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What does this sentence mean?

  1. Mar 4, 2006 #1

    honestrosewater

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    My judgement as a native speaker has been tainted. :cry: This is a homework question, but it's not necessarily a definite answer type of question. The sentence I'm having trouble with:

    1) !The witches stirred the tree.

    The part of my answer that I'm happy with: (1) is semantically anomalous because it violates a semantic selectional restriction that stirred places on its patient argument, the tree. IOW, it doesn't make sense because you can't stir a tree. The problem: I have to define/describe this restriction and produce a grammatical sentence that obeys it. IOW, I just need to figure out what kinds of things can be stirred -- what they all must have in common -- excluding rhetorical uses. Being fluid was the first thing that came to mind... but you can, for example, stir a box of blocks, so refined a little: the patient argument of stir must refer to an entity that consists of smaller units that can be rearranged. That seemed to cover everything. But isn't

    2) The witches stirred the pot.

    just fine and dandy? It sounds fine to me, and google turned up plenty of examples of it. Actually, I think I'm figuring it out as I'm typing this, but I'd love to hear your ideas and opinions! Should I change my description or is it understood in (2) that they stirred the contents of the pot?
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2006
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  3. Mar 4, 2006 #2

    0rthodontist

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    Obviously the tree was asleep and the witches were thoughtlessly making too much noise while making the batter for their marijuana brownies.
     
  4. Mar 4, 2006 #3

    Bystander

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    ... or, they stirred the family tree to hide the horsethieves in the candidates geneology.
     
  5. Mar 4, 2006 #4

    honestrosewater

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    You guys make a good point: I do need to find a linguistics forum ASAP. :smile:
     
  6. Mar 4, 2006 #5

    selfAdjoint

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    The problem lies in your unwarranted assumption that "You can't stir a tree". This might be a good theme for a fantasy short story; authors I know could have fun with it! Before you run looking for authority, try this: Assume that although YOU can't stir a tree, maybe WITCHES can. See what falls out.
     
  7. Mar 5, 2006 #6

    arildno

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    Obviously, if the tree was inhabited by a dryad, then "stirring the tree" might mean "awakening the dryad within".
     
  8. Mar 5, 2006 #7

    honestrosewater

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    Yes, yes, I see that my questions have fallen on deft ears.

    Seriously, you genii do see the problem here, yes? I need to fill in the blank in

    3) The patient argument of stir must refer to [blank].

    i) an entity that consists of smaller units that can be rearranged

    doesn't seem to include (2), but expanding (i) to

    i) an entity that consists of smaller units that can be rearranged or
    ii) an entity that contains (i)

    allows, for example

    1) !The witches stirred the tree.

    since trees contain fluids and a fluid is (i). I think it's just that, for some containers, it's understood that the container's contents are being stirred and not the container itself. What do you guys think of

    4) The witches stirred the empty pot.
     
  9. Mar 5, 2006 #8

    arildno

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    4) The pot has to have some content in it in order to stir it.
    They could, of course, make stirring motions with a ladle in an empty pot, but that looks rather stupid.
     
  10. Mar 5, 2006 #9

    honestrosewater

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    Well, I guess you would know. :biggrin: Thanks.
     
  11. Mar 5, 2006 #10

    0rthodontist

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    You could say that the word "pot" includes not only the metal, but also its contents, as in "a pot of stew."
     
  12. Mar 6, 2006 #11

    0rthodontist

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    ... in fact, on dictionary.com, this meaning is one of the definitions of "pot."
     
  13. Mar 8, 2006 #12
    Hi honestrosewater, the term stir in this case is weird but if you say,

    'I stir the pot'

    then i see the fluids in the pot do you see stir is lasting or completed ? Also suppose the pot is an object then how strong the force applied to stir it ?
    I think its easy to stir, long lasting action, and only average force is applied. How bout you?
     
