Archive for Logic

The Errr. The Errr.

They do go on about the problem of evil, don’t they? There is no problem of evil. It’s the problem of good that’s the issue.

Why be good when stupidity and ignorance are so readily rewarded? That‘s the problem.

The above is an example of a category error. At first glance it seems to have the required cynical insight. But on further inspection it can be seen to miss its mark.

It’s a common mistake. The topic, the category space (if not quite the subject itself) of the argument is good and evil. But the discussion takes the issue into a different topic – that of right and wrong. There’s nothing evil about (personal) stupidity and ignorance. Whilst they’re not generally regarded as being amongst the set of encourageables, it’s not a crime to be stupid or ignorant. Indeed the point of ‘the point’ is that stupidity and ignorance are commonly accepted as – if not always positively amongst the rewardables – by no means excluded from the unrewardables.

Evil is not being rewarded (here), so the fact that Good is also not being rewarded is beside the point. Wrong may be being rewarded, but the arguer’s not claiming that Right isn’t. So the point is, as they say, moot.

You’ve got to stay on category.

Naturally it may well be still the case that evil and/or wrong is rewarded more than is good and/or right, but that’s not what this (argument) is about.

Time and Space

Looking for the phrase bigger than space results in (at the time of writing) about half a million google hits. By comparison we get six times as many with longer than time.

This is, one suspects, mainly due to the romantic idea, fairly commonly expressed in song, verse and prose, that our loves will outlast time itself. It seems that having something larger than the size of the universe is not a romantic idea. Or one at least six times less frequently expressed.

Whose Pyjamas?

One of your grandfathers” is one of two specific males (yes, I know it could actually refer to only one, but let’s avoid that bit of scandal).

One of your great aunts” is one of the sisters of one of your four grandparents.

Your great aunt” could, informally, still mean one of the (possibly numerous) great aunts you may have, but it could also tell someone that three of your parent’s parents have no sisters and that the remaining one has only one. I believe that you’d not typically infer that, though. Not in the culture I’m in, anyway.

One of your grandfathers’ sisters” (note the position of the apostrophe) is the same as one of the sisters of one of those two males. Each grandfather may have exactly one sister and we’d still be able to say this.

One of your grandfather’s sisters” (note the position of the apostrophe) is still one of your great aunts but we may now plausibly infer that one of your grandfathers had more than one sister, and that – if the other grandfather had only one sister – the great aunt in question is one of those rather than the single sister of that other grandfather. But you’re pushing things a bit there.

But in these last two we’ve already missed a possibility. It’s caused by the “One of” bit. It might actually not select a sister at all, as we have assumed here, but a grandfather. It completely alters the meaning. It’s the difference between “one of (his (either grandfather)’s or (this grandfather)’s) sisters” – which refers to one female – and “his (i.e. one of my grandfathers) sisters” – which refers to a whole slew of them.

Without further clarification, it’s not possible to tell which is meant. I’m reasonably sure that the default, natural, interpretation is the single female one. But even there it’s probably more to do with usage than syntax. In typical discourse of that nature you’re simply more likely to be referring to a specific individual.

Were you to continue the sentence and say “One of my grandfathers sisters have formed a choir” (I’ve omitted the grandfatherly apostrophe – it doesn’t elucidate and you can’t hear it anyway) it sounds wrong. You might eventually work it out and realise it does both make sense and is accurate – precisely and concisely informative even – but I suspect you might be a tad annoyed at the speaker for having made you do all that work. In practice you’d be expected to say just “My grandfather’s sisters have formed a choir” and leave open the question (or even relevance) of which grandfather you mean. Or indeed of which sisters – since you still can’t hear the apostrophe, that choir may include all sisters of both grandfathers, but that would be an unlikely intended meaning – again mostly by dint of context rather than syntax.

The question is, is there a language where these ambiguities are removed by syntax alone? Note that I’m not talking about vocabulary and syntax helping out. For instance – and in (very) particular – in Latin we may distinguish a maternal great aunt (matertera magna) from a paternal one (amita magna) but any disambiguation therewith provided is simply an accident of vocabulary. What I mean is, is there a language anywhere (anywhen, even) which forces you – by syntax alone – to be specific so that there’s no doubt that the speaker means “the sister of one of your grandfathers” and not “the sisters of one of your grandfathers” or “one of the sisters of your grandfather” or “one of the sisters of your grandfathers” by synthetic possessive/genitive syntactic marking rather than by lengthy analytic expression?

And would it extend to the disambiguation of the rather large number of possibilities intended by something such as “one of your grandfather’s sisters’ cat’s pyjamas”, where the ‘one-of’ may select (one of) grandfather, sister, cat, or pyjama?


As a long time advocate of the synthetic comparative and superlative (yer actual –er and –est suffixes) and deprecator of the analytic more and most, I prefer to say cloudier rather than more cloudy on those occasions where it’s relevant (and preferably true). To me, the latter sounds clunky and silly. And naturally I take it further by proposing the abolition of all such moronity and mostification. Thus we go with beautifuler instead of more beautiful. This should work with all adjectives.

But what about adjectival phrases? Whilst recently walking from A to B, I found myself considering going via two possible routes (it so happened that I wished to visit C on the way). One route had C more ‘on the way’ than the other. So was that route on the wayer than the other? Was there, in fact, an on the wayest route? If I said that out loud would folk think me merely mad, or would they know what I meant?

In a department store, the whereabouts of the escalator temporarily eluded me, so I had to seek the telltale signs of large diagonal lumps of building from ceiling to floor. I needed an escalatery area – one escalaterier than where I currently was.

You’ll note that, in that preceding little story, the spelling escalatory (which means something else) would not have done