May 01, 2007

Context, context, context

Every so often I point out that sentences that are problematic in isolation (because they seem ungrammatical, confusingly ambiguous, or subject to an absurd interpretation) are just fine when they're viewed in context.  Supplying some linguistic context, or information about the situation in which the sentence was spoken or written, or facts about the world, society, or culture can make things clear.

Here's a simple example from my recent reading -- p. 251 of Atul Gawande's Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (2007):

This is a forty-six-year-old former mortician who hated the funeral business with a right inguinal hernia.

Viewed in isolation, this is a disaster, the sort of sentence that's likely to end up in a "Sic!" column.  That final PP "with a right inguinal hernia" is likely to be parsed as a postmodifier of "the funeral business", or possibly as a VP adverbial of means or manner, modifying "hated the funeral business".  Either interpretation is absurd.

But now look at it in context:

... consider, at an appropriate point, taking a moment with your patient.  Make yourself ask an unscripted question...

... many respond--because they're polite, or friendly, or perhaps in need of human contact.  When this happens, try seeing if you can keep the conversation going for more than two sentences.  Listen.  Make note of what you learn.  This is not a forty-six-year-old male with a right inguinal hernia.  This is a forty-six-year-old former mortician who hated the funeral business with a right inguinal hernia.

What makes the final sentence work (with the PP understood as a postmodifier of "a forty-six-year-old former mortician who hated the funeral business") is the contrast set up in the preceding context:

This is not a forty-six-year-old X with a right inguinal hernia.

This is a forty-six-year-old Y with a right inguinal hernia.

That is, not JUST an X, but in fact an X who is also a Y.  The structural parallelism between the two sentences guides the reader to carry over the interpretation of the PP "with a right inguinal hernia" as a postmodifier of X in the first sentence to an interpretation of this expression as a postmodifier of Y in the second.  If you read the passage out loud, you'll probably set off the PP in the second sentence prosodically, using prosody to indicate that the PP is not attached "low" (as a modifier of "the funeral business" or "hated the funeral business").

The title of this posting is a favorite saying of my friend Ellen Evans.  It's scarcely original with her, as you can see by googling on it.  Googling will, in fact, yield "context, context, context" as an explicit instance of the X3 snowclone:

To paraphrase the axiom which states: the 3 most important words in real estate are: location, location, location; the 3 most important words in the late 20th Century are: context, context, context.  (Jeff Gates, keynote address delivered to the National Conference of Arts Administrators, Anchorage, AK, October, 1996)

But with Ellen Evans you get more: a CafePress shop, Ellen de Sui Generis, with merchandise featuring characteristic Evansian sayings: Piffle; Er, no; FSVO (an acronym for "for some value of", and pronounced like "fizzvo"); and of course Context, context, context.  There you will find two items with CCC on them: a classic thong for $7.99 and a mug for $10.99.  The mugs make excellent presents for your friends in semantics/pragmatics and sociolinguistics (or computer science or postmodern criticism or ...).  (Disclosure: I have no connection, financial or otherwise, with the shop.  I'm merely a Friend of Ellen, and of Lars Ingebrigtsen, who set the shop up.)

A further riff on Ellen Evans:  Ellen used to work in the movie business, and every so often casually mentions having met or worked with various famous people (fsvo famous).  As a result, the newsgroup soc.motss has for some time used the verb ellen to mean 'make the acquaintance of [someone famous]', usually in the perfect, as in "Bernard Malamud?  I've ellened him."  Verb on!

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 1, 2007 01:34 PM