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Friday, January 22, 2021

AND YOU THOUGHT I COULD NOT GET ANY MORE TRIVIAL

This morning, as I was idly scanning the front page of the online New York Times, scrolling down at the very bottom I came on a little story with this headline:

 

“Your cat isn’t just getting high off catnip.”

 

As I thought about that sentence the following thought occurred to me. You could make seven sentences with seven entirely different meanings merely by moving the location of the word “just.” Watch:

 

Just your cat is not getting high off catnip.

Your cat just is not getting high off catnip.

Your cat is just not getting high off catnip.

Your cat is not just getting high off catnip.

Your cat is not getting just high off catnip.

Your cat is not getting high just off catnip.

Your cat is not getting high off just catnip.

 

Arguably the last two have the same meaning.

 

I think this is an observation with not the slightest deeper significance.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

You left out the adjudicator cat:

Your just cat is not getting high off catnip.

The adjudicator cat has to remain undrugged in order to insure prudent, judicious decisions.

The multiple uses of the word “just” may have significance regarding the theory of language acquisition for someone like Noam Chomsky.

Michael said...

I had a journalism professor who was extremely fussy about the placement of "just" and "only." I think she would've endorsed the following silly argument:

"Your cat is not just getting high off catnip": This means that "getting high off catnip" is not the only predicate assignable to your cat. More generally, "S is just P" and "S is only P" mean that "P" is the only predicate assignable to S, and it follows from this that no predicate other than "P" is assignable to S.

Therefore (slightly modifying the original sentence), we mustn't say something like "Your cat is just getting high off catnip," because it implies that nothing else is true of your cat: "Your cat is named Mittens," "Your cat is not named Mittens," "Your cat is unnamed," ad infinitum - all of these are implied to be false.

In general (on this view), when we let our guard down with the words "just" and "only," our communication tends to be replete with inadvertently absurd statements like this. "I only have two dollars." "I just want a burrito." "I only date men." Each of these (supposedly) implies that nothing else is true of the speaker.

I had a handful professors who were quite silly about stuff like this.

Anonymous said...

But if you use "just" as an adjective, i.e., "My just cat has rightfully convicted the former rat President," rather than as an adverb, you avoid all this confusion.

Eric said...

And the written sentence does not necessarily do justice to all the nuances that may be conveyed when the sentence is spoken.

Your cat is not just getting high off catnip.
Your cat is not just getting high off catnip.
Your cat is not just getting high off catnip.
Your cat is not just getting high off catnip.

And yet we somehow manage. In most situations the precision in writing demanded by English-language prescriptivist martinets doesn't make that much of a difference. (It might have helped with the Second Amendment though.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

There, I win the bet I made with myself. I bet myself that there was nothing I could post, however trivial or silly, that my commenters could not transform into something philosophically significant, and I was right. Bravo, anonymous, I freely confess that I missed the adjudicator cat. By the way, it occurred to me to make a reference to Noam Chomsky but I decided that would be, as the French say, de trop.

Anonymous said...

Eric,

You are quite right, the 2nd Amendment could have used a good grammarian to clarify what the hell it means. Justice Stevens, who wrote the magnificent dissent in Heller v. District of Columbia, wrote an opinion piece shortly before he passed away recommending that he 2nd Amendment be repealed. I am sure that he knew the prospects of such a repeal were quite dim. Had he lived to see the insurrectionist assault on our Capitol on January 6, it would have broken his heart – as it did Americans with an ounce of patriotism.

Eric said...

Two other tangents.

(1) I was thinking about how an advantage of languages that are much more strongly inflected than English, such as Latin, is that word order often does not matter quite so much as it does in English. In fact, an unexpected word order in such a language is often a signal that the speaker/writer wants to emphasize a particular point. A disadvantage of those languages is that you have to learn all of the declensions and conjugations, which, depending on their complexity, can pose a very high barrier for those who are trying to learn the language as a second languag, especially if their native tongue is not strongly inflected. Humanity would be so much better off if we all were able to communicate in a lingua franca learned from childhood alongside our mother tongues.

I mentioned that we somehow manage even when sometimes ignoring the idealist rules about how to use words like "just" and "only." Did you (whoever is reading this) know that there are languages that do not have (or do not routinely use) gendered pronouns? When I first learned this, as a native English speaker it blew my mind. In English, we must signal the gender of any human other than perhaps an infant when we use a pronoun to refer to them. Until the recent movement toward more trans-inclusive language use, there was no genderless or gender-neutral alternative to using "he" or "she." Using "it" is considered highly offensive. Yet there are other languages that have no such requirement. Just think about what that means for how you look at the world, as an English speaker as opposed to someone who speaks one of those other languages.

(2) In addition to using tonal inflections, another way that we can convey nuances when speaking that might not be clear in a verbatim transcript is through uses of body language—gesticulation, head bobs, winks, etc. (Thus the emojis ...)

One can envision a future world in which it would be possible, technologically, to have brain implants of some sort through which people could communicate in the blink of an eye much larger quantities of information (electronically encoded static & moving images, sounds, aromas—potentially all linked/networked to other thoughts or memories, along with tags for emotional content attached to each element [eg, "I STRONGLY believe this" or "this is very, very dangerous!"]).

There would be many dangers with such technology that would need to be worked through, of course; and perhaps the dangers might ultimately outweigh the benefits.

But I fear that at the rate we are going, esp wrt the climate crisis, we will never reach a point at which that kind of world would even be a realistic possibility for the vast majority of humanity. [Yes, I realize "even" is another one of those words like "just" and "only."]

Warren Goldfarb said...

One of subtlest and most amusing cases of the effect of adverbial placement was devised by J.L. Austin in his paper "A Plea for Excuses":
(a) He clumsily trod on the snail
(b) He trod clumsily on the snail

Austin's explanation: in (a) "we describe his treading on the creature at all as a piece of clumsiness, incidental, we imply, to his performance of some other action", while in (b), "to great on it is, very likely, his aim or policy, what we criticize is his execution of the feat".

As with Prof. Wolff's posted example, it is questionable how many speakers of the language would actually register this difference.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Hmmm. Differences in adverbial placement lend themselves to differences in interpretation. But that leaves the matter still wide open, at least as far as Austin's example goes. Absent knowledge of conversational context and of other variables conducive to a reliable grasp of communicative intent, any damn grammatical sentence, baldly proffered, is open to an indefinite range of interpretation.

Peter W Belenky said...

>Your cat is not getting high just off catnip.
>Your cat is not getting high off just catnip
>Arguably the last two have the same meaning.

I would dispute the last statement. The first of this couplet says that something besides catnip has contributed to your cat's intoxication. The second says that catnip alone has failed to intoxicate him, whatever combination of substances, if any, might succeed.