Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Words like "anywhere" and "everybody" usually have a predefined or implicit context during conversations:

Everybody is going out to lunch. Would you like to come too? We are willing to go anywhere - we're starving.

In this statement, clearly the speaker doesn't mean all people from all places and times. When the speaker says he is willing to go anywhere, this isn't to be understood as a willingness to travel to Fiji for lunch, but instead is meant to be understood within an immediate context of the surrounding area, past experience with the hearer, or something else.

My touch-screen in my vehicle has a similar message when it's turned off:

Touch anywhere to activate.

Clearly it doesn't mean anywhere in the all-inclusive sense - touching my shoe won't turn the display on. There's an unspoken bit of information the reader is expected to understand. They would understand 'touch anywhere on this touch screen to activate this touch screen.'

What are these types of words called, if they even have a name?

share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I don't think the ambiguity lies in the use of the words anywhere or everyone. There is simply an implied context which is left out.

We are willing to eat anywhere [nearby].

Touch [the touch-sensitive part] anywhere to activate.

Everyone [in the office] is going to go eat.

The limits on these words are always defined by the context in which they are used, and in these sentences part of the context is left out, to be inferred by the listener.

share|improve this answer
    
Agreed. The limits of any word that references anything are always potentially subject to implicit restrictions from context; whether a word's literal scope of reference would be all-inclusive doesn't really make a difference. Consider this: Daddy, shall I pick apples for Mommy? — Yes, my dear; do pick the red apples. Imagine this dialogue took place in a village where each house had its own apple tree. 1. Daughter doesn't mean "apples" without limits, but only the apples from their own tree. 2. Father doesn't mean all apples that are red anywhere, but only those mostly red. Etc. etc. –  Cerberus Mar 16 '11 at 21:12
    
I like that "implied context" –  jcolebrand Mar 16 '11 at 21:55
    
Shiny, great feedback. I suppose I'm curious what we do when we come across a statement where there is contextual ambiguity - "Everybody will wind up dead." This statement could be a reference to a group of people, or to the all-inclusive "everybody". I suppose there is no way (outside of asking the person speaking) to determine the intent based on such few words? –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 17 '11 at 2:27
    
@Jonathan: If you can't determine the context, or the statement doesn't seem to make sense in its context, then you need to get more information, I suppose. For "Everybody will wind up dead" I'd assume that "everybody" is a group of people who are all in one place or who have something else in common, and something bad will happen to them. Otherwise, it's a vague generality about the whole world and both uninteresting and obvious. (Unless it means that everyone in the world is going to die soon, but I reject that interpretation except in sci-fi novels. :) ) –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Mar 17 '11 at 14:21
add comment

I would personally term it an implicit specifier but I don't know if that's a real name for such a thing.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.