probably the most unhealthy thing

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probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by navi » Sat Oct 03, 2020 2:43 am

1) As soon as we sat down, she would choose dessert, probably the most unhealthy thing you could eat on the menu.

Source:

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/201 ... f4d8.gmail

I guess one way to read '1' is that dessert was probably the most unhealthy thing you could eat on the menu.

I think, however, that the idea is that the dessert she chose was the most unhealthy thing you could eat on that menu. She chose the most unhealthy desert.

Do you agree with my reading?

And if that is the intended meaning, does the sentence express that meaning correctly?

Shouldn't there be a colon instead of the comma?

Gratefully,
Navi
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Re: probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by trolley » Sat Oct 03, 2020 5:58 am

"I guess one way to read '1' is that dessert was probably the most unhealthy thing you could eat on the menu."

I don't really see any other way to read that.(I'm not up on my "colon rules") If the intended meaning was "she chose the most unhealthy dessert"... then just say that...easy -peasy!
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Re: probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sat Oct 03, 2020 6:52 am

What trolley said.

To express the intended meaning you mentioned, Navi, you would have to write something like:

“As soon as we sat down, she would choose what was probably the most unhealthy dessert on the menu."
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Re: probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by Phil White » Sat Oct 03, 2020 11:21 am

It's a pretty ugly monstrosity of a sentence.

Unlike trolley and Erik, I tend to instinctively read the sentence the other way, but not for any grammatical or punctuation reasons. Rather, I think it is a more likely thing to want to say.

If you read the sentence against grammatical and punctuation conventions, it must mean that "dessert" is the most unhealthy thing on the menu.

But that doesn't match my perception of the direction the sentence is going in. I think it is more likely that the author intended to say that she immediately chose the most unhealthy dessert on the menu.

Different punctuation would not resolve the ambiguity, indeed, any perceived heavier pause, such as a colon, semicolon or dash, would probably reinforce the first reading.

Erik's suggestion for an elegant way of resolving the ambiguity is good, but we still don't know what the author actually intended.

What I am saying is that you cannot rely on grammar or punctuation alone to convey precise meaning. Indeed, intended meaning can fly in the face of grammatical conventions.

If we look at the sentence in context (and it is good to have a real sentence in context at last), we find that the woman's love of dessert is established in the previous sentences ("But the best thing to give Toni was dessert.", "And she loved, more than anything, dessert."). Given the context of the rest of the text, it seems natural to me that the author is working up to a crescendo (Toni would not only choose her dessert before anything else, but she would also choose the most unhealthy dessert on the menu).

In other words, the most likely thing for a speaker or author to say is, irrespective of the grammar, the most likely meaning of the words they use. But the listener or reader can be wrong. That's what ambiguity is. Ambiguity happens in language and we all live with it.

I am not suggesting that my reading is more logical than any other, neither that it is correct. Merely that that is the way I understood it. So that is the meaning of the sentence for me. The author may have intended a different meaning, and the meaning as perceived by trolley and Erik is not the same as the one perceived by me. The words and syntax used in the utterance guide us towards meaning, but do not in themselves have meaning. It is only the speaker/writer and the listener/reader who can give meaning to the words.
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Non sum felix lepus

Re: probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by Phil White » Sat Oct 03, 2020 1:57 pm

Navi, I just posted another sentence that is theoretically ambiguous here. Perhaps it contributes to the conversation.
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Re: probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by navi » Sat Oct 03, 2020 11:36 pm

Thank you all so much,

Phil, I checked out the other sentence, which was wonderful!

I think here, you and I are in agreement, but we don't really disagree with what Trolley and Eric are saying as far as grammar is concerned. We are claiming that the writer did not say what she meant to say.

Gratefully and respectfully,
Navi
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Re: probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by Phil White » Sat Oct 03, 2020 11:49 pm

navi wrote: Sat Oct 03, 2020 11:36 pm We are claiming that the writer did not say what she meant to say.
On the contrary. She said what she meant to say. We also understood what she meant to say. Communication was successful. Adherence to grammatical conventions may have left a little to be desired.

It is all a matter of perspective.

I am reminded of Eddie Furey of the Fureys at a concert in Germany many years ago. In his broad Irish accent: "People accuse me of talking too fast. You all listen too slowly."
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Re: probably the most unhealthy thing

Post by navi » Tue Oct 06, 2020 7:27 am

Thank you very much, Phil,

"You all listen too slowly." is a marvelous sentence!
Amazing.

Respectfully,
Navi
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