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If you’re a native speaker of English, you are no doubt familiar with two meanings of since, which I’ll refer to as the “time” usage (1a) and the “reason” usage (1b):

(1a) Bob Patel has owned and operated the beach motel since 1983.
(1b) Carton says they will first escort his sister home, since he wants Mr. Cruncher to come with them [...]

It’s odd, though, because I keep seeing people insist that only one of these common usages should be accepted. The first, as far as I’m aware, is accepted without complaint in all quarters. But the reason-usage certainly raises some hackles. For example, Jesse Kornbluth writes:

“SINCE and BECAUSE [are] not synonyms. ‘Since’ only refers to time: ‘Since August, he’s been in a funk.’ It cannot be used to suggest causality: ‘Since he’s depressed, we never call him.'”

I bolded the end of that complaint, because it’s obviously untrue; since certainly can be used to suggest causality. Kornbluth just did so. He means that it oughtn’t to be used in this way, of course, but for someone who subtitled his piece “Ten usage and grammar errors that could (or should) cripple a career”, Kornbluth is being surprisingly cavalier about his modals.

I digress. The point under debate here is whether since is acceptable in the reason-usage. Let’s start by noting a prominent writer whose career Kornbluth figures could or should have been crippled by his usage of since: Shakespeare. From The Comedy of Errors (via the OED):

Since that my beautie cannot please his eie,
Ile weepe what’s left away.”

And it’s not just Shakespeare. This reason-usage of since is antedated to the mid-1500s in the OED. Paul Brians and Bryan A. Garner (in the Chicago Manual of Style) track it back at least to the 14th century. So older English writers didn’t see a problem with it. Most modern writers don’t either; if they did, Kornbluth wouldn’t have anything to complain about.

In fact, though this is a persistent myth, I’m having a heck of a time finding major sources pushing for it. None of the usage guides on my shelf mention it, not even the ones that seem to be composed entirely of unanalyzed pet peeves. The MWDEU notes that this is a newer complaint, and one that seems to replace an older preference for since over because in this context.

I suspect the rule has come from stylebooks. The American Psychological Association’s stylebook, for instance, bans the reason-usage, and reports that this is the fifth most violated rule in their book. The Guardian also bans it, though the AP and Chicago Manuals don’t. The Economist appears to embrace it; I see no entry on since, and the guide itself employs the reason-usage in a discussion of stanch and staunch.

For stylebooks that do ban the reason-usage, the stated concern is primarily one of ambiguity between the time- and reason-usages. Sometimes that’s a valid concern. Compare these two sentences:

(2a) Since you left, I haven’t eaten; I’m still stuffed from our meal.
(2b) Since you left, I haven’t eaten; you took the forks with you.

These start off ambiguous, and in some situations that could be bad. But these ambiguities are pretty restricted. Since has to introduce a clause (not a time/date as in (1a)), and it generally has to be in a past tense (not the present as in (1b)). Furthermore, the effect of the ambiguity is often small. For instance, consider the ambiguity in this sentence from the MWDEU:

“In a second term, Carter might have moved the course of government toward the left, but since Reagan won the election the nation’s political movement has been toward the right”

I have a hard time distinguishing between the two meanings in this sentence. I suspect that since is intended to hit a midpoint between correlation and causation here, a sort of each-influenced-the-other situation; Reagan wouldn’t have been elected without some rightward shift, but the rightward shift wouldn’t have taken off without Reagan’s election, either. This fits with the intuitions of both the MDWEU and Garner, who note that since expresses causation more mildly than because does.

If you’re worried about the ambiguity, go ahead and avoid since in place of because. No one’s going to get mad at you for not using since. And when ambiguity is intolerable, maybe it makes sense to avoid it. But in general, English users haven’t encountered much trouble from this tiny ambiguity over all these centuries since its emergence. So don’t mistake it for a rule of English — and since it isn’t one, don’t judge others for using since in this way.

Summary: Since can be used with more or less the same meaning as because, although it’s less emphatic about the causal relationship. This can be slightly ambiguous, but only under certain conditions. You can avoid it if that concerns you, but it’s perfectly acceptable to use since in place of because.

I’m a little surprised that I’ve been blogging for almost five years now and never got around to talking about whether there’s a difference between the words disinterested and uninterested. I suppose I’ve avoided it because the matter has already been excellently discussed by many others, and I didn’t think I needed to add my voice to that choir. But now it’s become something of a glaring omission in my mind, so it’s time to fix that.

