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I'm looking for a term -- from linguistics or semantics -- that indicates phrases of this structure have TWO (possible) senses:

  • Men are taller than women.
  • Seafood costs more than hamburger.
  • Anchors are heavier that water.

The construction is fungible, and in some cases means "tends to", and it others it means "in all cases".

The first two sentences are true IF you interpret them as meaning "tend to", or "in the mean"

  • The median height of men is a few inches taller than the median height of women.
  • In most cases, seafood costs more than hamburger.

The third sentence is true in the "all" and "always" sense:

  • All anchors are heavier than water.
  • Anchors are always heavier than water.

Sentences like these are common in everyday speech, where the "tends to" or "always" is implied and/or clear from context, and the subject matter is not emotionally sensitive.

So I'm looking for the term, so when I DO stumble in to a conversation where someone makes a comment like that, and someone else argues (example: "but I know plenty of women who are taller than certain men!") I can say: "Hold it, timeout; that statement is just a SOMETHING-ism; it has two meanings, depending if you interpret in to mean 'tends to' or 'all'. Let's figure out which the speaker intended, and then lets go from there."

(I imagine someone will point me to a refernce to "E-prime" and inform me of the dangers of the verb "to be". OK, granted. But what is the TERM for this ambiguity or ambiguous construction?)

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Nigel J, curiousdannii, NVZ, Davo Nov 6 '17 at 21:35

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    You're asking about several different things at once, and there is no precise term for the combination of phenomena you seem to be discussing. Part of the problem is quantifiers - all being used to quantify two nouns (men and women, for instance) is just ambiguous between the two senses you mention, because there are two variables and only one quantifier, so you have to put them together yourself. If you want to avoid ambiguity, avoid quantifiers. And negatives. And modals. And deletions. That should do for most cases. – John Lawler Oct 25 '17 at 15:16
  • The difference is contextual, rather than grammatically defined. "This board is 13 centimeters" is precise. "I ran 5 kilometers" is not as precise. Grammatically, they are the same. Contextually, there can be an implication of an approximation. But this is not defined by a grammatical rule. – Flater Oct 25 '17 at 15:18
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    I suspect that there isn't a (standard) term for this, because Dr. Mark Liberman has written about it a number of times at Language Log, and I don't remember any of his posts ever using or mentioning one. – ruakh Oct 25 '17 at 15:20
  • Anchors are denser than water (if they are made of iron). Whether they are heavier than water depends on the weight of the anchor and the weight of the quantity of water you are comparing them with. Physics 101. – David Nov 6 '17 at 17:37
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I think the term you are looking for is generalisation.

It is a matter of conceptual logic, not, initially, of grammar.

The concept is one that generalises. It does not ignore specific anomalies; it is aware of them, but it overlooks them in order not to have to go into unnecessary detail in order to convey what is generally so.

So you can say, 'Hold it, timeout; I am generalising.'

generalization noun: generalisation a general statement or concept obtained by inference from specific cases.

Google Dictionary

  • Yes, in casual speech, the qualification "men are generally taller than women" helps deflect the objection. But alas even "generalization" has two distinct senses: 1) To make a claim that is "generally true" (true in most cases), and 2) To extrapolate details about the whole from observing a subset (scientists can tell you the atomic mass of hydrogen NOT because they've measured every hydrogen atom in the universe, but because they've measured enough of them to be confident in their generalization). – Dan H Oct 26 '17 at 17:29
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    @DanH Your second point is a very valid one, scientifically. Many scientific theories have been demonstrated by experimentation only to be invalidated due to anomalies which show that a more robust theory is necessary. Good point. – Nigel J Oct 26 '17 at 19:16

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