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When in doubt, ask a native...
Thread poster: transparx
transparx  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:41
English to Italian
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Jan 19, 2007

Not long ago, in another thread, someone wrote that, when natives are in doubt, they should trust their native-speaker instincts; non-natives should ask a native.

This was a statement thrown into that thread most nonchalantly. Since that day, however, I have been thinking about it, perhaps because I realized that similar statements have been made before and are found interspersed everywhere throughout the forums.

Given that, unless I am mistaken, I was the only non-native who contributed anything of import –debatable though it may have been– to that discussion, I take it that the statement reported above was directed at me. If not, as a non-native, I still feel I was called on and would like to comment on it.

In order to appease those who might misunderstand my words, let me state right at the outset that I have nothing against the notion of nativeness (everyone is a native!), nor have I started this thread with the intent of usurping the special status that, in certain respects, native speakers undoubtedly have. Yes, unfortunately, on this site I have also seen this idea surface: some non-natives claim that they know English (for this thread, just like the one I was referring to above, is about English) better than natives. No, this is not my claim.

What I would like to explore, instead, is the distinction between being a native and being a linguist, and I would welcome any contributions to this discussion. Some of what follows is, indeed, common sense, unfortunately often obscured both on this site and out there in the world. It is common sense, in other words, that every single person –unless he or she has had severe problems since birth- is a native; clearly, not every single person is a linguist, however. To draw a most simple analogy, being a native tantamounts to walking, being a linguist to biking, or swimming, or what have you. Put differently, being a native is a natural (note the morpheme “nat-") development, being a linguist is a skill. That the concept of "native" may also be a cultural construct is not a far-fetched possibility, either, but this can perhaps be discussed in a different thread. The conclusion that can be drawn from the preceding remarks is the following: every linguist is a native (of some linguistic variety); not every native is a linguist. If this were not the case, then people wouldn’t have to spend years and years studying linguistics, getting their B.A.’s, M.A.’s, and Ph.D.’s. They wouldn’t have to invest thousands and thousands of dollars getting degrees they had been born with. They wouldn’t have to keep reading books, listening *for* language, and thinking about language every day after they graduated. They could spend their time more wisely and efficiently.

Since the above-mentioned thread was about syntax, I felt that, being a linguist, I had every right to intervene. It annoys me to see that when that happens, either in the forums or in the Kudoz section of this site, there is always someone who reacts resentfully if not dismissively or, worse yet, disdainfully. It really is as if someone took it upon him/herself to belittle engineers or lawyers or translators and so on. Being a linguist is a profession. Why not respect it?

Perhaps I should clarify that I am not referring to all types of questions indiscriminately. I totally agree that there are some a native could answer, while a non-native might not be able to. Such questions are primarily questions relating to the lexicon and to idioms. Of course, in this case, too, not all natives can answer, or they may have different answers to the question posed.

In addition, as I hinted at above, natives have a special status when it comes to linguistic research: they make excellent informants. If a native is a linguist, then he or she can act as his or her own informant, although it is advisable that other speakers be also asked for their, possibly varying, judgments. But there is no principle, as far as I am aware, preventing a linguist from studying and discussing languages he or she cannot speak.

Finally, I must admit I am not sure I understand what was meant by the statement above. As far as I know, “when in doubt, ask a native” is an ambiguous sentence. On one reading, this statement presupposes that there is just one native that could be asked, say, John Smith. According to this interpretation, John Smith is the only native that knows the answer(s), so anyone who has a question should ask him. On the other reading, the sentence under examination implies that if someone has a question, he or she should ask just *any* native. Now I must conclude that “when in doubt, ask a native” has sense but no reference whatsoever! The first interpretation is implausible, as there are certainly many people one could ask. The second interpretation is also flawed, given that there are many natives who don’t know the answers to questions about structure. As a result, I am left in the dark as to what the person who made the statement above really meant.


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LuciaC
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:41
English to Italian
+ ...
Linguistics Jan 19, 2007

Just a brief note: maybe you should make clear that by 'linguist' you mean someone who has studied linguistics in depth (and believe me, many translators have only a vague idea of what linguistics actually is). Unfortunately, in the UK at least, the word linguist is also used in very general terms for anyone who 'knows' languages and it can be ambiguous.

