PPFF #165: implicature

Good morning,

Apologies for missing in action last week. I was away (mentally) for the past couple of weeks. The good news is that little distraction is coming to an end and my attention is back where it should be; here.

There’s a scene in When Harry met Sally (old film – I know) where Harry is trying to introduce Sally to his friend Jess. Here’s how the conversation goes.

Jess: If she’s so great why aren’t you taking her out?

Harry: How many times do I have to tell you, we’re just friends.

Jess: So you’re saying she’s not that attractive.

Harry: No, I told you she is attractive.

Jess: Yeah but you also said she has a good personality.

Harry: She has a good personality.

Jess: When someone’s not that attractive, they’re always described as having a good personality.

Harry: Look, if you had asked me what does she look like and I said, she has a good personality, that means she’s not attractive. But just because I happen to mention that she has a good personality, she could be either. She could be attractive with a good personality, or not attractive with a good personality

In the last part of the conversation, Harry basically explained the concept of ‘implicature’, a term coined by Paul Grice in 1961, to describe uttered words or sentences implying a meaning beyond the literal sense of what is explicitly stated.

Let me explain further.

Anna: Is he attractive?

Brown: He has a good personality.

Basically, Brown would have meant that he is not attractive. But the words in his sentence in themselves don’t mean that he’s not attractive, as Brown did not say that he isn’t attractive. He implied it i.e. Brown implicated that he is not attractive (that he is not attractive was his implicature. Another example below.

Charlie: Did you kill Brown, because he’s not attractive?

Dianna: I found him attractive.

Here Dianna didn’t really answer the question and she is misleading as Dianna is not directly confirming or denying either way. Dianna is uttering those words to lead Charlie to infer that Dianna meant she didn’t kill Brown because she found him attractive as the basis of her killing would have been whether she found him attractive or not. But Charlie’s inference would have to be accompanied with the assumption that Dianna’s reply was indeed in response to Charlie’s question in that particular context. If Charlie did assume and infer the (supposedly) implied, that would leave Dianna room to manoeuvre later, and claim “I’ve never said that”, which technically isn’t untrue. It’s a great skill/trick if you know how to use it, and a huge pain if you’re at the receiving end of it. So, if you have yet to master this art,  save yourselves the trouble of inference, and be direct.

Have a good Friday.


PPFF #150: mate

It’s one of my pet peeves; addressing someone as ‘mate’ or being addressed as such rather.

I usually don’t hold back from letting the (ab)user of the term know about my displeasure from this lazy and thoughtless use of the term of address. “How are you, mate?” That, delivered with a glottalised ‘t’ at the end would be enough to make me wince and want to purposely induce vomit in their face.

Granted, that’s a truck-load of hate and anger that probably stems from something else not terribly right in my head, and an indiscriminate use of hyperbole but you get the picture.

Now, you may think of me as a crazy person. I’m not, but I see that this opinion doesn’t help propagate that idea. But let me try by breaking this down so that reasonable people can understand where I’m coming from.

I do think that word is appropriate but only in rare circumstances in that there are only a tiny fraction of anyone’s relations for which it can be properly used without causing some offense. We often conceptualise our relations and hierarchies between people (or sometimes intangible things) spatially; e.g. within an organisation, some people are above us and others below us or some jobs are below us etc. – just as some people e.g. brothers and sisters are close to us, strangers are thought to be distant.

Now, we wouldn’t usually call our friends ‘mates’ if they were close enough to be actual friends with whom we enjoy spending time, in which case you would use their name. So the use of the term would conceptually push away the person we’re addressing (if that person is a friend), creating tension at least momentarily – think of the bond between two friends as a piece of string; any movement in either direction whether push or pull would create tension. This is a bit of a risky social manoeuvre unless the two are so close that this usage would be instantly understood as a jocular term of address.

On the other hand, I find a stranger addressing me as ‘mate’ very presumptuous. Applying the same logic within the aforementioned concept of social spatiality, for the two strangers between whom no prior bond has been formed, the distance between them is artificially brought closer by the use of the term. Without proper permission being either requested or granted, as far as I’m concerned it is a case of forced entry or at the very least a socially unacceptable, illegitimate use of the word (extending the analogy, the string could snap).

I think the two categories of people on the relations-spectrum that would warrant the use of the term of address ‘mate’, are between very close friends in jocular usage, and acquaintances we meet on a regular basis with whom there’s some identified potential to form a bond toward friendship.

So, try it today. Say ‘hello mate!’ to the security guard you see every day but never bothered to talk to.

Or something like that.

Have a good Friday mates!

Current affairs, grammar

PPFF #116

Hello all,

Amidst the furore over Panama Papers and still unclear and dubious circumstances that prompted authorities to launch fraud /bribery investigations surrounding Unaoil, this week, if you paid attention to the current affairs and if you happen to be particularly emotionally responsive, it must have been not only disappointing but also emotionally exhausting (if vicariously indignant).

Probably completely unrelated and irrelevant but that was the backdrop from which my mind jumped to the following two words ‘person’ and ‘people’.

If we’re talking about one human being, we use the word ‘person’ but if it’s more than one, we collectively refer to them as ‘people’.  You would notice that with the exception of the first two letters ‘P’ and ‘E’, lexicographically, they don’t look that similar. ‘Are they related’ was the question to which I wanted an answer. Fortunately for me (I don’t get this lucky very often), the answer I came across was rather definitive.

The singular word ‘person’ is actually derived from a similar English word ‘persona’, which in fact came from two Latin words ‘per’ and ‘sona’, literally meaning ‘through/sound’.  ‘Per-sona’ was originally used to denote the mask worn by actors in Roman theatre as in ‘(mask) to sound through’; something that required presentation. If you look up the word ‘people’, most dictionaries will tell you it’s the plural form of ‘person’. This gives the impression that somehow ‘people’ is a cognate (variation) of the original word ‘person’ but that is not the case. The word ‘people’ was derived from a completely different Latin word ‘populus’, which was a French adoption that replaced a more indigenous Germanic word ‘folk’ (you know, poncy people like using fancy French(-derived) words if available)

If I tried to make a tenuous point of connection between Panama papers and the two words explained above, perhaps it would be that they all begin with  the letter ‘P’; alright that was a poor attempt and very tenuous indeed.

In any case, people, have a good Friday