“It’s Raining” vs. “Bill Is Short”

Just an observation at this point. I’m wondering whether this strikes others the same way…

Set-up: Suppose a speaker asserts, “It’s raining,” and elsewhere another speaker states, “Bill is short.” And suppose each is asked what they meant by that. We’ll suppose the questioner in each case gives a brief menu of options from which the speaker can choose, or the speaker can supply her own explanation: “Wha’dya mean ‘It’s raining’? Do you mean that it’s raining in London, or that it’s raining in Paris, or what?”, “Wha’dya mean ‘Bill is short’? Do you mean that Bill is short for a man, or that he’s short for a basketball player, or short for an NBA center, or what?”

The observation involves answers that the original speakers can give to these questions. It seems to me that in the “short” case, we’re relatively tolerant of this kind of answer: “You know, I didn’t have anything particular in mind. It just struck me that he was short, and that’s all I was saying. I really wasn’t thinking about it in any terms more specific than that.” By comparison, it seems to me much more puzzling and much less satisfactory for the speaker in the “raining” example to respond: “You know, I didn’t have any particular location in mind. It just struck me that it was raining, and that’s all I was saying. I really wasn’t thinking about it in any terms more specific than that.”

Of course, we’re tolerant if the speaker claims not to have a very precise idea of the exact extent of the location she was talking about — someone who says they weren’t meaning anything specific enough to distinguish whether they were talking about London from their speaking of a particular area of London, for example. Likewise, it’s no big deal if they meant to be referring to their own location (“I meant that it was raining here“), but just hadn’t given any thought to how far out they intended that “here” to reach. But it’s mystifying if they claim not to have any thoughts at all about what location they were talking about. (“Did you mean that it was raining where you were?” “No, like I said, I didn’t have any particular location in mind. It just struck me that it was raining, and I wasn’t thinking about any particular location, not even my own location.”) Comparatively, it doesn’t seem as problematic if the speaker in the “short” case claims not have had any particular thoughts about the comparison class relative to which they were saying that Bill was short (that’s for believers in the “for an F” myth), or, more generally, about the standards relative to which they meant to be using “short”: “I wasn’t thinking in terms of any particular standards for shortness. I was just saying that he was short, and wasn’t thinking in any terms more specific than that.”

Or so it seems to me. I imagine other folks to whom the matter seems the same way might have some thoughts about why this would be so, and I’d be interested to hear such thoughts. But I’m also, and even primarily, curious here about whether the observation is correct. Or is this only me?


“It’s Raining” vs. “Bill Is Short” — 13 Comments

  1. Keith, it looks exactly the same to me. it’s very tempting to want to explain the difference in semantic terms! I think you don’t want to do that, though, if I remember right.

  2. I hope it is okay for me to post here without explicit invitation.

    I wobble back and forth between sharing your intuition and not sharing it.

    When I do share the intuition, here is the explanation I come up with for the phenomenon I think I am intuiting.

    The way I would express the intuition is as follows. When it comes to an utterance “It’s raining,” I require that the utterer have explicitly thought about some particular location, and that the utterer intends me to understand that that is the location at which it is raining. But when it comes to an utterance “Bill is short,” I do not make the analogous requirement. In other words, I do not require that the utterer has already explicitly thought about some particular standard of shortness such that the utterer intends me to understand that that is the standard of shortness according to which Bill is short. (I expect that he has some such standard in mind, but I do not require it.)

    That is my intuition. My explanation of it is to follow. I will preface it with the following comment, though: If my explanation is to work, it would have to be the case that a thought about the state of the weather is, all by itself, an explicit thought about a location. Perhaps that won’t seem true to everyone. (?) Anyway, you’ll see where this assumption fits into the explanation.

    The explanation is this. In most normal situations in which I can imagine myself saying “Bill is short,” the standard of shortness involved would be hovering just below the threshold of my consciousness, and would only need to be brought out for explicit thought _after_ the utterance, (perhaps, for example, in order to defend the assertion.) But in any plausible, normal story I can imagine in which I utter “It’s raining,” I will have explicitly thought about a particular location _prior_ to making the utterance. Specifically, I will have thought explicitly about the location _I_ am at, because to notice that it is raining _just is_ to notice that it is raining “here” (I think this is not explicit in the sentence “it is raining,” but is explicit in the thought expressed by that utterance) and hence an explicit thought “it’s raining” just is an explicit thought “it’s raining here,” and so, is an explicit thought about a particular location.

