Sunday, May 13, 2007

Call for Intuitions

This came up the other day when I was talking with Brenda Laca over at the UAB. Consider:

We had lunch at twelve.

I agree (tentatively) with Prof. Laca that this means, as a matter of semantics, that the actual eating started at twelve. Thus it would be wrong to assert this sentence if the lunch went from eleven to one; in that case the right thing to say would be

We were having lunch at twelve.

Still, it seems to me that even in these circumstances, it wouldn't be right to contest the first assertion, at least not by saying something like

No you didn't!

If anyone shares these intuitions or has different ones, I'd be grateful to read about them!


Andi said...

just a check if commenting works now

Andi said...

I asked Zoltan Szabo about this (see below) and he agreed with the intuitions, but pointed out that the case is quite different with

We had fun at twelve

In that case, we wouldn't normally expect the fun to have started at twelve.
Thinking about these and other cases, like...

We had a meeting at twelve


I had a headache at twelve,

(on-time-starting intuition in the frist case, but not the second)
I now think that what sets apart the cases which do carry an implication to the starting time is the likeklihood of the event having been planned to start at that specific point in time. You don't expect people to say "I just decided to have a headache tomorrow at twelve" (at least not taken literally), but you wouldn't be surprised to hear "We decided to have a meeting tomorrow at twelve".
This seems to be in accordance with some other intuitions I have (sorry for using you guys as intuition-shrinks, next post I'll probably tell you about my intuitions concerning my parents...):
First, the starting-time intuition in the original example seems to be weaker when I swith to the singular:

I had lunch at twelve

because, on my proposal, I'm unlikely to have made a precise plan to eat by myself at twelve (unless I'm on a diet).
Second, in the case that I feel has the strongest starting-time-intuition, the meeting-case, I think there's even a reading that preserves it in the progressive, where "at twelve" takes, so to speak, narrow scope over "meeting":

We were having (a meeting at twelve)
(We were having a meeting) at twelve,

with starting-time-intuition in the first case. This possibility exists, I'd say, because meetings are the sort of things that will almost always be planned to start on a specific time.
In case anyone is still reading this, I'd be happy about any comments about all this and especially about the following worry I have: As I want to write a paper for Prof. Laca's linguistics class about how to cash out these half-baked intuitions semantically, it would be somewhat undesirable if it turned out that the question is not at all a semantical one, but rather a matter of pragmatics. However, the more I think about it, the more it seems to be a case of conversational or maybe conventional implicature. I'm very ignorant about the different strategies of drawing the line between semantics and pragmatics, so any pointers here would be especially useful.

Dan López de Sa said...

You might be interested in checking out 'Gricean Rational Reconstructions And The Semantics/Pragmatics Distinction' by our very own Manuel García-Carpintero and also Jeffrey King & Jason Stanley's 'Semantics, Pragmatics, and the Role of Semantic Content.'