LING 105: Applications of Semantics in Victimhood

On June 20, two women are standing in the parking lot of West Town Mall. One of them picks up a purse from the other’s open car, puts some of her belongings in it, and begins to walk away. The other one says, “You know that’s mine, right?” The woman holding the purse says, “That’s a matter of opinion.”

The Problem: In statement A, the word “mine” denotes possession or ownership, but not necessarily rightful or legal possession or ownership. “Mine” could also be interpreted to mean physical possession or ownership, which our thief here has transferred to herself. To say “that’s mine” without qualifying it with “rightfully” or “legally” creates an ambiguity, which, in statement B, the thief has exploited. The ownership of the purse is, in fact, a matter of opinion.

Suggestions for Resolution: Use an approach that minimizes any such ambiguities and maximizes the statement’s truth value. Good: “You know that purse is legally mine, right?” but that is not necessarily true either. For example, if the purse is an illegal reproduction—even if its owner is unaware of it—it is legally no one’s. Better: “You know that you have illegally transferred possession of that purse, right?” This too is problematic because it remains unknown whether the woman had simply been intending to borrow the purse. Still better: “You know that, in my judgement, you appear to be illegally transferring possession of that purse, right?” Wordier, but for linguistic purposes much more effective.

Bailey Swilley contributed to this report

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