    So: I think this is what it would be like for me to utter either of the sentences in question under normal circumstances, and so I naturally expect that this is what it would be like for anyone else as well. So when I hear someone say “It’s raining,” knowing what it would be like for me to utter that, I fill in the information that the utterer means its raining here, and furthermore, I expect that this is what the utterer wanted me to do, and will be puzzled if he indicates otherwise. Meanwhile, if I hear someone say “Bill is short,” I fill in information that the utterer means this according to some standard of shortness, but will not expect _as strongly_ as in the “rain” case that the utterer has an explicit standard in mind, and so will not be _as puzzled_ if he indicates he does not have any such standard in mind. If he insists he has no standard, even after reflection, then I will be a little puzzled, but will chalk it up to a lack of reflective ability on the utterer’s part.

  3. My very first post and it was poorly edited. The third paragraph (“When I do share the intuition…”) should have been deleted. To be clear, the issue is stylistic, not substantive.

  4. ‘It’ in ‘It is raining’ appears to be exophoric, i.e., the referent of ‘it’ has not been explicitly mentioned by the speaker (otherwise ‘it’ would be anaphoric) but rather is presumed to be fixed by the situation, or provided by unspoken but shared background knowledge between the speakers.

    Asking for clarification about the raining case is to double-check whether the speaker is relying upon shared background knowledge or, more generally, whether he is following normal conventions about reporting on his environment when the referent of ‘it’ has not been specified.

    Also, it is typically easier for a speaker to supply the reference of a pronoun than it is to specify what reference class of objects he has in mind for making comparative judgments.

    So if we are more tolerant of speakers who fail to answer in cases-‘short’ than we are in cases-‘tall’, this may reflect the difficulty of the question rather than semantic data about ‘Bill is short’ and ‘It is raining’.

  5. Keith, my initial response is similar to yours. But I also thought of these cases, which might provide exceptions to the general comparative point you’ve made.

    Suppose Smith says to you “it’s raining” because Brown reported to Smith that it’s raining, and instructed Smith to report the same to you. Smith is just following instructions here. You ask, “Raining where, Smith?” Smith responds, “I have no idea. I’m just passing along some information.” Seems fine.

    Suppose my son learns in science class that it’s always raining somewhere. He comes home and says, “You know, it’s raining right now.” I ask, “Raining where? Baghdad? Mumbai? The surface of Saturn’s moon Titan?” He responds, “Oh, I really didn’t have anywhere particular in mind at all. It’s just that it’s always raining somewhere, so it struck me that it’s raining at the moment.” Seems fine again.

  6. Felix: “Bill is short”

    Oscar: “Do you mean he’s short for a North American mammal, or short for an organism, or short for a physical object, or what?”

    Felix: “You know, I didn’t have anything particular in mind. It just struck me that he was short, and that’s all I was saying. I really wasn’t thinking about it in any terms more specific than that.”

  7. I have the same reaction as Jon and Keith, except that “Whaddaya mean?” strikes me as not entirely intuitive; I’d say “Where?” I think Kris explains it well, although it’s not obvious that there is a standard of shortness even hovering under the threshold of consciousness. But I’m inclined to agree with him that in the end there is a standard of shortness, and that someone who couldn’t cite a standard when pressed would seem unreflective.

    A couple of other points: Greg, should we even say that the location is the referent of ‘it’? See this from John Lawler (I just found this by a search, so don’t take me for an expert). And in fact the same issues should arise for constructions without a dummy ‘it’; if I say “Three inches of rain fell” then you can say “What do you mean? In London, in Paris, where?” just as well. So the easy question isn’t supplying the reference of the pronoun but supplying something else.

    I take it Ram is pointing out that we expect people to have standard in mind, to the extent that they’d be able to answer some questions about it. This would be nice for me, since I’ve recently argued that standards for comparative adjectives are salient in a way that standards aren’t (so there’s reason to think that the former but not the latter are implicit in any ascription). But I’m not sure that the ability to elicit an answer shows that the answer was there all along:

    Felix: Chris is tall.

