re: Distant Drums (a reply to Geoff Pullum)

Geoff Pullum over at Language Log wrote a post about the Jim Reeves country song “Distant Drums”. His question was about the underlined part below.

So Mary marry me, let’s not wait
Let’s share all the time we can before it’s too late
Love me now, for now is all the time there may be
If you love me Mary, marry me.

Geoff writes:

Doesn’t the young man actually mean that now may be all the time that there is?

I agree that this is the intended meaning, but I also believe that the lyric, as it stands, is capable of conveying this meaning by inverting the scope relation (between all and may). Since Geoff closed the post to comments, I sent him an email with my thoughts, which I’d like to reproduce below. (I’ve changed each occurrence of “you/your” to “Geoff/Geoff’s” so that it’s more readable as a standalone commentary.)

In regards to Geoff’s recent Language Log post, I’m tempted to say that there’s no problem: both readings are likely quite available, in theory, i.e. there is scope ambiguity, but context coerces one reading over the other. If we a consider a sentence like (1), where both the ∀ > ∃ and ∃ > ∀ readings are sensible, I’d argue it’s very ambiguous. (“∃” here stands for epistemic possibility.)

(1) These are all the letters (that) da Vinci may have written.

reading I (∀ > ∃): these (and only these) are the set of letters L such that for any letter l in L, it may be the case that da Vinci wrote l.
reading II (∃ > ∀): it may be the case that these (and only these) are the set of letters L such that for any letter l in L, da Vinci wrote l.

To paraphrase a bit, under reading I, “these letters” is a pile containing all the letters ever written by da Vinci, i.e. if he wrote a letter, it’s in this pile, as well as maybe (we don’t know) letters written by other people; under reading II, “these letters” may (we don’t know) be the pile containing all (and only) those letters written by da Vinci, i.e. no letters by anyone else.

Personally, I find (1) to be ambiguous in the way described above. If that feeling is shared by other native speakers, then it’s not surprising that “Now is all the time (that) there may be” should be equally ambiguous. It would then come down to saying that context (the song) coerces the inverse scope reading over the surface scope reading. This would be a particular instance of Geoff’s “radical underspecification” theory, but could still have come about due to his “performance” theory explanation. (I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.)

By the way, we know that (non-modal) universal and existential operators can interact scopally in simple sentences like “Every student read some book”, but we can replicate the ambiguity in certain sentences with relative clauses, as well.

(2) I bought all the paintings that someone named Charles had painted.

reading I (∀ > ∃): for every painting P such that there was some Charles who had painted P, I bought P.
reading II (∃ > ∀): there was some Charles such that for every painting P that Charles painted, I bought P.

Under reading I, I (probably) came away with a bunch of paintings from several different Charles’s, maybe because I like the name Charles; under reading II, I came away with a bunch of paintings from one specific Charles, maybe because I like him as a painter.

Curiously, if we switch the order of the universal and existential modals, as in (3), the ambiguity is lost.

(3) I bought some painting that everyone named Charles had painted.

The only available reading is that the painting I bought was co-painted by a group of people all named Charles; it can’t be interpreted with reading I above. Thus, if an epistemic possibility modal acts like an existential operator, we expect to find the same contrast, and I think we do, in (4).

(4) The museum contains some letter that every Florentine scientist from the Renaissance wrote.

The only available reading, for me, is that there is some letter co-written by every Florentine scientist; it can’t be interpreted with the reading that for every Florentine scientist, the museum has some letter written by him.

So I think we have pretty good evidence not only that existential and universal operators can interact scopally, but also that epistemic possibility modals are much like existential operators. As such, it would make sense that the lyric from the song, just like (1), is ambiguous, and that the relevant reading emerges by contextual coercion. (Plus, the surface scope reading there is just plain weird.)

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