Author Topic: He walked to the School-  (Read 5312 times)

Offline Rock100

  • Linguist
  • ***
  • Posts: 70
Re: He walked to the School-
« Reply #15 on: July 01, 2020, 01:35:12 PM »
> You are correct but misinterpreted the intended distinction. It was
> "go to school" vs. "go to the school", where the meaning is about going
> to a physical place ("a school, that school"), versus (physically) going
> to their place of learning.
Oh, sorry. My grammar books are very clear on this point and I have just remembered some rules and stopped paying any attention to it.

> Even over here, if we wanted to say that we walked in that direction but
> didn't actually get there, we would say "towards"
Ok. So the points are
1. The use of the article.
2. to/towards may and do denote perfectness (as opposed to imperfect/continues/progressive actions). I have never heard about such a phenomenon.
3. The usage of the “to walk” word that I find odd but it looks like nobody cares.
I know that I overuse the articles, I still do not understand (3) but I can survive it. The (2) looks like the most important one for me.
> but it could be a distinct issue of telicity violations in certain contexts, maybe
> unrelated to the lexical meaning of "to". Someone must have written a paper
> about this somewhere...
I will wait. I am from the background where one must choose between perfect verbs and their imperfect synonyms while translating – there is no such a non-deterministic facility in my language. I do not need to translate any longer for myself and can even think in English but if I have to translate I need to choose the proper verb.
By the way, if you are interested, my grammar book uses perfect verbs in translation of every single example of the “to” preposition section and chooses their imperfect counterparts for the ones from the “towards” section. But it never mentions such an aspect. So if a foreign grammar book is a kind of aware of such a peculiarity there is definitely something in it.

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 2036
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: He walked to the School-
« Reply #16 on: July 01, 2020, 07:19:49 PM »
Yes, I think the vagueness/flexibility of English aspect is what makes this tricky to analyze.

On the other hand, I don't see it as much of a practical problem: it's basically never unclear in context.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline panini

  • Linguist
  • ***
  • Posts: 197
Re: He walked to the School-
« Reply #17 on: July 02, 2020, 11:19:37 AM »
My rule of thumb is that when judgments get fuzzy, you are inquiring into a practical problem and not a grammar problem, where the practical problem could be parsing, or it could be ordinary pragmatics. One could write multiple dissertations on this question, using author-introspection in one case, corpus-analysis in another, and psycholinguistic testing in a third. That sub-variant of research splits into myriad methods of testing, e.g. Likert-scale responses, reaction times, and maybe even brain scans. I don't propose that you abandon all else and pursue a new topic.

My second rule of thumb (I'm all thumbs), about syntax, semantic and pragmatics, is that articulating the context is essential to distinguishing entailment vs. defeasible inference. Perhaps as a starting point, the field needs some calibration of clear cases. For example, my seat of the pants theory of semantics says that "The thief ate my hamburger" entails a number of things such as that there exists a thief, that the person ate a hamburger, the hamburger exists, it is my property, and so on. If you can accept "The thief ate my hamburger, but there was no hamburger", then you have a methodological problem with measuring acceptability. The thing that's odd in your earthquake example is the outlandish scenario.

Where you say "That seems marginally possible in loose/sloppy usage where 'starting walking' is implied, but I have trouble with it literally", I'm saying that that is the point: you are using it "literally", you are not using it conventionally. The source of the trouble is non-conventional use. We don't have literal-meaning detectors any more than we have grammaticality-detectors, and we can judge acceptability (we can also be self-deluding). The fact that these are acceptable in some context ought to suffice to show that the literal semantics of "to" is broader than "arriving". So my third and last rule of thumb is that if "and arrived" is only conventionally implied in some contexts, it's only conventionally implied in all contexts, and your non-acceptance of #"I walked to the planetarium, but then my friend gave me a ride" points to a confounding factor which interferes with the inference. How do we compute inferences, not just about sentences but about anything in life?

Personally, I sort of hate pragmatics because it is an enormous rabbit hole, but having experienced generative semantics I see pragmatics as being the salvation of semantics. At the moment, I think the best we, as professional linguists, can hope to do is make a plausible showing.

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 2036
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: He walked to the School-
« Reply #18 on: July 02, 2020, 10:58:54 PM »
I don't disagree with anything you wrote (and I'm well aware of these methodological issues, although I agree it's important to discuss them), but I am still having trouble with this particular judgment.

