Semantics and pragmatics in a Florida shooting

The dispatcher said, “We don’t need you to do that.” Was she telling George Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon Martin, or was she simply letting him know that the police didn’t care either way?

For readers not familiar with the case, the quote comes from a conversation between Zimmerman and a police dispatcher in Florida in February 2012. He had called in to say he saw someone suspicious in his neighborhood, and said he would follow the person. He did follow Trayvon Martin, and ended up shooting him to death.

In comments on blogs discussing the case, defenders of Zimmerman’s actions claim that the police did not tell him not to follow Martin, and point to the transcript of the 911 call. It’s true that the literal meaning of the dispatcher’s words doesn’t seem to be an order—she did not say “Don’t do that.” But we often say things that are not what we mean. Linguists make a distinction between the semantic meaning of an utterance—what the words mean—and the pragmatic meaning—what the speaker means.

Maybe your mother taught you to say “Will you please pass the salt?” at the dinner table. Or even the more indirect construction, “Can you…”. This sentence is phrased as a request, or a question about physical ability. But it’s really an order, and the person to whom it’s addressed will nearly always comply. If he or she refuses the request, or takes the “can you” literally, an awkward moment at least will follow. (If you’ve ever had a nine-year-old brother, perhaps you’ve experienced this firsthand.)

We use these roundabout constructions in order to smooth social interactions. If I said to you over lunch, “Give me the ketchup,” and you did so, we would not seem to be peers. That little interaction would indicate that I had the authority to tell you what to do, and you would do it. So we avoid that construction. We avoid it even when it’s not necessary. Your boss has every right to order you to “Bring that report into my office.” But like as not, such an order will be phrased more as a question or request: “Can you bring that report into my office?”

Back to the police dispatcher in Florida. “We don’t need you to do that” seems to be one of these polite circumlocutions. Why did she phrase it that way? I don’t know the legal situation: it may be that the dispatcher does not have the authority of a police officer, and cannot legally give an order. Or she may have used the polite construction because, like most of us, she uses it out of habit.

Either way, the pragmatic meaning was clear: “Do not follow him.” George Zimmerman acknowledged as much: in a written statement to the Sanford police later that night, he wrote, “The dispatcher told me not to follow the suspect.”

(The written statement was dated February 26, 2012, and released to the public on June 21.)

Explaining forensic linguistics

The July 23, 2012, issue of the New Yorker magazine has a very good article about forensic linguistics, the use of linguistic tools in the legal system. The article, titled “Words on Trial,” was especially interesting to me. The first two linguists mentioned in the article, Robert Leonard and James Fitzgerald, were my Forensic Linguistics professors at Hofstra University. And the article describes some of the cases I discuss in my own classes and presentations about forensic linguistics.

The full article is behind a paywall, but you can read a summary here.

What is “that”?

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” That quote introduced a fund-raising e-mail I received from the Mitt Romney campaign. As most people following the campaigns for President of the United States know by now, the quote is taken out of context. The current president, Barack Obama, did say those words. (Well, almost. He had a false start that is not relevant for this discussion.) But if you heard or read the previous sentences, it would be  clear that the word “that” is not a reference to “business,” but to the “American system…roads and bridges.”

In fact, it’s clear even from the out-of-context quote that something is missing. Taken as a standalone sentence, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” sounds not quite right. What does “that” refer to? The speaker’s political opponents seem to be saying that it refers to “a business.” One way to examine this claim would be to consider other ways that idea could have been expressed.

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build it.”
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that business.”

Both of these phrasings sound more natural. The use of it in the first sentence is the typical way to make a point like this. Consider another sentences  with similar structure:

If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself.

Changing it to that in the turtle sentence makes it sound a little awkward. The antecedent of it, then, is the most recent singular neuter noun in these and similar sentences. The word that is used differently. You know from the contrast between this and that that distance is part of the meaning. That is farther away, literally or metaphorically, than this.

This flu can sometimes lead to pneumonia. If you have a mild case of the flu, you won’t suffer that.