Let’s skip to the end and fill in the middle later: there is a difference, but in Mark Liberman’s words, it’s “emergent and incomplete, rather than traditional and under siege”. For some people, there’s a clean separation, for others an overlap. In the language in general, uninterested is limited to the “unconcerned” meaning, while disinterested can mean either “unconcerned” or “unbiased”.

How do two distinct meanings arise from such similar words? The problem lies at the root — namely, interest, which can be with (1a) or without (1b) bias:

(1a) I espouse a relatively dull orthodox Christianity and my interest in Buddhism is strictly cultural, aesthetic.
(1b) Upon consignment of your car, it’s in my interest to do everything possible to present your car to potential buyers.

So, when one adds a negative prefix to interest(ed), is it merely disavowing concern, or bias as well? I don’t know of any inherent difference between dis- and un- that would solve that question, and historically, no one else seemed to either. Though I don’t have relative usage statistics, the Oxford English Dictionary cites both forms with both meanings early in their history:

(2a) How dis-interested are they of all Worldly matters, since they fling their Wealth and Riches into the Sea. [c1677-1684]
(2b) The soul‥sits now as the most disinterested Arbiter, and impartial judge of her own works, that she can be. [1659]

(2c) He is no cold, uninterested, and uninteresting advocate for the cause he espouses. [1722]
(2d) What think you of uninterested Men, who value the Publick Good beyond their own private Interest? [1709]

But we both know that it’s no longer the 18th century, and I strongly suspect that you find (2d) to be a bit odd. The OED agrees, and marks this meaning (uninterested as “unbiased”) as obsolete. I looked over the first 50 examples of uninterested in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) as well and found no examples like (2d). If it still exists, it’s rare or dialectal. Uninterested meaning “unconcerned” (2c) is, of course, alive and well.

So really, it’s not a question of whether people are confusing uninterested and disinterested, but rather a question of whether disinterested has two possible meanings. We’re certainly told that they are, and that it is imperative that disinterested be kept separate. For instance:

The constant misuse of disinterested for uninterested is breaking down a very useful distinction of meaning.”

Is it really? Suppose disinterested could just as easily take either meaning, and that this somehow rendered it unusable.* You’d still be able to use unbiased, impartial, objective, or unprejudiced for the one meaning, and indifferent, unconcerned, and uninterested for the other. We’re not losing this distinction at all.

Setting aside such misguided passion, let’s look at how disinterested actually is (and has been) used. As we saw in (2a) & (2b), disinterested started out being used for both meanings. This persisted, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), through the 19th century without complaint. Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary disinterestedly lists both senses, and it’s not until 1889 that MWDEU finds the first complaint. Opposition to disinterested for “unconcerned” appears to have steadily grown since then, especially in America.

But despite all the grousing, “unbiased” disinterested is hardly in dire straits. MWDEU’s searches found that 70% of all uses of disinterested in their files between 1934 and the 1980s were of this sense, and that this percentage actually increased during the 1980s. Furthermore, the MWDEU notes that the use of disinterested for “unconcerned” usually has a subtle difference from uninterested. Disinterested is often used to indicate that someone has lost interest as opposed to having been uninterested from the start.** This fits with other un-/dis- pairs, such as unarmed/disarmed.

Summary: Far from losing an existing distinction, it seems that we’re witnessing a distinction emerging. Uninterested is now restricted to an “unconcerned” meaning. Disinterested covers impartiality, but it also can take the “uninterested” meaning, often indicating specifically that interest has been lost. Because many people object to this sense of disinterested, you may want to avoid it if you’re uninterested in a fight. Will the distinction ever fully emerge, and the overlap be lost? Would that this desk were a time desk…


*: I think it goes without saying that having multiple meanings does not make a word unusable. In case it doesn’t, consider the much more confusing words fly, lead, and read.

