The semantics of group nouns, part 1

…in which I try to convince you that groups are atoms, and that semantics is serious business. Also, quantification.

Essentially, what I’m interested in (at the moment) is what we mean when we say something like The cricket team laughed maniacally. At first glance, this seems pretty much a non-issue. Even though I use a singular noun (the team), it is clear that the thing I have in mind is not some singular entity but a collection of such entities. We could say that the cricket team is really short for the cricket team members, and it is these members that are laughing maniacally.

At the same time, though, a group is more than the sum of its members. When I say John’s My Little Pony collection is huge, I’m not telling you something about individual Little Ponies, I’m telling you something about the collection itself. Maybe this still seems like a non-issue to you. There are simply two different ways to think (and talk) about groups: one emphasises the group as a single complex entity that is more than the sum of its parts, the other emphasises the parts. In this view, it is really rather silly to wonder whether group nouns should be analysed as ‘singular’ or ‘plural’ – they can be either, depending on how you think of them in a particular situation.

However, I don’t think this is a silly question at all, or I wouldn’t be a semanticist. Formal semanticists (like me) are not really interested in subtle nuances of word meanings; rather, we want to know how word meanings combine and interact with other word meanings to form the meaning of larger phrases and sentences. Take the sentence John is a huge idiot. I don’t really care what it ‘means’ to qualify as huge, or as an idiot, but I do care about the fact that the meanings of huge and idiot (whatever they are) can apparently be combined into a ‘larger’ meaning that we interpret as ‘very high on the idiocy scale’. (But note that we can’t use John is a tiny idiot to mean ‘John is very low on the idiocy scale’! Now that’s the stuff that makes a semanticist’s heart beat faster. See also my MA thesis and references therein.)

As it turns out, whether a word refers to a singular or a plural entity makes a difference in the way its meaning can combine with other meanings. I’m not talking about agreement (although we will talk about agreement in the next research post!) or about things like plurality-sensitive words that are incompatible with singular nouns (like together or each other). These are all syntactic issues in the sense that the words in sentences like *The boys is sleeping or *John likes each other wear their incompatibility on their sleeve: put them together and the result is just plain wrong (syntacticians and semanticists use an * to indicate ungrammaticality – don’t confuse it with the * used by historical linguists to indicate words or sentences in a reconstructed proto-language). What I’m talking about is the difference that referring either to a singular or to a plural entity can make to the possible interpretations a sentence may have. Let’s look at an example. First, a sentence with a clearly plural subject:

  1. The linguists are walking or cycling.

According to most people, sentence (1) is ambiguous between two interpretations (or, put differently, sentence (1) can be either true or false in a particular situation depending on how you read it). We can interpret it as equivalent to ‘the linguists are walking or the linguists are cycling’ – an interpretation that is true if all the linguists are enjoying the same kind of physical exercise, but false if part of them are doing one thing and the rest the other. But we can also interpret it as ‘each of the linguists is walking or cycling’, an interpretation that is compatible with such a ‘mixed’ situation.

Now, if we take all the word meanings in sentence (1) and put them together, we can only explain the first, non-mixed interpretation: we have a collection of linguists (the linguists), and a disjunction (… or …) that tells us that this collection either has the property of walking or the property of cycling. But all this gives us is a statement about the group of linguists as a whole, which is sufficient for the first interpretation, but not for the second one: ‘each of the linguists is walking or cycling’ is a statement about individual linguists, not about a collection of them.

The only way to derive this second interpretation is to assume that there is an additional semantic mechanism at work here that isn’t represented by any word in the sentence. This hidden mechanism is quantification. Those of you with some background in logic will probably recognise the quantifiers and ; in linguistics most determiners, like the, a, every, most, no, few and more than two, are analysed as similar functions. Essentially, what such an element does is take a set, and proceed to tell you something about the proportion of individual members of that set that have a certain property. Every syntactician sleeps tells you that every member of the set of syntacticians has the property of being asleep. No princess likes toads tells you that no member of the set of princesses has the property of liking toads. So this is exactly what we need to derive our mixed interpretation of (1): something that takes the collection of linguists and tells you something about the individual linguists in that collection, rather than about the group as a whole. If we assume that such a quantifier is hidden in the sentence in (1), we can explain how we get the interpretation that every individual linguist, rather than the group of linguists as a whole, has the property of either walking or cycling. (In the literature, this hidden quantifier is usually called the distributivity operator.)

