Monday, 16 January 2012

Quantifier fail

This is an illustration of yellow.
When the UGs at my university hand in their essays, we have a big massive 'handing in day' where two-thirds of the School turns up within 4 hours and they submit all their work to one of four PhD students (one of them being me). It's a bit manic because there's so many of them, and because there's a lot of form-filling to be done, and UG students may be bright but they certainly aren't good at following instructions.

They have to fill in one white form for each piece of work they're submitting, which has the details of that essay on it, and then there's a yellow form which is a global cover sheet and lists all the modules they're submitting work for. Simple. Er... no.

So lots of them apparently haven't read the careful instructions they've been given, and come to ask us what forms they need to fill in. We say to them,
You need one white form for each essay and one yellow one for all of them.
This leads a number of them to think that they need a yellow one for each essay too (if we meant that we'd be violating at least one of Grice's maxims - perhaps the maxim of quantity?). We tried calling it a 'global sheet' instead but that didn't seem to help that much. The trouble is the word all. If I was to say that
all of the essays need a yellow form,
I think that would fairly unambiguously mean that they needed one for each of them. What about this:
You need a yellow one for all of them.
I think that's probably ambiguous too - but not if it follows the instruction about the white forms. Then if you add in the word one, I think the contrast between each and all should really be clear. And yet, for many people (admittedly sleep-deprived and stressed people), it isn't clear at all.

I can't quite work out, actually, if it's a problem with the quantifier or with the article. Perhaps it's because we have two possible interpretations of the indefinite a yellow form: generic or specific. On the sense we mean, a yellow form refers to one yellow form; on the misunderstanding, it refers to multiple instances of a generic type of yellow form. Then compounded by the fact that all can mean 'a set as a whole' or 'every member of a set', we have an issue.

Hey - everyone got their work handed in (apart from one poor chap who turned up ten minutes late), I drank two cups of coffee and ate two chocolate biscuits, and we'll do the same thing all over again in the spring.

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