March 08, 2004

Two Chips Off the Language Log

(1) In a post that is worth reading, though I have nothing to say about its substance, Bill Poser writes:

If [A] you've been clever enough to register, if [B] the Mechanicsville Tool and Die Company decides to develop a web presence, you can't [C] refuse to give up the domain name unless [D] they pay you a lot of money. [Sentence letters added]

Now, this clearly is to be read as "If A, if B, you can't do (if not-D, C)." But the first time through I had to struggle to avoid reading it as "If A, if B, if not-D, you can't do C." I wonder what that says about the ordinary action of "can" and "unless."

(Also, the first two if's express presuppositions in some way--it's not as though you might be able to do (if not-D, do C) if A or B failed, but that the question simply wouldn't arise if A or B failed. This seems to be a presupposition of the use of "refuse": to say "I refused/I didn't refuse/I couldn't refuse" seems to, ordinarily, presuppose you were asked. Anyway, these ifs don't seem to be biscuit conditionals--it's not that "You can do (if not-D, C)" is asserted outright. This is probably a well-known and much-studied phenomenon. Enough amateur hour.)

(2) In the previous post, Geoff Pullum says:

What I think is the most important teaching I do is a course on the Unix operating system. It changes people's lives. I taught a student who went on to use his Unix on Silicon Graphics workstations at Industrial Light and Magic, and his team won an Oscar for the special effects in Forrest Gump.

He has now supplanted Juan Non-Volokh at the top of my enemies list. Forrest Gump was on TV where I was eating just before Oscar night, and it is the best argument I've ever seen for an Elvis moment.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 8, 2004 05:04 PM