LINGUIST List 8.1251

Tue Sep 2 1997

Qs: Logic and Meaning, Permission

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>

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  1. Martin Kay, Logic and Meaning
  2. Hiroaki Tanaka, Question: 'Permission' may and can

Message 1: Logic and Meaning

Date: Mon, 1 Sep 1997 18:06:48 PDT
From: Martin Kay <>
Subject: Logic and Meaning

Much current work in (combinatory) semantics is driven by the idea that
sentences provide the input for inference procedures. However, people are
generally rather bad at logic and at constructing and analyzing sentences
with nontrivial logical structures. So, a sign on a London bus says:
 Please offer these seats to elderly and disabled people or
 those with children.
What determines the distribtion of "and" and "or"? Another sign promises dire
consequences to
 Any vehicle that is parked otherwise than in accordance with railway
 byelaws and conditions and any other directions or regulations ...
Faced with
 Don't get a cat unless you don't want any mice in the house
people seem to assume it means what they think it ought to mean rather than
trying to determine its structre carefully. I have heard it said that each
negation costs 300 miliseconds, and that, while people can handle simple
cases of modus ponens, they cannot do modus tollens worth a damn. My
question is; is there a literature on what people can actually do? In
particular, are there experimental results?

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Message 2: Question: 'Permission' may and can

Date: Tue, 2 Sep 1997 14:55:00 +0900
From: Hiroaki Tanaka <>
Subject: Question: 'Permission' may and can

 I have been asked by my colleague to post a query on this list
about the usage of _may_ and _can_ meaning 'permission.'
 The below are his queries. Please make a reply to me(Tanaka)
- ----------------------------------------------
 I am now working on a paper about _can_ and _may_. Let me
ask you the following three questions.

 First, is it possible to use _can_ instead of _may_ in (1B)?
 Secondly, is it possible to use _may_ istead of _can_ in (2B)?

 (1) A: May I help myself to some more food? 
 B: Yes, you _may_.

 (2) A: Can I smoke here?
 B: So far as I know you _can_--there's no notice to the 

 Thirdly, according to some grammar books, _can_ is used in stead of
_may_ to "talk about" permission that has already been given and about
things that are allowed by rules and laws. In other words, _can_ is
used to report the rules and laws in question, as in (3) and (4).

 (3) You _can_ get married in Britain when you are 16.

 (4) It's not fair. You _can_ / *_may_ stay up till ten and I have to go
 to bed at eight.
 However, I have found the following examples, which are contrary to the
reporting function above. How are these to be explianed? Please make any
comments on these (5) and (6).

 (5) In England you _may_ marry at sixteen.

 (6) Students _may_ borrow three books at a time from the library.

 I would be grateful if you would answer these questions.

- ----------------------------------------------------------

 Thanks a lot in advance. I am looking forward to your reply.

Best wishes,

Hiroaki Tanaka

Associate Professor
Faculty of Integrated Arts and Sciences
Tokushima University, Japan
1-1, Minamijousanjioma,
Tokushima, 770,

phone & fax: +81 886 56 7125
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