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This is adapted from a silly conversation I had about a baseball player. It set me wondering how to describe this sort of wordplay linguistically.

HIM: Do we leave Jay in center?
HER: He's pretty good.
HIM: Better than average maybe.
HER: Not much better than average ...
HIM: Better than not much better than average, I think ...
HER: But not so much better than average that he's much better than average ...
HIM: Enough better than average.
HER: Exactly.

Typography in writing, representing prosody in speech, make it easy enough to sort out what's going on here. But how do you explain it in terms of a linguistic which confines itself to what is verbally expressed?

  • How does “traditional” grammar analyze and describe these shifts in scope?
  • Are these terms and concepts readily understood by, say, high-school students or moderately advanced EFL students?
  • Does any “modern” grammar afford better terms and concepts?
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I'm finding this question a bit Pinteresque. Are we seriously expected to understand "The HSL is gathering way"? I've never heard of HSL, and I don't know what "to gather way" means. Would it make any difference to my understanding of the rest of the question if I did? Sorry, but I think this is Not Constructive. There's no "grammar" involved here - just vague non-committal language being used to delay explicitly stating a position. –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '12 at 23:38
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Isn't this "Standard Deviation for English Majors"? –  Jim Oct 25 '12 at 0:58
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Re: "Does any 'modern' grammar afford better terms and concepts?": Discourse Representation Theory might, if we view the first instance of each of those phrases as introducing a new discourse referent available as a starting-point for subsequent comparisons. –  ruakh Oct 25 '12 at 3:55
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This is what happens when you try to use English to express something which would be trivially expressed in Math. "He is a 7 out of 10" –  Yasky Apr 2 '13 at 1:17
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@Yasky Quite true--if you can fix on a reliable measure. Perhaps we have taken a step closer to that measure with last week's announcement of R-unification; or perhaps we have merely added another epicycle to the Ptolemaic theory. –  StoneyB Apr 2 '13 at 10:44
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4 Answers

I completely understand what you are asking, I am just not entirely sure how one would go about grammatically catagorizing such a conversation. By terms of traditional grammar, it seems to me that it is made up of a series of:

Litotes: understatements in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in “not a bad singer” or “not unhappy”, when actually the singer is quite talented or an individual is very happy)

So as each individual continued to respond to the first litote ("Pretty good"), it created a series of compounding litotes that sought to adequately describe the skill level of the baseball player.

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In your exemplar, can you really separate the structural component of grammar from semantics and pragmatics? I don't think so. Repartee has grammatical aspects, to be sure, and perhaps one could come up with some regularities and rules that describe the playful banter of the (I assume) spontaneous, unrehearsed dialogue.

From my perspective, however, it seems the element of playfulness, a semantic/pragmatic component, is the guiding principle. The interlocutors are inventing the grammar as they go along, much the same as a child might in overgeneralizing some "rule" s/he perceives is at work (e.g., "I goed to the store with mommy"), minus the humor (from the child's perspective, that is).

Playing with language could take the form of pig Latin, the "poetry" of rap, and various word games involving rhymes, anagrams, feats of memory, imitating Yoda ("Getting stronger you are, Luke"), or doing what "her" and "him" are doing. It's a kind of one-upmanship in which each interlocutor tries to outdo the other by taking the "rule" that the other person introduces and then building on it within a pretty circumscribed vocabulary (viz., good, average, better, not much, and enough). The person who had the last word clearly had the punchline, and it's mildly ironic because what preceded it was quasi-precise approximating.

After reading your exemplar, a picture of a continuum popped into my mind. It is labelled "average" in the middle where the number value of average is five on a scale of one to ten, with number one being way below average, and ten way above average. The punchline's "exactly" is maybe a couple notches to the right of "average," say, six point five.

Years ago my daughter was learning English. It was a hot summer's day, and the air conditioning was running. A few minutes after adjusting the thermostat on the AC, I may have asked her if she was cool enough, and she responded, "Cooler enough." Now there's a "rule" I could have run with in a sort of verbal riff, had she been able to catch on and play with me. Intellectually, we were not on the same level, obviously. By the way, her locution makes really good semantic--if not grammatical--sense. "[I'm] cooler enough" describes "exactly" her level of comfort: not too hot, not too cold, just right. My adjustment made her cooler enough. Any more coolth and she'd have been uncomfortably cold; any less coolth and she's have been uncomfortably warm.

Perhaps you could characterize the grammar of your exemplar as "adjectivality." Change the words to "brilliant" and "superior," and you could have the following:

He: "Should we keep Casey as our clean-up batter?"

She: "Well, he's had a brilliant season thus far, right?"

He: "Well, definitely more than superior, but certainly less than brilliant."

She: "I'd say a little more than more than superior, but a little shy of brilliant."

He: "OK, why don't we settle on a little shy of shy of brilliant, but highly superior."

She: "Exactly."

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I think I would call this

repartee :
1 a : a quick and witty reply
b : a succession or interchange of clever retorts
2 : adroitness and cleverness in reply

or perhaps

banter : good-natured and usually witty and animated joking

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It is both of these things; but what I'm looking for--and I really am perfectly serious--is not a critical categorization but an adequate grammatical description. –  StoneyB Oct 25 '12 at 3:33
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Isn't Ruaks's answer what you're looking for? –  Saad Rehman Shah Oct 25 '12 at 6:54
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This kind of wordplay follows the rules but at the same time extends them and develops them. I would propose calling it organic grammar - organic in the sense of developing naturally according to innate structure, as when a town expands naturally and organically rather than according to any pre-determined plan. One of many definitions of organic given here:

  • characterized by the systematic arrangement of parts; organized; systematic.
  • of or pertaining to the basic constitution or structure of a thing; constitutional; inherent; fundamental.
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