January 25, 2004

A Bit of Data (for cat fans)

Concerning the theory discussed here, on which "tall" is not context-sensitive:

Consider the following sentence:

My cat has trouble sitting on my lap, because, though I'm big, my cat is bigger.

On at least one view (I think it's the one Jason Stanley calls "pretty hopeless"), this should come out true: I'm big for a person, but my cat is even bigger for a cat.

I have conflicting observations about this:
(1) It seems completely ridiculous. I'm a lot bigger than my cat.
(2) I had this thought, in almost exactly those words, the other day when my cat was drooping off my lap.

Posted by Matt Weiner at January 25, 2004 04:10 PM

Due to the qualifier 'on my lap', the subsequent comment that 'I am big', if it is to be relevant to the first clause, must refer to the size of my lap (as a consistently big part of my consistently big self, perhaps). 'My cat is bigger' then is short for 'my cat is bigger than my lap', which is perfectly sensible, even accounting for the fact that we speakers of the sentence are much bigger than our respective cats.

Posted by: Jeff M. at January 26, 2004 03:27 PM

Well Matt, very nice site you've got here. But I've seen your cat. She's very big boned and doesn't fit onto the normal sized lap. That being said, she's still a very nice, very pretty cat.

Posted by: Ellen at January 27, 2004 12:52 PM

Hmm. Well, my experiences with Allie would suggest that it's not a question of whether she'll FIT on one's lap. More to the point - Allie is big, but the far end of my walk-in closet is bigger.

Posted by: cara at January 27, 2004 01:53 PM

Agreed on all points, though Allie can fit on a moderately oversized lap if she tries.

You're generalizing from an insufficient sample--it doesn't contain enough people who have lived with Allie for at least seven years.

That's not an implausible view, although it's actually a near thing whether my cat is bigger than my lap or not (it depends on the boundaries of the lap, maybe). The folks at the discussion I linked know a lot more about implicit linguistic items than I do, though.

I think there may be some trouble if we think about the following case, though--
My hamster fits on my lap easily, even though she is big and I am small.
If that's perfectly analogous and can be analyzed your way, it means that the hamster is big and the lap is smal, on the same scale. That implies that the lap is smaller than the hamster which is obviously not true.

I have to admit that this hamster sentence sounds a bit odd to me, because it sort of seems to imply that the speaker is smaller than the hamster. But that's no good for the invariantist view of words like "big" and "small"! (Which, I hasten to add, is the one that's already been described as "pretty hopeless.")

Posted by: Matt Weiner at January 27, 2004 05:25 PM

Matt, re: your answer to me:
so "generalizing from an insufficient sample" is the philosopher's way of saying "It's just you."

Posted by: cara at January 28, 2004 05:48 AM

Well, just you and everyone else who isn't me.

(Don't think I haven't noticed which topic draws the most comments....)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at January 28, 2004 09:24 AM