**: Compare, for instance, I grew disinterested to I grew uninterested. I definitely prefer the former.

**: MWDEU notes that while the distributions of the two senses overlap, it’s more clear than people let on; “unbiased” disinterested tends to modify an abstract noun like love, whereas “unconcerned” disinterested tends to modify humans, and appear with in in tow.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of David Foster Wallace, but truth be told, my antipathy for his work is less about his writing specifically and more about what I consider a fault of a genre, spanning other well-regarded authors such as Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, who are very smart people obsessed with writing about mundanity in an self-important tone, all the while stressing that a self-important tone is hardly necessary because, really, what we’re talking about is just the mundanity of life; but then again, the mundanity of life is what it’s all about, right?, and there’s so much going on under the surface that we really ought to be paying attention to but no one ever does, and as a result we find it nearly impossible to understand each other because we fail to pick up on the cues we need — so what we ought to do is look at the events of our lives and analyze them and propose explanations for why others act the way they do, even as we know that all such analysis is doomed from the get-go by the fact that we are each of us impenetrable shells to everyone else, even as no one knows and no one can know what goes on inside the black-box of another’s head, and even as trying to understand others will only get us closer to the curse of the human condition, the knowledge that none of us will ever truly know another.*

I find this genre (which may be “hysterical realism“, but I’m not sure) to be infuriating. I usually say that it’s in part because its writing style is impenetrable, and in part because it’s ironic and sincere at the same time but wants its irony to be taken as sincerity. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more that it’s close enough to my own writing style and philosophy for the writing to speak to me, and yet just different enough for me to feel like they’re doing it wrong.**

I’ve tried reading a few of the other authors’ stuff, but I’ve never read any of DFW’s — excepting the generally terrible essay “Tense Present” that pretty much every language blogger loves or loathes and one misguided grammar worksheet from his time as a professor. I wanted to give him a fair shake, since many people I whose opinions I respect find him worth a read. The chance to do so finally presented itself when, at the end of last quarter, I found a box of free books that the bookstore had apparently decided against buying back.

Nestled amongst sociology textbooks, I found McCain’s Promise, a nice short DFW book that arose from his Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. I quickly realized why this one wasn’t bought back, as it’s filled with pink highlighter and insightful margin notes like “Major fish bowl (sorority)”.***

All the same, it’s been a great read, and I have to apologize for having pre-judged DFW’s writing from his grammar discussions. Writing about a frantic campaign trail excursion fits his legato writing style well, and he’s capable of stating something that you sort of know you ought to care about in a way that makes you realize exactly why it matters and why you need to do something about it as soon as you can. His final section, talking about leadership, is stirring and may have slightly changed how I interact with people.

But, gosh, if the man just can’t go a hundred pages without saying something dumb about grammar. Worse, it’s in the midst of the second-best part of the book, a fascinating analysis of the turning point of McCain’s campaign. He’s talking about the day where Bush goaded McCain into going negative, turning the perception of McCain from the principled anti-candidate to just another mudslinging win-at-all-costs candidate. (Which became an even greater turning point due to the ripples from it we saw in McCain’s 2008 campaign.) I’m reading along, almost skimming at points because I’m so excited about what he’s going to say next, when I slam into this barrier of a sentence:

” [...] and then on Wednesday AM on TV at the Embassy Suites in Charleston there’s now an even more aggressive ad that [senior strategist] Murphy’s gotten McCain to let him run, which new ad accuses Bush of unilaterally violating the handshake-agreement and going Negative and then shows a nighttime shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.’s famous facade with its palisade of blatantly ejaculatory fountains in the foreground and says ‘Can America afford another politician in the White House that we can’t trust?,’ about which nobody mentions the grammatical problems but Frank C. says that the shot of the White House is really going low with the knife, and that if McCain loses South Carolina it may very well be because of this ad [...]” (boldface mine, italics his)

I can’t see a grammar problem in that italicized question at all, let alone the multiple problems that DFW implies.**** The only thing I’ve managed to come up with is that DFW’s claiming the modifier’s misplaced, and that the relative clause that we can’t trust seems not to modify the clearly intended antecedent politician but rather the absurd White House. And if that’s the case, he’s just being an idiot. Here’s the (simplified) tree-diagram for the end of the question:

[NP [NP_politician [N politician] [PP in the White House]] [RC that we can't trust?]]

Politician has two modifiers, each of which has to be trailing (in the White House politician is awful), so one of them is going to have to be separated from politician. But the beauty of human language syntax is that there are long-distance dependencies, connections that can span over intervening material. In the tree above, the relative clause attaches to a noun phrase headed by politician, successfully modifying politician as the ad’s writer intended. The same string of words could also have a different structure, where the RC attaches to the lower White House noun phrase, but pragmatics tell us pretty strongly that there is little chance of this being a correct parse.

For the sake of argument, we could swap the RC and PP, but we’re still going to have ambiguity; if it’s another politician that we can’t trust in the White House, there’s the unintended meaning that we specifically can’t trust the politician to be in the White House — as though Bush would be a trustworthy senator or governor but suddenly scheming as a president.