Let's compare another type of telicity, tangentially from your example above:
"I ate the hamburger"
Does that imply or assert that I ate the whole hamburger?
To me, in its basic usage, the meaning is telic: "I ate the hamburger in 5 minutes."

But I can also force a reading where it's partial consumption:
"I ate the hamburger, but not the whole thing."
Traditionally, we'd assume it is an implicature then.

And indeed we can force:
"I ate the hamburger for 5 minutes."
So does that mean this sentence is vague or ambiguous?

In some other languages (I think French, but also many others) you could indicate this distinction using a partitive. In English we don't have that. So again, is it vague or ambiguous? Is one basic and the other coerced by either syntactic or pragmatic context?

(Tangent: I've always been much more inclined than others to accept "coerced" readings as pragmatics, thus underspecified in semantics. Others seem to want more systematicity and rigidity in the semantics, so I don't agree with their narrow judgments. But an interesting follow-up to your reply would be to ask how to define "coercion", whether it's just a label for unintuitive cases, or if it's actually a proper technical notion between pragmatics and semantics, e.g. pragmatics bending semantics. If we allow coercion in a broad enough sense, we can basically bend all of semantics via pragmatics to the point where they two are no longer distinct, as you may be hinting in some comments above!)

To my ears, this is very different from an easily cancellable implicature like:
"The lone ranger got on his horse and rode into the sunset, but not necessarily in that order."
However, I should add that the hamburger example feels more natural in this way as well, while the "to/arrival" case seems even less easy to cancel. These are just very odd:
"He walked to the school, but he didn't arrive."
"He walked to the school, but he didn't get there."
"He walked to the school, but he stopped and went back home."
"He walked to the school, but it wasn't there."

I suppose some implicatures can be stronger than others. The simple methodological solution is to say that only absolutes are grammatical and leave it at that. But I do find there to be something interesting going on here, though I think I need to stop pondering this because my judgments aren't clear anymore.

By the way, there are several possibilities in this case including:
1. The specific meaning of "to" is up for interpretation: e.g. to the vicinity of something, to its center/edge?, to some relevant proximity?, (in the direction of?), to spatial location at some specific time*. This would allow for "success" to be relative to that meaning, and therefore harder to test by the methods we've been applying.
2. This sort of motion is ambiguous or otherwise under-specified, so the preposition is clear but the overall usage is not. This would mean we should test "to" in other sentences. "I threw the ball to you." seems clear enough in a context where I miss. So maybe it's more "proximity" than anything else, as in (1). Complicated!

[*Nominal tense is found in some languages, mirroring English "president-elect" and "ex-president", but are prepositions ever tensed in languages? I suppose in some languages some adpositions are basically verbs so they could be tensed somehow.]
« Last Edit: July 02, 2020, 11:01:55 PM by Daniel »
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline Forbes

  • Jr. Linguist
  • **
  • Posts: 41
Re: He walked to the School-
« Reply #19 on: July 04, 2020, 02:37:29 AM »
Personally, I sort of hate pragmatics because it is an enormous rabbit hole.

I can sympathise with that. I recently bought an introduction to pragmatics but gave up a third of the way through. I feel it involves far too much analysis. I came to the conclusion that if you start off with saying that the nature of language is that what people mean is not always precisely what they say according to grammar or dictionary definitions, I am not sure there is much more you can usefully say. I am not saying that it is a waste of time since nothing which asks "what is going on here?" is a waste of time. I am just saying it is not useful, even if interesting - at least to some.

I am not sure that a clear distinction can be made between semantics and pragmatics. While pragmatics homes in on context, no utterance made in normal discourse is ever without context and so semantics cannot really ignore context.

This thread touches on interesting questions such as whether a sentence which is nonsensical can be grammatical. That in turns leads to questions about what is going on at a deep level when people speak. I have tentatively come to the conclusion that humans are programmed not to understand the human mind because if they do they will not be able to function. People will keep probing though because it is in the nature of humans to probe.

I have also come to the provisional conclusion that analytical languages are less amenable to detailed analysis than synthetic languages. The use in this thead of words such as "fuzzy" and "intuitive" shows that. There comes a point in some cases when all you can do is say: "This is the way it is" which is not very helpful for non-native speakers looking for guidance. The point is that for any language the question to ask is what it can and must express. So, in at least some varieties of English in some contexts, you have to make it clear whether you are talking about a school considered as an institution or as a building. A student just has to accept that that is what is required.