February 02, 2004


"Supposed to" can be either epistemic or deontic--it can mean either "believed to" or "ought to." I really hope that it's the epistemic sense that's intended here.

[POSTSCRIPT THAT SWALLOWS THE ENTRY: While looking up "supposed" in the dictionary, I encountered what looks like a genuine problem. Consider the following:

(1) You're supposed to walk on the moving walkway.

(2) You're not supposed to walk on the moving walkway.

(2) is not the negation of (1)--it means "You're not allowed to walk on the moving walkway." This may seem like a banal case of negation-raising. Except, can't most cases of negation-raising be read two ways? For instance, if I say

(3) I don't think you should do that

it ordinarily means that I think you shouldn't do it, but I can force the reading "It is not the case that I think you should do that" by explicit cancellation:

(3') I don't think you should do that, but I don't think you shouldn't--I have no opinion.

I can't read (2) as having a negation with wide scope over an obligation. An explicit cancellation like

(2') ??You're not supposed to walk on the moving walkway, but you're allowed to

strikes my ear as a flat contradiction. This holds of the epistemic sense of "supposed" as well as of the deontic sense.

Does "supposed" have a weird semantical interaction with negation? Are there other words that behave this way?]

[POST-POSTSCRIPT: It may be easier to get "supposed" to act normally when you toss in a question. So if someone asks, "Are we supposed to be there an hour early?" and you respond, "No, we're not supposed to be there an hour early," it seems as though the negation has wide scope. Emphasis will make a big difference--if you stress not, the negation has narrow scope, but if you stress supposed, it has wide scope. Still, in the absence of a question, I don't see anyway to get the wide-scope reading of (2) without a heavy stress on supposed. But maybe pragmatics is playing more of a role than I had thought.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 2, 2004 03:17 PM