Actually, there were two untrustworthy periods for the White House: when it was burnt in 1814 by the invading British (pictured above), and in Truman's time, when it was almost completely rebuilt due to poor maintenance in previous years.

In fact, although the difference in these last two meanings is subtle, I’d say that’s the only possible ambiguity, not the one Wallace suggests. The ambiguity between an untrustworthy politician and an untrustworthy building is illusory; only a structural engineer is likely to meaningfully distrust a building. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to have a politician who’s good at one position but not another; I often think of Taft here, who I was taught in school was a bad president but a great Supreme Court Justice.

But the key point here is that if even if this truly was a problem, it’s a problem that DFW himself commits a few pages later. Discussing the people at McCain’s town hall meetings, he refers to one group as:

“[...] ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain ‘Lieutenant’ [...]“

The relative clause is of course supposed to modify ancient vets, but due to the interceding prepositional phrase, it’s conceivable that it could modify Legion caps instead. Of course that’s absurd. Even in hysterical realism, caps don’t talk. But I don’t see any more absurdity in talking caps than in untrustworthy presidential mansions. It’s beyond me why one has grammatical problems and the other doesn’t.

Neither of these is ambiguous. Sure, the possibility exists that they could be ambiguous in the right context, and likewise the possibility exists that an inattentive reader might briefly be tripped up by these sentences. (In fact, I was briefly tripped up by the latter, but only because the former primed my brain to analyze later sentences.) But a child could read these sentences and tell you that it’s the politician who’s untrusted and the vets who’re calling McCain “Lieutenant”.

The problem is that these supposed ambiguities are often in the eye of the beholder; DFW presumably found nothing wrong with his sentence, because he knew what he intended, and that knowledge makes it difficult to see the structural ambiguity. But as merely a consumer of the McCain ad’s sentence, DFW has no foreknowledge of its meaning, and thus the structural ambiguity becomes detectable.

In the end, calling attention to a syntactic ambiguity that is rendered unambiguous by semantics just feels petty and snotty, the educational equivalent of name dropping, an “oh of course I know this thing that a professional writer doesn’t”. But it’s a weird thing for DFW to make a point of in this essay, as he spends much of the rest of it slagging the veteran reporters (“The Twelve Monkeys”) for being a bunch of pompous and insular snobs slavishly concerned with appearances and looking down their noses at everyone else. DFW sets himself up as the people’s champion, gushing over the minor insights of the audio-video crew in a show of underclass solidarity, only to go out of his way to remind the reader that he is only a tourist in Bluecollarburg, that he belongs with The Twelve Monkeys, if only they’d have a thirteenth.

Summary: Sometimes a noun phrase has two modifiers following it. If one ordering is less ambiguous than the other, you should probably use the less ambiguous one, assuming both orderings sound okay. But you only have to worry about real ambiguities, not ones that require mental gymnastics to misinterpret.


*: I’m following Wallace’s style here, and will be profusely footnoting as a minor homage.

**: Having gone to a Dr. Seuss exhibition at a La Jolla gallery the other night, I can’t help but draw parallels to the situation of his “The Butter Battle Book“. Likewise, sports and college rivalries.

***: I’m not being entirely sarcastic, as the notes were insightful into the mind of the modern American undergraduate. I’m skewing the sample by choosing that note as my example; many of the notes were clear attempts to map what DFW was talking about into the reader’s own life in a way that I expect brought her a deeper appreciation of the text. If I were doing the same, a subsequent reader would probably find “like converting a 4th & long” and “cf. obscure song from the 90s” and no doubt make snarky remarks about my intellectual depth as well.

****: I asked you on Twitter about this, and all the responses seemed to agree that the problem, such as it is, has to rest on an attachment ambiguity or that/who(m) choice. I’m going to focus on attachment ambiguity here because the “people need who(m)” claim is obviously untrue, and it’s something that many others have already discussed. Thanks to everyone for your help!

Last post, I argued that “I’m good” is a perfectly acceptable response to “How are you?”, because the linking verb am takes an adjective, and good is an adjective. “I’m well” is a fine response as well, although I personally prefer “I’m good” as it seems to refer more to my state of mind than my state of health.

In this post, I’d like to take a little extension into the related response, “I’m feeling good”. I’m also going to talk about its darker cousin, “I’m feeling bad” and explain the difference between bad and badly in this context. Originally, I’d hoped to talk about “I’m doing good” as well, but I’m going to shunt that off to yet another post.