    Oscar: How tall? Do you mean he’s taller than Yao Ming? Taller than George Clooney? Taller than Tom Cruise?

    It would be OK for Felix not to have had anyone particular in mind that Chris is taller than, and we certainly don’t want to say that all tallness ascriptions have a suppressed place for some individual who’s a point of comparision. But we would still say that Felix should be able to answer the questions, if he knows how tall Yao, Clooney, and Cruise are. Would we?

  8. Keith,

    I think I have the same intuitions as you in the short vs. raining cases. Perhaps we’re relatively tolerant of the “no-particular-standard-in-mind” response in the short case because we are able to have a more *general* standard operating: e.g., shorter than most of us, or shorter than the average guy, or shorter than the mean height of the people we’ve met (which might be 6 feet, or 5′ 8″, or whatever, which will of course depend on which circles you run in, but most of which will be available as implicit background info).

    Yet in the raining case, it’s hard to see what would count as a *general* standard, since locations seem to be particular. (“Here” can be context-sensitive yet still particular: it is sensitive to context in terms of its scope, as you note, ie, how far out counts as part of here. But it’s still particular in that it picks out one place (or area or region) rather than another.) Is this plausible? Maybe something like this is what you’re getting at…

  9. The idea is that ‘It is raining’ relies upon some specification of a situation in which rain holds, and ‘it’ refers to that situation. We don’t say ‘There is a situation C such that rain holds in C’, thank goodness. Instead we typically rely upon unspoken, shared knowledge to fix what C we are talking about. Note that when C is rather different than what one might normal expect, we add only enough information to help fix C when there is disagreement (or potential disagreement) between speakers about what C is; that is, we only ask for enough information to disambiguate among relevant options within the conversation.

    Answering questions about C is typically easier than answering questions about comparison classes, I claim. But I suspect that we do have some comparison class in mind nonetheless.

    I don’t think there is a different standard for tolerance in play, and I think the idea behind a general standard for shortness is probably misleading. If there is a difference between the two cases in how people react, and I’m not sure that there are such differences (Experimental philosophers! Help!), I suggest that it is due to a difference in the difficulty of performing the act of clarification.

  10. Another thought: a comparison class attached to ‘S is short’ may be tangled up with a speaker’s expectations for S, and may involve particulars rather than classes. If S is a screw or a pay envelope, ‘S is short’ may report the difference between the length of a screw and the length required, or report the difference between the amount of one’s pay stub and the amount earned.

    In the former the comparison is between a single screw and the class of screws of appropriate length; in the latter the comparison is between two concrete amounts of currency.

    In both cases there is no standard, and no thresholding; the agent is simply reporting a difference between what he has in hand and what he expected to find, and which end of that difference he stands.

    Finally, I like that Matt’s example concerns an agent reporting a class that was not the basis for his assertion, and that my remarks concern an agent unable to report on the class that nevertheless is the basis of his assertion.

    I like it because I’m suspicious of using intuitions about under-specified examples like this for data. It seems to me that worries like misreporting or failure to report need to be controlled for, but are not controlled for in general practice.

  11. Hello Keith,

    To be honest, I think the difference is quite constructed. You could ask the two speakers just aswell questions of the same category:
    You would ask the ‘raining’ guy:
    – Well, where exactly is it raining? London, Munich, Paris?
    And the ‘short’ guy:
    – What Bill is short? Bill Jones, Bill Smith, Bill Clinton, or Billy Elliot?
    And it both amounts to the same.

    The second point: If someone states “It is raining” in colloquial language you would just assume he means the place he is at. Otherwise he would add a location. And if you say “Bill is short” usually Bill is standing right in front of you, or at least the person you are talking to, knows what Bill you are talking about.

    It seems just completely normal to me, that it is “mystifying” to say “It is raining” without meaning any particular place. But it would be as mystifying to say “Bill is short” without meaning any particular Bill.

  12. Yes, if there’s a question of which “Bill” is being referred to, and the speaker has no idea, that is as mystifying as saying “it’s raining” with no location in mind. What I was saying we are relatively tolerant of is saying “Bill is short,” without having anything more to say about what one means by “short.”

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