Obviously, that in this case doesn’t refer to the flu, which occupies the same place in the sentence as a business in the Obama quote. He wasn’t referring to anything in that sentence. A careful reader can tell that the quote is missing important context: we don’t know what the that is in the previous sentence unless that sentence is included.

Profane? No, merely vulgar.

Reader advisory: This post contains strong language.

It’s a word not welcome in polite company. But it’s also a part of everyday speech for many people. In a burst of enthusiasm, rock singer Bono used it as an intensifier during an awards show that was being broadcast live. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission took offense, and fined the network that broadcast the phrase. The network appealed, and six years after the original incident, the Second Court of Appeals said the FCC was wrong[1]. The decision was reported in the news media. But it was sometimes reported inaccurately.

The Hollywood Reporter: “The case stemmed from profanity uttered by celebrities during live broadcasts.” Bloomberg: “…profanities uttered spontaneously by performers during live TV broadcasts.” New York Times: “…repeated instances of profanity by celebrities.”

Why are these news outlets wrong? Because there was nothing profane about Bono’s spontaneous outburst (or the similar incidents alluded to in the news reports). He said, “this is really, really, fucking brilliant” when he was given an award.  Profanity refers to blasphemy, that is, “taking the Lord’s name in vain” (to quote the Second Commandment), or something similar. But the word “fucking” has nothing to do with heavenly beings. It’s about as earthy a word as you will find.

This is a distinction that is sometimes lost on people, as the quotes from the news sources suggest. But it is important culturally. Historically, the FCC’s focus on merely indecent, rather than obscene, language can be traced back to comedian George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words you Can Never Say on Television” from the early 1970s. (Second reader advisory: I’m about to list all seven forbidden words at once, so some readers might want to close their eyes as they read the next paragraph.)

Carlin’s list was made up of the following words: piss, shit, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

As it turns out, none of these words is profane.  They are all vulgarities. None of them insult the Lord; they have sexual or excretory denotations. That is the kind of thing Americans find offensive. But other cultures have different opinions on what is offensive.

Take Bono’s “fucking brilliant” comment. Bono is not American, but Irish. The FCC says that the use of fuck or one of its variations “inherently has a sexual connotation.” That is hardly the case. Even Americans would be hard-pressed to explain how an intensifier used in the way Bono did has anything to do with sex. The situation in Irish English, Bono’s native language, may be even more apropos here. The characters in Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s Dublin sprinkle such words throughout their speech like salt on French fries. It doesn’t refer to sex. This is apparent because when they mean to talk about the physical sexual act, they use the term “riding” instead.

Some of our neighbors to the north also have a different take on what is offensive. A French-Canadian linguist provided me with a list of curses used in French-speaking Quebec. Here are the translations of these “bad words:” Christ, tabernacle, chalice, host, ciborium. Yes, using “Christ” as an expletive may make some religious Americans wince, but that is not true for the other terms. How many Americans could even tell you what a ciborium is? (It is the container for the hosts, pieces of unleavened bread, used in a Catholic mass.) Curses like these would merely puzzle Americans, not offend them.

There is a broad pattern here in Western societies, and this is where the distinction between profanity and vulgarity becomes more important. As a general rule, societies that are primarily Protestant frown on vulgarity; Catholic societies don’t like profanity. Most Americans identify themselves as Christian, and about two-thirds of those are Protestants[2]. America is a Protestant country. In contrast, six out of seven people in Quebec (the French-speaking part of Canada) identify as Catholic[3]. The Protestant/vulgarity, Catholic/profanity generalization holds in these cases.

The distinction between profanity and vulgarity is even lost on the FCC, the people charged with policing taboo language. The Second Circuit Court’s ruling mentioned that the FCC had modified its own interpretation of federal law. The FCC’s decision under discussion had called the awards broadcast “profane” rather than “indecent” even though it included no blasphemy.

When you swear, are you vulgar or profane? Or both?

[1] Docket Nos. 06-1760-ag, 06-2750-ag, 06-5358-ag, decided July 13, 2010.

[2] Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

[3] Canadian 2001 census.

Is there an empirical test for the existence of God?

