Hello World!—A Letter from the Managing Editor SpecGram Vol CLI, No 2 Contents New speech disorder linguists contracted discovered!—Yreka Bakery

Ask Mr Linguistics Person

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
main( ) {
    extrn a, b, c;

a 'hell';
b 'o, w';
c 'orld';
— B
their thesis in a moderately timely manner. As a result of this drive, I often find that I am asking the question “Have you written any thesis pages this week?” Well enough. But one of my students has a habit of replying, “Yes,” when, in fact she has only written a dozen words or so.

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 adviceI am at a loss, and would appreciate your help.

Esprit de l’Escalier
Professeure d’anthropologie
Université de Montréal à Québec en Fond-du-Lac
Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan, Canada

            (EXTERNAL=GENERAL)) =



        %STRING('Hello, world!'))


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-we in English has resulted in more unwanted third wheels on lunch dates than Mr Linguistics Person wants to contemplate.

You could demand more precision from language. If you travel too far down that road you arrive at Loglan and Lojban, the so-called “logical” constructed languages. But their history clearly illustrates both that human nature and politics will prevail over any constraints of language, and that humans are not adept at ferreting out ambiguity in language to the nth degree. The early proponents of this “universal” language, which is geekier than Klingon and less useful than Volapük, fought so bitterly that they divided their already limited resources into two isomorphic but mutually unintelligible languages. That, and the fact that being so carefully logical is so hard that no one can speak either language at speed. And, lo, I have digressed.

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.

"hello" < main
   main ->
       skrifastreng(;"Hallo Veroeld!"),
— Fjölnir
The best solution to this problem may be extralinguistic.

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?

Madison, Wisconsin

(format t "Hello world!~%")
— Common Lisp

(display "Hello, world!")
— Scheme


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 favorbelieve me) and when you get to college, major in linguistics. This will solve all your problems: you’ll eventually come to have a better understanding of human language, and you’ll never be able to get a datesee? no more annoyed/annoying girlfriend!

Problem solved.


Hello World!—A Letter from the Managing Editor
New speech disorder linguists contracted discovered!—Yreka Bakery
SpecGram Vol CLI, No 2 Contents