  14. Mar 8, 2006 #13
    Well, I guess you mean it is about imagination. I myself don't imagine that much about what people are doing. I agree that "stir" sounds like a long lasting and repeated action, but about force I have no idea. You may look it up in a language dictionary
     
  15. Mar 8, 2006 #14

    selfAdjoint

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    Frankly I don't think the attempt to reduce the sentence to some kind of one-outcome computer program is well taken. Noam Chomsky famously used the Marx Brothers quip "Time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana" to conclude that our understanding of language is more complex than that. Somehow we do equivalence classes and categorize at that level.
     
  16. Mar 8, 2006 #15

    Gokul43201

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    It's only fine because it is an elliptic usage.

    The witches stirred [the contents of] the pot.

    Are you restricted to the same connotation of 'stir' as that which applies to the given incorrect statement ?
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2006
  17. Mar 9, 2006 #16

    honestrosewater

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    I stir the pot is a simple present construction, which in this case means to me that you stir the pot on a regular basis or that it is in some way your job to stir the pot. Is that what you're asking about? I don't see anything special about stir in this regard. One instance of stirring could take any length of time, as far as I'm concerned. It's the tense construction of the example that determines the time and duration of the action.
    I think that's a good point and am going to change my description to account for it, e.g., to rule out crushing. :smile: I'm not sure exactly what the limits are though -- somewhere between crushing it and not changing it at all. I guess I have to be more specific about the types of changes that something undergoes when it is stirred.
     
  18. Mar 9, 2006 #17

    honestrosewater

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    I don't mean this in a bad way, but I can't think of a better way to say it: I'm not stupid. :tongue2: I'm not really sure what reducing the sentence to some kind of one-outcome computer program means, but I'm aware that language is complex and I don't see that sentence posing any special problems for me or any theories I'm learning. Another famous sentence of his is Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, which is (syntactically) grammatical but semantically anomalous.

    5) The witches touched the tree.

    has the same structure, to the greatest degree of detail that I'm currently aware of, as (1). (That is, I am not aware of any rule or constraint, morphological or syntactic, that distinguishes between (1) and (5).) But there is something wrong with (1) that isn't wrong with (5). Obviously, there are lots of ways that (1) could be acceptable (maybe the speaker is using a secret code, and by stirred, they really meant saw), but I'm interested in the thing that makes it unacceptable. According to the theory that I'm supposed to base my answer on, (1) is unacceptable because it violates a semantic selectional restriction that the verb places on its patient argument.

    Also, though I don't always say so explicitly, I'm only dealing with one interpretation at a time. I am aware that a construction can have more than one interpretation. And if there's something else that I didn't mention that's fairly obvious even to someone who isn't studying linguistics, I probably already know it and just didn't mention it. :smile:

    Bah, this post isn't coming out right. I really do appreciate everyone trying to help me.

    I don't actually like semantic restrictions, or semantic anything that I've seen yet, because the concepts aren't precise or specific enough to be very useful at all. It might be that semantic matters are too complicated to be worth trying to delve into in an introductory course. Or it might be that the authors, as it seems lots of linguists do, view studying semantics as rather pointless, hopeless, or such. Whatever the reason, they just gloss over the semantic aspects.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2006
  19. Mar 9, 2006 #18

    honestrosewater

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    Well, I'm working on my own, so I'm not really restricted to anything. What did you have in mind? I'm interested only in the meaning associated with stir as it usually applies to fluids, as in

    6a) I used a spoon to stir my coffee.
    6b) The celing fan stirred the air.
     
  20. Apr 6, 2006 #19
    Just wondering,
    maybe it does make sense to say "stir the tree", because if the tree was standing completely still and the witches shook it or something and it moved, wouldn't that also be "stirring" the tree?
     
  21. Apr 6, 2006 #20

    Mk

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    Yeah that's what I thought.

    Then I thought about spacetime warping around the tree in away akin to cream and coffee being stirred together.
     
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