Why the meaning of all sentences is not clear

by Napoleon Katsos

Someone might say ‘Could you lift that box?’. And you would know if this is a request or a factual question, because they are hoovering the floor or they are your physiotherapist assessing your recovery from an injury. The context in which the conversation is taking place often clarifies whatever is not certain. This happens so easily that we may not even realise that a sentence had more than one meaning. But when we take language out of context, we can see the ambiguity more clearly. Linguists’ delight with these examples is understandable. Ambiguity reveals the multiple factors that shape language meaning and use. In this case, the considerations of politeness and non-imposition that make a sentence with the form of a question to be understood as a request.

Right now, I am studying ambiguous sentences with multiple operators. These sentences raise similar challenges. An ‘operator’ is the term used in linguistics to talk about words that express logical relations between sets of things. Take for example the words ‘all’ and ‘not’. They do not refer to objects or to concepts in the world, like words such as ‘table’ or ‘freedom’ do. Rather, ‘all’ as in ‘all the apples are red’ is telling us that the set of things that are apples is fully included in the set of things that are red. And ‘no’ as in ‘No apples are red’, is telling us that there is no thing that belongs both to the set of apples and to the set of red things. And so we come to sentences of the form: ‘All apples are not red’. Yes, it is a strange and rare construction. Data from large corpora tell us that sentences with ‘all’ and ‘not’ appear fewer than 5 times in a million words. That’s not a lot. But when these sentences do appear, what do they mean?

Would you like to work out what they mean to you? Look at the pictures below, starting with the one on your left, ‘Display: 0/5’. If I were to say ‘in this picture, all the apples are not red’, would you say that I was right or wrong? Then look to the picture on your right, the ‘Display: 3/5’ one. If I were to say again ‘in this picture, all the apples are not red’, would I be right or wrong?



The two possible meanings of the sentence are as follows: if ‘all’ is interpreted before the negation, then we understand the sentence as ‘all of the apples have the property of not being red’, in other words ‘none of them are red’. This is the meaning that matches the surface form of the sentence. But there is another meaning too. If the negation is interpreted before ‘all’, then the sentence means ‘it is not the case that all of the apples are red’, in other words ‘not all of them are red’.

You can find out which interpretation you chose for the sentence by looking at the judgements. Did you say ‘correct’ for both pictures? Then for you the sentence truly has two meanings, and you are happy to use both of them. Did you say that the sentence was right for the ‘0/5’ and wrong for the ‘3/5’ display? Then you prefer the ‘none’ meaning. And did you say that the sentence was wrong for the ‘0/5’ and right for the ‘3/5’ display? Then you prefer the ‘not all’ meaning.

So far we’ve surveyed 35 native speakers of English, and there is a clear preference for the ‘none’ meaning. This is not to say that the ‘not all’ meaning is not possible, of course. Intonation, the preceding context, and world knowledge about the plausibility of the meanings can make it available (think “all that is gold does not glitter”). Nevertheless, in this case, where the sentence is presented in written form and without preceding context, then English speakers prefer the ‘none’ meaning. But when we asked Estonian and Japanese speakers, showing them the same displays and using the equivalent sentences in their language, they clearly preferred the ‘not all’ meaning.

And so, as a linguist, I am rolling up my sleeves and wondering ‘Why all Englishmen are not like Estonians or Japanese?’

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