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This is with reference to this comic, called A Programmer's Life (translated from Portuguese):

Programmer: My wife asked me to go to the market and said: “Bring six eggs. If there are potatoes, bring nine.” There were potatoes. But she got mad when I arrived only with the 9 eggs…

The intended joke is that the programmer has stereotypically interpreted the instructions over‑literally, and has got into trouble with "normal" people who communicate less precisely.

Which is fine (ha ha), but I feel that the actual over-literal interpretation here would be to bring "nine" somehow. The programmer has actually done a bit of correcting-for-ambiguity that is necessary for understanding human speech. Specifically, he has supplied "eggs" to "bring nine", interpreting it as "bring nine eggs". (He should have supplied "potatoes" instead, of course.)

My question is twofold:

  • Is there a name for this process, in which a missing object (referent?) is inferred?
    (Does it have some fancy linguistics name, like "coreference resolution"? Are there some good articles / book sections about it?)

  • Are there contexts and sentences like "[Verb] n X. If there are Y, [verb] m" (both "[verb]"s stand for the same verb) whose natural interpretation would actually be "[verb] m X", even though both "[verb] m X" and "[verb] m Y" are perfectly meaningful in isolation?
    (This would make it clear that the interpretation is not a grammatical issue alone, but very much situation-driven.)

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Although note that the ellipsis leaving out bring: "Bring six eggs. If there are potatoes, nine.” would strongly suggest to me "bring nine eggs." I don't know why. Clearly, there are some rules about parallelism and filling in ellipses, but I don't know what they are. (Especially since "If there are eggs, bring six eggs. If there are potatoes, nine." would again mean to bring nine potatoes.) –  Peter Shor Sep 1 '11 at 12:25
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The husband could've been a herald instead of (or in addition to, as is usually the case) a programmer: in blazon, tinctures apply backwards until you meet a different tincture. Gules, a fess between two apples argent means both the horizontal stripe and the apples are white. –  Marthaª Sep 1 '11 at 15:21
    
@Peter, ask a programmer "do you want tea or coffee". Programmer replies "yes" –  mgb Sep 1 '11 at 19:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Bring is transitive (here). The wife has omitted the object in the second sentence. The husband resolved it to the object in the previous sentence (see parallelism). Omission of a required part is called ellipsis in linguistics. The husband's way of resolving it would have been valid in this kind of a scenario:

“Bring six eggs. If you're very hungry, bring nine.”

With my example, no new candidate has been provided for the object, and the object of the second "bring" resolves to "eggs".

If you are looking for papers, I'd recommend looking in ACL's anthology for "ellipsis resolution". I found many, but none addressing this topic in good detail. Not because there aren't any, but because there were too many on ellipsis resolution to sift for one that specifically addresses this kind of an ellipsis.

Coming to your second point:

Bring me one strip of my allergy meds. If you see many weeds on your way there, bring me two.

Bring me one can of bug spray. If you see many bugs on your way there, bring me two.

clearly resolve to the first object, even if the second object is possible literally. (See pragmatics.)

But,

I could use a few people to help me move. Ask my father to help me. If our friends are free, ask two.

clearly resolves to the second object. Hopefully, this programmer would not have trouble with:

Bring me 20 eggs. If they have egg beaters, bring me one.

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I like your answer. I'd suggest editing it to bring out the definition of ellipsis more, since that is the answer to the first part of the OP's question. It is very pertinent, but is a bit lost in parentheses. –  KitFox Sep 1 '11 at 11:47
    
@KitΘδς: brought it out :-). –  prash Sep 1 '11 at 13:00
    
Thanks for the references (and good examples too). –  ShreevatsaR Sep 2 '11 at 5:33
    
@ShreevatsaR: If you find a better link for pragmatics, let me know. I'm not too happy with this one, and I've been too lazy to look. –  prash Sep 2 '11 at 14:05

The process of interpreting the meaning of an ambiguous statement from context is what I've always called top-down processing, and is something that computers can't do in the slightest, which is the reason that computer programming is so terribly literal. Humans are constantly doing a mix of bottom-up processing ("When I put together the words in the sentence, what do they mean?") and top-down processing ("What kind of information do I expect in my current situation or context?") and conclude on a meaning that satisfies both.

Side note: When I read your phrase, I totally thought it meant "If there are potatoes, buy nine eggs along with the potatoes (because I can make some special kind of dish that requires more eggs)." I need to step away from a computer, I guess...

As to the second question, yes, this form of discussion is ambiguous and relies on context. Contrast these two sentences that have the same form:

"If you need anything, ring the bell."  (conditional)

"If you need anything, my name is Mark." (not a conditional)

In addition, contrast these that have the same if/then/else form that you're describing in your question.

"Go to the store and buy candy. If they have Snickers, buy those." (buy 1 thing)

"Go to the store and buy candy. If they have muffins, buy those." (buy 2 things)

Even though these are identical except for the noun used, they mean completely different things. Context is everything and syntax alone isn't enough.

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Like @Jeremy, I also read it as 'bring 9 eggs'. I'm not sure of the actual rules at work here, but 'If there are potatoes' part sounds like a self-contained conditional clause and the 'bring nine' still refers to the eggs of the first sentence. But I am a programmer so I'm probably the wrong person to comment on this with any objectivity...

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I read it the same way and was quite surprised to see another meaning intended. The idea would be that if she also had potatoes, she would need more eggs. Perhaps she planned a dish using eggs and potatoes and therefore would need more eggs if potatoes were available. –  David Schwartz Sep 1 '11 at 12:26
    
Note that the comic was first written in Portuguese and then English — the corresponding interpretation may be more straightforward in the Portuguese. But consider "Go to the market and bring me five eggs. And if you notice potatoes, bring me a couple" where it's more natural to interpret the "a couple" as referring to potatoes. –  ShreevatsaR Sep 1 '11 at 15:42

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