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Is 'I have n things' the same as 'I have at least n things' or 'I have n things in total'?

We often see 'I have three coins' as 'I have exactly three' but often we describe someone with 4 or 5 coins as also 'having three coins'.

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    It all depends on context.
    – Jim
    Apr 30 at 16:58
  • If context doesn't disambiguate, using 'I have three coins' when you actually have 4 or 5 coins is violating the Gricean maxims of quantity and clarity. Apr 30 at 18:04
  • it's still technically a true statement, and it can be used in situations but I agree, however I have come across it used in this way and it feels confusing and unnatural but has been used like that before. Apr 30 at 18:30
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    If somebody says "I need three coins", then for anybody with at least three coins to say "I have three coins" meets all the Gricean maxims.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 30 at 19:17

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(Note: I'm going to stick with the "three coins" example throughout this answer, but the same principle applies more broadly. And I'm going to assume that these are coins in a multiplayer video game or something, because that gives more options for interpretation.)

Like many things in language, this depends on context: why you're saying that you have three coins, and what your audience will understand as your reason for saying it, will determine how it's interpreted.

To get this out of the way: if you have more than three coins, then you certainly have three coins; it's not possible to have more than three coins without having three coins. (This may seem odd, but it's really not much different from how, if you have three coins and a sword, then you certainly have three coins.)

However, in many or most situations, it won't make sense to say "I have three coins" if you actually have more than that.

One example would be if someone asks you "How many coins do you have?" and you reply "I have three coins"; in that case, the clear implication is that your reply is an answer to the question [maxim of relation] — that three coins is how many coins you have — which would not be accurate if you have more than three coins. (However, it may mean that you have approximately three coins, if it's possible to have 2.99 or 3.01 coins or whatnot.)

Another example would be if someone says "I need four coins" and you reply "I have three coins"; the implication in that case is that you're offering only those three coins, and the other person will need to find their fourth coin elsewhere (or make do with just three). If someone else says "I need a coin, too" and you hand them a fourth coin that you hadn't mentioned, then you might find yourself in an awkward conversation about why you weren't willing to offer it to the first person.

However, if someone says "I need three coins and a sword" and you reply "I have three coins", the implication is still that you're offering only those three coins, but now it's ". . . but I don't have a sword (or am not offering it)" rather than ". . . but not four". If someone else says "I need a coin, too", no one will blink when you hand them a fourth coin that you hadn't mentioned.

Likewise, if someone says "Only someone with three coins can pass through this door" and you reply "I have three coins", the implication is that you have enough coins to open the door, not that that is your total supply of coins. In this circumstance, it would also be fine to say something like "I have five coins" to emphasize that you really have plenty — but in that case it suddenly implies that you have exactly (or approximately) five coins, not more, because otherwise why are you bringing up the number five?

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  • The 'I have three coins' when you have 5 coins seems unnatural because I think we like to refer to collections in a whole, or refer to specific sub collections in that collection, so if we have 5, we would want to refer to 3 specific coins, and it feels a bit strange but if its really just true statements about quantity it probably is alright then, just doesn't feel logically right to me. May 1 at 9:29
  • Yes, you have three coins, but in total you have 5, which three are you referring to is what I'd ask but actually that implication doesn't seem necessary in this case then? May 1 at 9:30

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