To your point: I happen to know world-renouned linguists who specialize in the history, syntax, semantics and other areas of Italian language and dialects and they are... British.
My time has run out and I can't contribute to the discussion - but yes, I understand your point of view.

Good luck
Lucia


[Edited at 2007-01-19 16:49]


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 13:41
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Finnish to German
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Yeah! Jan 19, 2007

Many non-natives have a deaper knowledge and understanding of a language they have studied than 99 % of the native speakers. But most native amateurs still grasp certain things instinctively and on the spot where a non-native linguist will need much time and thought.
But in our profession you have to be fast to make a living. No time to study an expression very long.
Cheers
Heinrich

[Bearbeitet am 2007-01-19 11:56]


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Angela Dickson  Identity Verified
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native vs linguist Jan 19, 2007

You make some interesting points, but as Lucia says, there is some confusion - competent translators can be (and are) described as 'linguists' but that doesn't mean they know anything at all about linguistics. Not that this fact should be taken to mean that they are bad translators.

Look back through this 'linguistics' forum, and count how many threads are actually about linguistics. Very few.

The examples used in linguistics are often very idealised - a good translator who creates texts in the target (native) language all day will, I hypothesise, have a better chance of pinning down a usage issue in their target language than a linguist (in the sense of 'person who does linguistics').

It's hard to be more specific unless you provide a link to the thread to which you referred...


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xxxGabi Ancarol
Italy
Italian to Spanish
+ ...
your deduction, transparx, Jan 19, 2007

is logical... perfect I'd say.

I couldn't have said it better.

I know this is not the KudoZ area, but (and specially after being a witness of the thread you mention)...

...I totally AGREE

Un caro saluto,

Gabi


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ICL  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 12:41
English to Spanish
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Did you ask the originator of the statement? Jan 19, 2007

transparx wrote:

As a result, I am left in the dark as to what the person who made the statement above really meant.


I am just curious to know if you actually asked the originator of the statement which has inspired you to start this thread.

Maybe that would be the easiest way to clarify your doubts, although I like the fact that such doubts generated such an interesting discourse from your part.

Hope you have a nice weekend,

Ivette


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Andrea Re  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 11:41
English to Italian
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Sorry for the nonsense that follows:) Jan 19, 2007

Ciao Nino,

long time no see:)

With regard to your post, first of all I say that I don't know what you are referring to, but hopefully I have understood what you are saying.
"When in doubt ask a native"..... I say that this assertion must be true, but have to be careful because you might end up asking the wrong person. Assuming, as someone claims, that grammar is something that is innate and we are given at birth, or at least that grammar is something that we can master to perfection when young, then a native will know whether to use a preposition or a construction rather than another, just because he or she knows the language perfectly well. I think this is the definition of native, and everybody is a native in a certain language (or if you have the right parents, in more than one). As you yourself stated in a post some time ago (who knows why I remember it) everybody in the world speaks their native language (which by definition IS a language, except pidgin and perhaps creole, but that's another matter) to perfection, however the language they speak may be not be ours. It might well be similar, but not identical. For example, I speak a pretty decent Italian, but if I were to ask Sig. Bianchi, who has spent all his life in a slum in Rome, never went to school and watched little or no TV something about a word or a phrase, despite we would understand each other, he would probably not give me the answer I need. He would still give me the correct answer, but it would be correct for him and not for me. After all he doesn't speak Italian, but some derivative (is this the right word?). He does speak a fully fledged language, but it happens not to be mine.
I don't know if I am making myself clear at all here, what I am trying to say is that a native is by definition right, but you have to ask the right native. I would say this is what your phrase mean.
Undoubtedly I have a much better grasp of the English grammar and spelling than most natives, but I lack fluency. I am mostly right when I speak or write, but not always, which is when I "ask a native" because he or she, by definition, will know. A native doesn't need to know how his language works. He just knows.

Enough nonsense for now.