Next, let’s look at another sentence that’s like (1) except the subject is a group noun rather than a plural:

  1. The group (of linguists) is walking or cycling.

Unlike (1), this sentence is not ambiguous between the mixed and the non-mixed interpretation: it can only mean that all linguists in the group are doing the same thing (either walking or cycling). This is pretty awesome because it tells us that groups, despite the fact that we can easily think of them as consisting of parts, are not equivalent to plurals in the formal semantics of a sentence. Why not? If group nouns could refer to sets, we would expect to be able to quantify over these sets by means of the distributivity operator, and sentence (2) would be ambiguous just like sentence (1). So the fact that this isn’t possible tells us that group nouns cannot refer to sets: whatever they refer to must be an indivisible, ‘atomic’ entity.

‘But’, you might say, ‘what about the example we started out with?’ True: in The cricket team laughed maniacally we do seem to say something about individual team members. But this isn’t really a problem. Formal properties of words and phrases alone do not determine how we interpret a sentence: there’s still the contribution of the word meanings themselves. So even if we regard The cricket team laughed maniacally as a statement about a team – something formal semantic mechanisms can derive without any hidden quantifiers, since it’s basically just what the sentence says – this doesn’t prevent us from reasoning about parts and wholes and exactly what it means to laugh maniacally. If I say I am in the garden, you will probably conclude that my left hand and my nose and my pancreas are in the garden, even though I never told you that every part of me is in the garden. Similarly, when I say The team laughed you will probably conclude that the team members laughed – not because I secretly tossed in a hidden quantifier, but because you know that laughing requires lungs and a vocal apparatus and teams do not have these but the parts that the team consists of (its human members) do.

So the intuition we had in the beginning of this post was at least partly right: conceptually, groups do have a part-whole structure, and this influences how we interpret statements about groups. But formally, groups are indivisible atoms, which influences how they can interact with other elements in the sentence.

When I told this story to some native speakers of British English, however, they weren’t terribly happy with it. The reason? In British English the ‘mixed’ interpretation of sentence (2) does exist with group noun subjects… but only if you use are instead of is.

  1. The group is walking or cycling (no mixed interpretation)
  2. The group are walking or cycling (ambiguous, just like sentence (1)!

I’ll try to solve this mystery in the next post. Stay tuned!

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Spring salad with beetroot, fennel & smoked tofu

As a teenager I spent most of my free time doing nice and creative things – from drawing and writing stories (oh the things I wrote! Twilight would pale in comparison) to computer programming and inventing new languages. Now that I’m a grownup, the free time I have is spent accordingly: usually on the couch, with my laptop, grumbling over stuff that people wrote on the internet. It’s quite a responsibility, being an adult.

When I do feel the need to be creative, nowadays, I tend to invent something to cook or bake. It took me years of practice (including some experimenting on the homeless population of Utrecht) to become a decent chef, but I think I’m doing pretty well now – occasionally I even manage to come up with something that I feel should be shared with the world. This Monday it was a salad with (mostly) seasonal & local vegetables (I say ‘mostly’ because it’s a bit late in the year for lamb’s lettuce, but you could probably replace it with fresh spinach). I added garlic chives sprouts because I had some left over from a previous meal; in the Netherlands you can buy them in pretty much every organic shop (‘chinese preischeuten’), but if you can’t find them, just chop up one or two cloves of garlic and add them to the dressing – together with the garden cress it’ll give you the right sharp spiciness to balance the sweetness of the vegetables. For a 100% vegan version, replace the honey* in the dressing with agave syrup or something.

Ingredients (serves 3-4)

For the salad: 1 fennel bulb, 1 beetroot, 1 box of garden cress, 1/3 box of garlic chives sprouts, 75 g lamb’s lettuce, 200 g smoked tofu, a bit of old bread and olive oil to make croutons

For the dressing: balsamic and/or pomegranate vinegar, olive oil, honey, pumpkin seed paste (available at organic shops, or replace by a handful of roasted pumpkin seeds), a bit of mustard, salt, pepper. I tend to mix my ingredients together rather randomly based on taste, so I’m not sure about the quantities – just start out with a basic vinaigrette, add the other ingredients bit by bit and keep tasting, I guess 🙂


Wash and behead the beetroot, cut it into smallish pieces and cook for about half an hour (or less if you prefer beetroot with more of a bite). Chop up the fennel bulb. Mix the vegetables, sprouts and lettuce together in a salad bowl. Cut the tofu into thin slices and put them on top. Mix the dressing, pour it over the salad and leave it like that for a minute before you stir everything together, so the tofu has a chance to soak up a bit of taste from the dressing. Finally, cut some bread into squares (no need to waste food by removing the crust), toss them around with a bit of olive oil, and roast them in a frying pan to make croutons. Add the croutons at the very last moment or serve them separately so they don’t lose their crispiness.


