This Article Acknowledges the Amazing Properties of Language

Here's the cool thing about language: it is transparent in our everyday use, in that we use it so readily that we barely even recognize how amazing it is that we can express an infinite range of thoughts and be understood by others. We get a window into how interesting language really is when we encounter funny utterances, utterances which are funny in both the "interesting" and "amusing" senses of the word.

I just recently encountered two such funny utterances on some recent travels up to northern New Hampshire for a kayak trip. Looking more closely at each gives us insight into an aspect of the ways language works.

I heard the first on a podcast while driving home. On This American Life, when they are about to air a story that involves sex in some way (whether directly or obliquely), Ira Glass will provide a warning to the listener:

This story acknowledges the existence of sex.

This seems to me either a pragmatically paradoxical utterance, or an insufficient one. Let's suppose first that it is indeed the mere existence of sex that is problematic for some portion of the audience, and that some members of the audience might want to avoid knowing that sex exists, or more likely, they want to prevent someone else (e.g., children) from knowing sex exists.

The trouble, however, is that "acknowledges" is factive. A factive verb is one which presupposes the truth of its complement (the sentence that one acknowledges, in this case, "sex exists"). That is, to say that one "acknowledges that sex exists" presupposes that it is true that sex exists. To see this, compare the following sentences:

(1) This story acknowledges the existence of Santa Claus.

(2) This story acknowledges that the Mets won the 1986 World Series.

(3) This story acknowledges that the Mets lost the 1986 World Series.

Sentences (1) and (3) are unacceptable, they just don't sound right. They don't sound right because Santa Claus does not exist (sorry! content warning: this post acknowledges that Santa does not exist), and the Mets did win the 1986 World Series. You could say that someone "claimed that Santa exists," or that someone "discusses the existence of Santa Claus," but not that she "acknowledges" Santa's existence.

This is interesting, then, because the warning itself conveys the fact that sex exists. If the aim of the warning is to help the audience avoid this knowledge, then the warning is self-undermining!

Presumably, then, the intent of the warning is to help the audience avoid descriptions of sex that they might find inappropriate. In this case, however, the warning is insufficient - it does not properly warn you against what you might want to avoid, nor does it provide enough information to know whether the story is worth avoiding or not.

I suspect that this point is not lost on the producers of This American Life, and indeed may be a statement about the inanity of FCC requirements - but it is an interesting case for the reasons why the warning is so funny.

The second case was a road sign that encountered in a small northern NH town. It was a warning about the nearby presence of moose, with a sign under it:

Next 5500 feet.

Now, a mile is 5280 feet. A mile would be a fairly standard unit of measurement on a sign like this, and 5500 rounds down to 5280 fairly easily. One might naturally expect the sign maker to simply round it to 1 mile, unless that additional 220 feet were significantly more likely to contain moose than the area around it. The sign struck me as funny precisely because it seems committed to this surprising claim about the significance of those 220 feet for moose-alertness.

But why does it seem committed to this? The philosopher H.P. Grice has an answer. He was interested in content that we communicate beyond the literal content of what we say. Sarcasm provides a ready example - if I remark of some hideous shirt, "oh wow, that's an awesome shirt" I have literally said that the shirt is awesome. However, it might be clear from tone and context that I am communicating, or implicating, the opposite of what I literally said.

How does my audience know what I am implicating in a given context? Well, Grice thinks we enter into conversation with the mutual understanding that we will cooperate, and that we follow a few basic rules:

  1. Maxim of Quantity: make your contribution as informative as is required.
  2. Maxim of Quality: do not say what you believe to be false, or that which for which you lack evidence.
  3. Maxim of Relation: make your contribution relevant.
  4. Maxim of Manner: make your contribution clear.

Suppose I tell you that the shirt is awesome. This, given the clear fact that the shirt is hideous, is false and so in violation of Maxim of Quality. You, however, are assuming that I am cooperating. Grice's insight is that you will then assume I have violated the maxim on purpose, and that you should infer I actually mean that the shirt is awful.

Returning, then, to our road sign - it seems to violate the Maxim of Quantity. The use of a more fine-grained measurement scale (feet), when it seems like a broader one (miles) would do, seems to provide more information than is really required. Such information is not required for the simple reason that, when driving down the road, I cannot tell the difference between the passage of 5280 feet, and 5500 feet. So why, then, did the author of the sign choose feet? The answer, if I am following Grice, would seem to be that the author wants me to recognize that more specific information is actually required - that those extra 220 feet really do matter. This would bring the author's statement on the sign back in line with the Maxim of Quantity - exactly what I should want if I assume that s/he is being cooperative.

The actual explanation is probably not that the author wants me to pay extra close attention to those 220 feet. As with the first case, what I find interesting about the example is the way in which it illuminates a fascinating fact about language. In the first case, it was the way factive verbs work. In this second case, it is Grice's account of how we communicate content we do not literally say. These are features of language that we use like second nature, and only become aware when they become funny enough to rise to our attention.