Dear Mr Linguistics Person,
As a professor of anthropology, I feel that it is my duty to constantly remind, cajole, coerce, or even goad each of my students into finishing
One time when I discovered the actual amount written, I asked her to justify her answer. She said that on the one hand, “any pages” has an underlying meaning of “any (number of) pages”.. and 0.01 (her estimate of the number of pages she’d written) is a number. On the other hand, she continued, “0.01” takes the plural: “0.01 pages”, so her answer did not violate any of the assumptions of the question.
While I have PhDs in both linguistics and anthropology, I feel that
being a native speaker of both French and German and fluent in Japanese
and twelve Papuan languages is insufficient authority to question the
judgments of a native speaker of English, a language with which I feel I
have only an adequate proficiency. As such, I turn to you for advice
Esprit de l’Escalier
Université de Montréal à Québec en Fond-du-Lac
Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan, Canada
Madame de l’Escalier,
Keep your spirits up. Mr Linguistics Person can help.
First, the long answer:
English plurals can be a slippery bunch.. much like your student, it seems. While numerals and decimals take the plural, fractions take a singular genitive: “0.01 pages”, but “a hundredth of a page”. Any time you devolve into stylistic matters, the debate is lost.
Of course no natural language is free of ambiguity and opportunity for
subtle deception of this sort, and every language has, at least
theoretical, deficits. The lack of exclusive-
You could demand more precision from language. If you travel too far
down that road you arrive at Loglan and Lojban, the so-
As for matters of Gricean implicature, I can only say that my native English speaker intuitions jibe with yours. However, conversational assumptions are clearly culturally determined to a significant degree. Accusations of linguistic imperialism imperil any attempt to impose your own standards.
Finally, the short answer:
Always follow up “Have you written any thesis pages this week?” with the question, “How many?”
Dear Mr Linguistics Person,
I’m 17, a senior in high school, and I have a problem. My girlfriend hates the way I always correct her speech. She says “I could care less” when she means that she couldn’t care less. She misuses “less” and “fewer”. She splits infinitives left and right. She says “ain’t”, too.
I love my girlfriend, but I love English, too. I don’t think my girlfriend will ever leave me, but if she does, at least I’ll still have my beloved language. What should I do?
Don’t get your knickers in a twist. Use that thar interweb thingie and look up “prescriptive”, which is the evil twin of “descriptive”, which should also come up in the discussion, or you aren’t looking in the right places.
If that doesn’t cure you, dump your girlfriend (you’ll be doing her a