* As a vegan-curious person who’s currently learning the basics of beekeeping, I’m interested in the ‘vegan opinion’ on honey (if there is such a thing). I’m kind of sympathetic to the idea that keeping any kind of animal primarily for human use is essentially inter-species slavery and as such questionable, but then we unquestionably need bees to be able to grow fruits and vegetables. (Also, is it the honey as such that’s problematic, or mainly the domestication of the honeybee?)

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Coming soon: research updates!

valenceI’ve just been on my first hitchhiking trip in a year – being blessed with a significant other with a car and a natural inclination to laziness (the structural ambiguity in this sentence is intentional), it’s often so much easier to avoid the complications of more sustainable transport (rain, smelly service stations, hours of waiting, awkward smalltalk, the realisation that your French is practically nonexistent) and just drive yourself wherever you want. Still, both Klaas and I used to be fervent hitchhikers in our day, so our honeymoon seemed an appropriate occasion to try it together. (We kind of failed, but that’s a different story.)

When you’re hitchhiking, it’s inevitable that people ask you what you do for a living, and even though I must’ve answered the question dozens of times now and in various languages to boot, it feels I still haven’t quite found the right way to do it. Klaas, who is a physiotherapist, has it easy. But a formal semanticist? I can’t use those words – sometimes I’m not even sure I can use the word linguist without landing myself in dangerous conversational territory. Sometimes I just mutter something about teaching at a university. Often I take care to mention artificial intelligence and Google – I’m never sure how my chauffeur will like the idea of fundamental research in these times of crisis, so I try to leave them with the vague impression that my research has some useful applications. To the really curious, I explain the principle of compositionality, the difference between conceptual and formal semantics, and the (ir)relevance of crosslinguistic research to the study of meaning.

Still, it hardly ever happens that I try to explain my actual research topic to anyone, hitchhiking or otherwise. So I thought I’d remedy that. What’s new in the semantics of plurals and group nouns, what discoveries have I made, and what questions am I currently working on? Expect the first update soon(ish)!

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So I’m sewing a wedding dress…

…which is why I’m having so few thoughts on the state of the world recently. Between doing semantics and getting married, there’s not a lot of spare time left.


Incidentally, planning the assembly of a partly lined dress in such a way that there are no visible seams on the outside and as few as possible on the inside is higher math – as it turns out, a bit too high for me at this point in my sewing career. No one will actually be able to see this, but I’ll know, and now so will you.

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Hun hebben geen vierhonderd woorden voor sneeuw, of: het veelbewogen leven van een taalkundige

[juni 2012, voor het buurtkrantje van GW Nieuwegein]

Het is niet altijd fijn om taalkundige te zijn. Niet alleen is het moeilijk aan je buurman uit te leggen dat zijn zuurverdiende belastingcenten opgaan aan fundamenteel oover100wordsnderzoek naar de formele analyse van betekenis (‘eh, een soort combinatie van taalkunde en wiskunde, zeg maar’), je bent ook altijd degene die op feestjes de conversatie bederft doordat je je toch enigszins verplicht voelt erop te wijzen dat Eskimo’s geen vierhonderd woorden voor sneeuw hebben, het Nederlands niet verloedert en er nooit een gorilla is geweest die Engels heeft geleerd. Ook is het Chinees (of welke taal dan ook) niet moeilijker te leren dan het Nederlands (of welke taal dan ook) – praat welke taal dan ook tegen een baby en hij heeft hem zo’n beetje rond z’n vierde onder de knie. Trouwens, er is niks mis met hun hebben of groter als mij.*

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On the homeless and other noble savages

I suppose it’s not very original, but I’m a great fan of Shane Claiborne. His book The Irresistible Revolution is one of the most challenging and inspiring things I’ve ever read, despite the ubiquitous descriptions of Shane’s eyes filling with tears at practically everything he encounters (but he can’t help that, he’s American, bless him).

Shane writes beautifully and lovingly about the homeless people he likes to hang out with – how they become his friends and how much living with them changes his understanding of the Gospel. He also loves his homeless anecdotes. There’s the man who puts a pack of cigarettes on the offering plate in church, this being everything of worth he possesses. There’s the woman who’s fighting for a meal at a soup van, only to offer it to her elderly friend who is physically unable to get into the fray herself. There are adorable children who dream of becoming doctors and social workers and selflessly share the little they possess with other adorable children.