Maybe you have seen the video or read the story on the Internet. An atheist college professor is put in his place by God when his demonstration with a piece of chalk fails. I don’t know the origin of the story, and it has no author’s name attached. But anonymous texts are still amenable to linguistic analysis.

First, a quick summary of the story. A professor of philosophy teaches a class in which he spends a semester disproving the existence of God. The climax of the course on the last day is when he holds up a piece of chalk, and says that if God existed, he would keep the chalk from breaking when the professor drops it. On the day described in the story, the professor, as usual, challenges anyone who is still a believer to stand up. This time one Christian student does so. The professor tells him that he is  a “fool,” and then performs the experiment. This time, though, the chalk slips out of his hand, and its fall is cushioned on the fabric of his pants. The professor looks at the unbroken chalk on the floor, then runs out of the room. The student who stood up takes over the class to talk about his Christian faith.

Is this text what it purports to be, a factual account of a minor miracle that happened in a college classroom? There are three things we could look for to determine this: verifiable facts, internal consistency, and complete information. (If you want to see the original, go to

Now to be clear, I am not setting out to denigrate the Christian religion. I am a lifelong believing Christian with several philosophy classes under my belt, some taught by Catholic nuns. I am simply analyzing an anonymous text to see if it is what it claims to be.

Let’s start by fact-checking the story. What verifiable facts has the author included to add to his or her credibility? Unfortunately, none at all. The author doesn’t tell us when the incident happened. We don’t know the name of the professor, the student, or the class. There is no element in the story that can be verified by referring to an outside source.

What about internal consistency? If the story describes an actual incident, it won’t contain any contradictions within itself. Ah, but it does. Why was the student in the class? The story says that it was a required class (implying “required of all students”), that it was a required class for this particular student because of his major, and also that he just “happened to enroll.” These reasons can’t all be true.

What was the professor trying to prove? Another inconsistency. In orienting the reader, the author explains that each year the professor challenged “anyone who still believes in Jesus” to stand up. But in the class session that is the setting for the story, he substitutes God for Jesus. For a philosopher constructing an argument, belief in Jesus and belief in God are different things. One can believe in God and not believe that Jesus is his son—ask the Jews and Muslims. One can also revere Jesus as a wise philosopher without believing in a Creator God. The professor would have had to come up with a different set of arguments to refute each of the two beliefs.

There is also a disconnect between the character of the professor as described, and the words and actions attributed to him. He is supposedly a top-notch philosophy teacher with a great reputation. Yet he uses only uses a crude ad hominem attack against people who disagree with him: “You fool!” And he makes a statement before he drops the chalk: “If God existed, he would keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!” But he offers no logical reason why such an assertion would be true.

Okay, does the story at least answer the questions it brings up? Again, no. The existence of God has been debated by theologians and philosophers for centuries, if not millennia, something the professor would know. What arguments against God’s existence did the professor use on the students? What arguments for God’s existence did he undermine, and how? The story ignores the entire semester’s lectures, and only describes the chalk experiment.

One important question left unanswered is “Where did the author get his or her information?” We are told that the professor was a “deeply committed atheist.” Was this characterization in the faculty biography, or did the author interview the professor? The information that the Christian student prayed every day for three months could only have come from the student himself. What “most students thought” is presented as fact, even though it is a statement about the internal lives of the thousands of students who had taken the class over two decades. Did the author interview all of them?

And the story includes specific details about the fall of the chalk. “It slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleat of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe.” This is an unexpected event that would have taken only a fraction of a second to occur. Who could have provided this kind of detail? Maybe not even the professor himself.

It seems that the author of the story has taken on the role of the “omniscient narrator.” This is a useful device. But it is a device used specifically in fiction writing.

So, despite the assertion at the beginning that “this is a true story,” it is obviously a work of fiction. If you would like to read a fuller analysis of the story, including what can be deduced about the video’s two authors, see my website,, under “Sample Work.”