Andrea



[Edited at 2007-01-19 22:11]


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Iza Szczypka  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 12:41
English to Polish
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Does he really? Jan 19, 2007

Andrea Re wrote:
A native doesn't need to know how his language works. He just knows.

In Poland translators are expected to translate both ways, as the number of foreigners speaking good enough Polish is small. That's why we read numerous specialist texts written by natives holding degrees in various fields, from business management to civil engineering, medicine, etc. The conclusion is that very many of them cannot make a single sentence free from grammatical, lexical and spelling errors. Of course you don't have to know the rules to make a sentence, but far too many people seem to lack the feel of their native language to the extent making precise communication hardly possible. And I am not talking here about uneducated slobs, but people with a trail of titles following their name. They are experts at what they do and I would not hesitate to ask them questions referring to their professional terminology (glossary-wise) but apart from that they cannot really write their native language. I really wonder who wrote their degree dissertations, and - worse still - who signed them off as degree-worthy ...


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xxxMalik Beytek
Local time: 13:41
"When in doubt, ask a native" sounds right, but... Jan 20, 2007

I am not linguist; so I don't think I could provide a better discussion of various interpretations of a statement, like the one that is subject of this thread, than those already provided here. At the same time, I can, I believe, offer a discussion about process of translation, and thereby demontrate that native speaker attribute is only one of the factors in organizing a project in an optimal manner, and that always insisting on native-speaker in target language may or may not yield optimal organizations for translation projects.

The statement "when in doubt, ask a native" sounds like one, an advice, that can be reasonably useful in most instances, given that the advice is used with a bit of common sense. I mean, if you are working on a piece of text in English containing complicated provisions of law or regulations on banking, e.g., concerning internal banking procedures, like matters of "loan loss provisioning", you don't go ask a tobacco farmer in North Carolina just because he is native speaker of English (officially, at least, whereas in practice they rather seem to speak a language called "Southern").

The output from the translation process is a piece of text in target language. It is a length of communication delivered. As such, a native speaker would definitely have an advantage relative to one who is not, only, however "ceteris paribus".

The input to translation process is a piece of text in source language. It is a length of communication received. As such, a native speaker would definitely have an advantage relative to one who is not, only, however "ceteris paribus".

And then there is the question of what is exactly "native"? I, for example, am native speaker of Turkish, but I don't speak *legalese in Turkish*, so I don't touch any thing that an attorney has written as an attorney. Nor do I touch any thing that a medical doctor has written as a medical doctor -- imagine a medical report describing a complicated medical situation on the basis of somebody's x-ra film, for example.

Ideally, perhaps , a translator should be bilingual from birth -- have two native languages, and then also have *native competencies* in *sub-language* as well, if I could call it that for purposes of this note, like *legalese in English*.

An alternative to that, and perhaps a better alternative in terms of quality but perhaps not so much better in terms of speed and cost, could be to have a team of two persons working together on a translation project, one native in source language and the other native in target language and they both having competencies in the other relevant language as well.

And a third alternative, which could be optimal -- and it does appear to be deemed optimal by project owners and translation offices in most instances--, is to have only one person that has an optimal mix of competencies in both source and target language down to the level of *sub-language* relative to the project.


Therefore always insisting on native-speaker in target language may or may not yield optimal results.


[Edited at 2007-01-20 02:46]


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Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
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Norwegian to English
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Meanings of "grammar" Jan 20, 2007

LuciaC wrote:
Just a brief note: maybe you should make clear that by 'linguist' you mean someone who has studied linguistics in depth (and believe me, many translators have only a vague idea of what linguistics actually is). Unfortunately, in the UK at least, the word linguist is also used in very general terms for anyone who 'knows' languages and it can be ambiguous.


Yes, when discussing language it is essential not to confuse the two meanings of "linguist".



I think it is also necessary to distinguish among the several meanings of "grammar". I can think of at least four right off.

The "rules" of a language that "exist" in the mind of a native speaker and underlie the native speaker's use of a language - native speaker linguistic intuitions . "Ask a native speaker."

A descriptive and/or explanatory model which seeks to formalize and make explicit the "rules" which underlie native speaker linguistic intuitions and grammaticality judgments. "Ask a linguist."

