March 23, 2008

Y is X plus something

Another abstract for a paper that grew in part from material on Language Log.  This time it's for a conference to honor Jerry Sadock, May 2-3 at the University of Chicago.

Again and again, it turns out that items X and Y that are widely taken to be synonymous (differing at most stylistically) are in fact subtly different in their semantics or pragmatics (as Bolinger maintained some years ago).  In many (though not all) such cases, X is general and Y specific, in the sense that Y is semantically/pragmatically "X plus something".  A few cases:

1.  Diffcult is hard plus a nuance or connotation or implicature that "the need for skill or ingenuity is required" (AHD4).

2.  Jerry Sadock (on Language Log) has argued that nearly n (where n is a numerical expression) is almost n plus the connotation "that n exceeds (hence is better than) what was expected or hoped for".

3.  Subordinating once S1, S2 (Once you finish editing this article, you should start on a new one) is after S1, S2 (indicating temporal sequence) plus a presupposition or implicature that the event denoted by S2 is somehow contingent on the event denoted by S1 (from Jason Grafmiller.)

4.  The sentence-initial contrastive connective however is but ('against expectation') plus the connotation that it's specifically PROPOSITIONS that are in contrast (from Zwicky & Kenter).

5.  The determiner lot (a lot of money/dollars) is the much/many of extent (much money, many dollars) plus a connotation that the extent is significant in the context (from Grano & Zwicky).

6.  Motional out of + Object (walk out of the door) is out + Object (walk out the door) plus a connotation of special significance for the thing denoted by the Object in the context.

7.  The restrictive relativizer which is the subordinator that plus components of anaphoricity and non-personal reference.

Most of these cases figure prominently in the advice literature on English grammar, style, and usage, where the usual recommendation is to consistently choose one of the putatively synonymous variants over the other, on some criterion or another (omit needless words, avoid potential ambiguity, avoid overused words, avoid ponderous words, avoid colloquial or conversational items, etc.).  The ubiquity of Bolingerian differentiation in these cases, and especially of general/specific differentiations, suggests that the forced-choice strategy of many usage advisers is misguided, since it amounts to depriving the users of the language of valuable expressive resources.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 23, 2008 11:12 AM