Let’s start with “I’m feeling good”. In short, it’s fine, and here’s why. Feel is like be in that it can be a linking verb, taking a predicate adjective that modifies the subject. When one says “I’m feeling good”, good modifies I, not feeling. Some might argue that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (“content” vs. “moral”), but I just don’t see it, and anyway, I’m going to show that that ambiguity isn’t a big problem.

Going deeper on the adjective point, it might seem a bit weird to say that good describes how you are, not how you feel. Let’s compare the use of a somewhat clearer adjective/adverb pair: crazy/crazily. (1a) means that I’m a bit weird, whereas (1b) is itself a bit weird:

(1a) I’m feeling crazy. [adjective, modifies me]
(1b) ?I’m feeling crazily. [adverb, modifies feel]

What makes “I’m feeling X” a more grammatically interesting structure than last post’s “I’m X” is that, unlike with be, you can modify the verb feel with an adverb. (1b) isn’t ungrammatical; it’s just uncommon. Suppose, for instance, you’ve lost your autographed Harvey Haddix baseball in a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese’s. You dive in and start feeling around for it, but blinded by fear of losing the ball, you’re feeling crazily amongst the balls.

When you adverbially modify feel, it’s a different sense of the verb from the one that takes a predicate adjective. In “I’m feeling crazy”, the verb refers to one’s sense of interoception, one’s perception of oneself. In “I’m feeling crazily”, the verb refers to one’s sense of exteroception, one’s perception of the outside world.* (The exteroception verb sense can also take a predicate adjective, as in “gelatin feels squishy”.)

So if you’re concerned that “I’m feeling good” is ambiguous (i.e., are you moral or at ease?), you ought to fear ambiguity in “I’m feeling well” (i.e., are you talking about your intero- or exteroception?) just the same. Ambiguity is pretty unavoidable sometimes. As a result, there’s no grammatical reason not to say “I’m feeling good”, although it might not be standard depending on your age and dialect. And “I’m feeling well” is fine, too.

Moving on to “I’m feeling bad(ly)”, the standard contemporary form is I feel bad. However, I feel badly, though non-standard, is pretty common and pretty robust. In fact, at various times it has been argued to be the standard form; Charles Dod wrote a nice article in 1875 arguing that I feel badly was being used as the standard form, in order to avoid the supposedly ambiguous I feel bad. He continued by arguing that here badly was functioning as an adjective even though it looked like an adverb. His discussion raises some important points, many going beyond the mere adjective/adverb distinction:

The expression [feel badly] is needed; hence it is correct. We must allow the speaker to explain what he means, and not let the grammarians force upon him a meaning which he rejects. Let us then review our grammatical principles; if we cannot adjust the phrase to our principles, we must adjust the principles to our phrase. It is a fact, that respectable and well-educated people do say, “I feel badly.” Now let us explain the fact. We may have to widen our generalization to let this fact in; but being a fact, we cannot leave it out of view in any theory we may form. We may be sure that we have overlooked something in our analysis of the phrase, “I feel badly.”

Dod argues that feel badly is necessary because feel bad can’t mean what we want it to mean. I disagree with him there, at least in current American English, but the truth is that many people — even the educated — do use feel badly where feel bad would seem to be prescribed. This is a fact that cries out for an explanation, and merely claiming that its users don’t know their English isn’t a very good one.

Let me offer a proposal. As with “I’m feeling crazily”, feel is very strongly biased against adverbial modification in this usage, where one is reporting one’s own feelings. For instance, if I hear someone say “I feel badly”, it’s so unlikely to me that they’re complaining about the incompetence of their exteroception that I find it difficult to get that interpretation of the sentence. Pretty much the only interpretation that comes to mind is “I feel bad”, unless the context suggests that the incompetent exteroception meaning is likely. So even if you hear “I feel badly”, it’s hard to misinterpret it.

As a result, I feel badly exists in a sort of weird situation, where there is very little to suggest that it is erroneous, and a decent amount to suggest it is correct. The meaning is biased against misintrepretation, the verb can take either an adjective or adverb in different situations, bad is ambiguous (or so Dod says), and there’s a general bias to err on the side of adverbs over adjectives. Add those up, and it’s easy to expect I feel badly to be an especially persistent non-standard usage. That said, if you want to follow Educated American English, I feel bad is the better form.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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