Pedagogical grammar, which provides rules to assist in the learning of a language by non-natives, and prescriptive grammar, which dictates how people "should" use the language. "Many non-native speakers know the language better than most native speakers."






[Edited at 2007-01-20 05:54]


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transparx  Identity Verified
United States
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TOPIC STARTER
... Jan 20, 2007

LuciaC wrote:

Just a brief note: maybe you should make clear that by 'linguist' you mean someone who has studied linguistics in depth (and believe me, many translators have only a vague idea of what linguistics actually is). Unfortunately, in the UK at least, the word linguist is also used in very general terms for anyone who 'knows' languages and it can be ambiguous.





That is a good point, Lucia. Yes, obviously, that’s what I meant. As a matter of fact, one could even support a broader notion of the term ‘linguist;’ it’d be totally fine, as long as it were made clear. In fact, pushed to the extreme, the term ‘linguist’ could be applied to any speaker, just as any person who thinks would be a thinker, I suppose. But I believe that on a professional site, what is meant by technical terms should not be left vague and undefined.

Angela Dickson wrote:

You make some interesting points, but as Lucia says, there is some confusion - competent translators can be (and are) described as 'linguists' but that doesn't mean they know anything at all about linguistics. Not that this fact should be taken to mean that they are bad translators.

Look back through this 'linguistics' forum, and count how many threads are actually about linguistics. Very few.

The examples used in linguistics are often very idealised - a good translator who creates texts in the target (native) language all day will, I hypothesise, have a better chance of pinning down a usage issue in their target language than a linguist (in the sense of 'person who does linguistics').

It's hard to be more specific unless you provide a link to the thread to which you referred...


I would never ever claim that translators who know nothing about linguistics should be labeled as bad translators. They are possibly much better translators than many linguists are. And certainly they might be better interpreters, if they, for instance, are particularly good at performing linguistically. I, for one, would never work as an interpreter: I dislike being under pressure; I get confused and start wanting to leave. I would rather spend time analyzing language than acting as an interpreter. I know many people who are great performers…in a way, I envy them. But I know I could never be like them for the simple fact that I am not a performer.

Regarding your last comment, as well as ICL’s post, I don’t think it’s important to direct the reader to the original thread, which, by the way, could easily be recovered. As I said, the view I’m trying to refute here is a very pervasive one –one that, in my opinion, not only creates confusion internally but also produces dangerous consequences externally. The internal confusion causes members to think that being a native is all that counts when it comes to assessing language; the external danger is that insensitive outsourcers may buy this view and screen out people who have worked hard, may very well qualify to translate in a given language pair, and perhaps desperately need work. We are talking, in other words, about false beliefs being conceived, nurtured, and delivered within this very site to then be exported into the business world, where people have neither the time nor perhaps the tools to assess their veridicality and validity.

Many people claim, for instance, that non-natives should simply not translate. How do they back their arguments? It takes too long; they take work away from natives; their output needs to be revised. And more….Well, it seems to me that all these arguments are weak and ad hoc. I worked as a proofreader for many years before starting my Ph.D. What's wrong with having editors and proofreaders? That proofreaders should be paid more is a different story. Other than that, there is nothing wrong with having the same piece looked at by more than one professional.

It’d be like saying that a waiter or waitress should also work as a runner and a bus boy/girl. While I was a student, I worked in several restaurants here in the city. In some, waiters and waitresses did only what waiters and waitresses are supposed to do; in others, they (we, I should say) were also forced to run back and forth from the kitchen, bus tables, and so on. This is exploitation. Likewise, a translator who works for even up to USD 0.10 per word is exploited if he or she is also responsible for all errors found at later stages.

I know, some might counter that all of this has nothing to do with the original topic, but I do see an important connection. If it is true that, as Angela pointed out, the examples used in linguistics are often idealized, it is also true that so is the image of the perfect translator being promoted by many on this site. I don't believe in perfection –unless we use the word with its original meaning. On the contrary, I believe that these theories that self-appointed translation theorists purport may both harm individual, perhaps young, translators, and give undue power to the agencies.

