpful way, that drones are pilotless. In general, even
when the denotation of Adj is included within the denotation of N,
appositive Adj N can do useful discourse work. As a bonus, since
intersective Adj N is stupid in this situation, the potential ambiguity
is eliminated in practice, in favor of the appositive reading.
Now whether this is what the Chronicle
writer intended is another matter. "Pilotless drones" could have
been an error. But I understood it, charitably, as having a
reading that would make sense -- the appositive reading.
Now an example with appositive Adj N in this inclusion situation, in a
context where the writer's intentions are pretty clear. This is
from a comment by "waxwing" on Dave
, following up on another poster's report that, omigod,
there are earthworms up to 11 feet long:
OK, I must say it...does it bother
anyone else that legless earthworms are measured in feet?
Very effective, I think.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 8, 2007 11:25 AM