Bonus question: Can you replicate the professor’s experiment? The story hinges on the assumption that without divine intervention, a dropped piece of chalk “would shatter into a hundred pieces.” This is an issue of veracity that is outside of a strictly linguistic analysis. But if anyone would like to test this hypothesis, I’d be pleased to hear about it. The professor is said to have performed his experiment every year for 20 years. To test this, take 20 pieces of chalk and drop them one by one from chest height onto a tile floor, and record how many of them break into, say, more than five pieces. If the premise of the story is true, all 20 of them should shatter.

Who understands jury instructions?

This really can be a life-or-death question. Do jurors understand the instructions they receive before they go into deliberations? Probably not as well as you hope.

The British government released the results of a large study about the jury system. One minor finding was that only 31 percent of the research subjects were able to identify two questions the judge had directed them to answer. This was not a surprise to me, or to many people in the Forensic Linguistics community. Research in the United States has long produced similarly distressing results.

One particularly problematic instruction I have studied is the California instruction that tells the jurors how to decide whether a convicted murderer should be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment. (I presented a paper based on this instruction to the International Association of Forensic Linguists conference in 2009.) The root problem, as I see it, is that the committee that wrote the jury instructions was made up only of judges, law professors, and lawyers, that is, people in the legal profession.

Writing jury instructions is partly an exercise in technical writing, taking knowledge from specialists and making it accessible to people outside the field. The specialists, those on the committee now, are immersed in the language of the law, and they use words that lay people don’t know, or understand differently. Their professional training doesn’t include things like the most effective way to write for reader comprehension.

The core of this jury instruction is a list of eleven criteria the jurors must use to determine whether the death penalty is appropriate. (Life imprisonment is the default decision.) But this list is taken verbatim from the text of the statute: a document written by legislators to be read by lawyers. Research done by me and others has shown that the criteria are easily misunderstood. Having someone on the committee whose specialty is communication, rather than law, would help the cause of justice.

According to one study, this difficulty in comprehension is not limited to this one instruction, or even to jury instructions from California.

I have rewritten the instruction to increase comprehension, and the rewrite is available on my website. I’d be pleased to hear from anyone embarking on a project to write or rewrite jury instructions. Maybe I can help make them more comprehensible.

The British government report:

The Pragmatics of Convenience

Do we really mean what we say? While the field of Semantics is concerned with what the words mean, Pragmatics is about what the speaker means by the words. The same words can mean different things in different contexts.

One thing that can make the context different is the power relationship between the speaker and the hearer. A couple of years ago I started seeing a novel phrase in business communication: “at your earliest convenience.” The first instances sounded like please-the-customer subservience. The usage was something like, “The items you ordered have arrived, and you may pick them up at your earliest convenience.” The word “earliest” signals that the service provider is trying to do a good job; “your convenience” implies that the customer’s time is more valuable than the provider’s, and the provider wouldn’t dream of telling the customer what to do. The customer is the one with more status or power here.

But after a while, I saw the same phrase in a different context. Instead of providing a service, the person using the phrase is requesting something: “Please bring that to my office at your earliest convenience.” If you get such a message from your boss, the power imbalance is reversed. Your “earliest convenience,” in this case, had better be immediately after you receive the message. The phrasing is just a sugar-coating, so the command doesn’t sound like a command. But it still is.

What about “my convenience?” Recently I received an auto-reply to an e-mail from someone who was on vacation. It ended with: “…I will get back to you at my earliest convenience upon my return.” Now it is her convenience that is important, not mine. To paraphrase, “I will get back to you soon, but I won’t go out of my way to do so.” I am no longer the valued customer who must be pleased.

Linguist and grammarian Gay Ford gave the vacationer the benefit of the doubt when she heard this story. She wrote that this “poor person has misused the expression and probably (in her haste to get out the door and begin that vacation) has no idea what she’s implied. Surely ‘as soon as possible’ would’ve been more appropriate. It makes me wonder if her boss received one of those auto-replies while she was away and had anything to say about it.”

And I would agree with Ford’s assessment. Except that I had to call the person two days after she got back from her vacation, because I hadn’t heard from her yet. I guess she hadn’t found it convenient to call me.