Bear in mind that I am not speaking in my own behalf. First, I don’t translate much, simply for lack of time. I teach and have an additional online job as a linguistic consultant. Second, whenever I have translated anything, I have always met the deadlines and have never heard any complaints whatsoever about my work.

I am ‘theorizing’ –if I am allowed to use the term, and my primary aim is to try and understand what is meant by certain technical terms. My secondary aim is to unveil and denounce false beliefs about language and the professions related to it.

Once, while traveling in Mexico, I met an American ESL teacher who stuttered. Many would think such a speaker unfit to teach (a) language, or at least they wouldn't regard him or her as a perfect teacher. I, on the other hand, was very happy to hear that not every school looked down upon speakers who cannot perform at their highest capabilities. After all, traditionally, in language classes the curriculum is split into four areas, roughly corresponding to what people refer to as the four skills. Obviously, there is no principle stating that a teacher must be able to perform equally well in all of them.


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transparx  Identity Verified
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this is very true... Jan 20, 2007

thank you, Michele!

Michele Fauble wrote:

I think it is also necessary to distinguish among the several meanings of "grammar". I can think of at least four right off.

The "rules" of a language that "exist" in the mind of a native speaker and underlie the native speaker's use of a language - native speaker linguistic intuitions . "Ask a native speaker."





Often called mental grammar.

Michele Fauble wrote:

A descriptive and/or explanatory model which seeks to formalize and make explicit the "rules" which underlie native speaker linguistic intuitions and grammaticality judgments. "Ask a linguist."

Pedagogical grammar, which provides rules to assist in the learning of a language by non-natives,




Ask a teacher (I would add).

Michele Fauble wrote:


and prescriptive grammar, which dictate how people "should" use the language. "Many non-native speakers know the language better than most native speakers."





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transparx  Identity Verified
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Ciao Andrea Jan 20, 2007

Andrea Re wrote:

Ciao Nino,

long time no see:)

indeed...how's everything?

Andrea Re wrote:

Assuming, as someone claims, that grammar is something that is innate and we are given at birth, or at least that grammar is something that we can master to perfection when young, then a native will know whether to use a preposition or a construction rather than another, just because he or she knows the language perfectly well.


No, grammar is not innate; the ability to acquire/internalize it is.

Andrea Re wrote:

As you yourself stated in a post some time ago (who knows why I remember it) everybody in the world speaks their native language (which by definition IS a language, except pidgin and perhaps creole, but that's another matter) to perfection, however the language they speak may be not be ours.


Just for the record, a creole is a language in its own right.

Andrea Re wrote:

"When in doubt ask a native"..... I say that this assertion must be true, but have to be careful because you might end up asking the wrong person.

... what I am trying to say is that a native is by definition right, but you have to ask the right native. I would say this is what your phrase mean.


I'm not sure I would agree that "a native is by definition right," but, yes, perhaps "when in doubt ask the right native" would be a better way of putting it.


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transparx  Identity Verified
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personally, Jan 28, 2007

Malik Yenigelen wrote:

An alternative to that, and perhaps a better alternative in terms of quality but perhaps not so much better in terms of speed and cost, could be to have a team of two persons working together on a translation project, one native in source language and the other native in target language and they both having competencies in the other relevant language as well.



this is the alternative I would favor.


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Richard Benham  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 12:41
German to English
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Taking things out of context.... Apr 15, 2007

transparx wrote:

Not long ago, in another thread, someone wrote that, when natives are in doubt, they should trust their native-speaker instincts; non-natives should ask a native.

Weren’t you ever warned against unacknowledged quotation or paraphrase, or against taking things out of context? I made the comment, and it was specifically about trying to decide whether a particular construction was acceptable. It remains good advice for that purpose.




Given that, unless I am mistaken, I was the only non-native who contributed anything of import –debatable though it may have been– to that discussion, I take it that the statement reported above was directed at me. If not, as a non-native, I still feel I was called on and would like to comment on it.

Your contribution was about the definition of gerundive. It was not about the acceptablility or otherwise of any grammatical construction. So my remark could not possibly have been aimed at you. It was, as I said, advice for non-native speakers who have trouble on questions of idiom.