I don’t doubt that these anecdotes are true, and yet it’s striking how well they fit into a long (and I really mean long) tradition of idealising those we perceive as less civilised or less fortunate. The ‘noble savage’ is presented as more pure than us, untainted by modern society or material possessions. He’s a safekeeper of values we, the rich and civilised, have lost or forgotten. He’s in touch with nature and his inner self, genuine and childlike in his moral beliefs. We claim they should become more like us, but it is really us who should learn from them.

Is there anything wrong with the ‘noble savage’ trope? One would think that idealising people is better than dehumanising and exploiting them. Still, I think there are at least two reasons why we should try to stop perpetuating this trope.

(1) Idealisation is dehumanisation too. When you deny a fellow human their dark side, you’re essentially denying part of their humanity. You’re refusing to acknowledge those parts of them that do not fit your preconceived idea of how this person should be. You might even deny them agency, for fear that they might lose their ‘purity’ if they were to enjoy the same freedoms as you. Also, if you don’t see someone as fully human, it only takes a small step to start seeing someone as less human. Paradoxically, idealisation of the poor opens the door to exploitation of the poor.

(2) Painting the poor as ‘noble savages’ justifies the status quo. The trope of the noble savage suggests that there is a silver lining to poverty and misfortune: it kind of sucks but at least it’ll turn you into a better and happier human being. But that means that some beautiful things will be irrevocably lost in a world without ‘savages’. If we eradicate poverty, who will be left to show us the value of selflessness and simple living? Who will be left to denounce our greed and artifice? Who will confront us with ourselves and teach us to be happy? If the poor are perceived as the guardians of beauty and morality, if poverty is perceived as an antidote against the poison of modern society, the world cannot do without them. And in giving poverty and suffering a function, their existence – and perpetuation – are justified.

In many ways, the idea of the noble savage is tempting and comforting. It makes for a lovely anecdote, and might encourage people to love, spend time with and learn from their less fortunate neighbours. But in the end, it’s a lie, and like every lie it will end up turning you bitter and disappointed.

Like Shane Claiborne, I have worked with the homeless. Like Shane, I’ve found that this brings the words of Jesus to life in unexpected ways. I loved these people – but they weren’t noble. They weren’t selfless. They complained about everything. They refused to share what they had. They bullied those who were less tough. They said horribly racist and sexist things. They watched porn together on flashy smartphones.

They weren’t angels in human flesh. They were ordinary human beings. In fact, quite often, they were pretty much like me on a bad day, except they tended to have quite a bit more of those.

This was hard sometimes. It’s nice when you feel that people really deserve the energy you spend on them. It’s nice to see someone blossom under your attention. It’s nice to see them smile at you, missing teeth and all, and feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But just as often they don’t ‘deserve’ it, they don’t blossom, they don’t smile, and they don’t teach you valuable lessons about life and how to be a better human being.

And yet they have the same rights as I do – a right to care and attention and justice and equality, a right to live their own life and tell their own story. Not because they are better, purer, or more ‘noble’ than us. But because they’re fellow human beings, lovingly made in the image of the same God.

And I like to believe that real change will happen when we stop seeing others the way we want them to be, and learn to see them for who they really are: as beautiful as us and as wretched as us – as humans.

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We’ve come a long way


A photoshopped model wearing sustainable clothes.

It’s tempting to think that the world is a pretty terrible place. And it’s tempting to think of yourself and your fellow human beings (OK, mainly your fellow human beings) as inclined to all evil and incapable of doing anything good. There’s an odd kind of comfort in cynicism.

So, let’s get out of our comfort zone for a bit and celebrate the fact that the world might not be such a bad place after all. In some respects, it’s definitely getting better.

Six years ago I wrote a cynical piece about my quest to buy an organic cotton t-shirt (read it below; spoiler: I failed). Rereading it made me realise how much has changed since then: the workers who make our t-shirts still die in factory fires, but at least they might’ve been sewing organic tees.

Wait, that still sounded cynical. Let me try again.

In 2013, I can buy my organic t-shirt on practically every street corner. Major retailers like H&M, C&A, and HEMA offer fair and sustainable clothing lines. You can save up for free organic towels every time you fill up your car at a chain of petrol stations Google can’t tell me the name of (but I definitely remember seeing it on billboards). Even the companies that don’t actually do much, seem to acknowledge that fair and sustainable trade is a Good Thing. And even the more indiscriminate shoppers are signing petitions to urge C&A to offer compensation to the Dhaka fire victims.

This is happy news. These are things that we should celebrate.

We’ve come a long way since March 2007:

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