Since the above-mentioned thread was about syntax, I felt that, being a linguist, I had every right to intervene. It annoys me to see that when that happens, either in the forums or in the Kudoz section of this site, there is always someone who reacts resentfully if not dismissively or, worse yet, disdainfully. It really is as if someone took it upon him/herself to belittle engineers or lawyers or translators and so on. Being a linguist is a profession. Why not respect it?

Anyone has the right to contribute (your use of intervene is a classic case of interference, btw). You even have a special expertise on the subject. However, linguists generally make a point of not being prescriptive, and the originator of the thread seemed to be asking for people’s opinion on whether the construction was correct, a subject on which you, as befits your profession, offered no opinion.


Finally, I must admit I am not sure I understand what was meant by the statement above.

Try asking a native.


As far as I know, “when in doubt, ask a native” is an ambiguous sentence.

It isn’t. I am aware of the scope games that can be played with declarative sentences, in particular involving the indefinite article, numbers, and other quantifiers, but I am not convinced that this carries over to imperatives. If there is any such ambiguity, it is easily resolved at the level of pragmatics. (Everyday speech is riddled, as you are no doubt aware, with syntactic ambiguities that go unnoticed, precisely because pragmatic considerations ensure the alternative interpretations never occur to anyone.)


On one reading, this statement presupposes that there is just one native that could be asked, say, John Smith. According to this interpretation, John Smith is the only native that knows the answer(s), so anyone who has a question should ask him. On the other reading, the sentence under examination implies that if someone has a question, he or she should ask just *any* native. Now I must conclude that “when in doubt, ask a native” has sense but no reference whatsoever! The first interpretation is implausible, as there are certainly many people one could ask. The second interpretation is also flawed, given that there are many natives who don’t know the answers to questions about structure. As a result, I am left in the dark as to what the person who made the statement above really meant.

If this is how you interpret English in daily life, you would be better off using sign language. Clearly you are reasonably successful as a user of English, and so your practice is obviously a long way removed from your theory, which is elementarily flawed.

Consider the sentence “I want to buy a car.” Unlike the “ask a native”, this is genuinely ambiguous. The two intperpetations could be paraphrased as “There is some x, such that x is a car and I want to buy x” and “I want it to be the case that there is some x such that x is a car and I buy x”. Mediaeval philosophers called these interpretations de re and de dicto respectively. Unfortunately, the range of possible and actual ambiguities that can arise far outstrips the ability of mediaeval philosophers to invent ad hoc Latin technical terms, but this distinction retains its force even today. Even in the de dicto case, however, there is no suggestion that the speaker would be satisfied with any old car. No one familiar with the real world would infer this. The entire discucssion of my utterance (which was expressed with the word should in the case of non-natives rather than as an imperative) is fatuous.

Returning to the topic at hand, I would suggest asking a linguistically aware native about such questions. I really do not think that linguists as such have a lot to contribute, quite apart from their disdain for prescriptivism. Years ago, I read a review in a linguistics journal of a book on the prepositional passive in English. The reviewer quoted the final rule formulated by the author as to when prepositional verbs could be put into the passive, and then proceeded to produce some counterexamples, which seemed perfectly sound counterexamples to me. Then, however, he went on to suggest an amendment to the rule to take account of the counterexamples. It didn’t take me long to think of several counterexamples to the amended rule. No, I am not claiming to have been particularly clever, but rather that it is very hard, even for professionals in the field, to formulate for such recalcitrant constructions rules that come even close to modelling the almost unanimous intuitions and practice of native speakers.

On the other hand, it is true that many native speakers misreport their own practice. You see this a lot on the English monolingual forum on KudoZ. I had a very striking example a few days ago. Indonesian has two second person plural pronouns, depending on whether the person addressed is included or not. For a moment, I had forgotten which was which, and so I asked a local whether, to refer to “kamu dan saya” (you and me), I should say kami or kita. I thought the question was clear enough, but her answer (kami) was, as I instantly recalled when she gave it, the wrong one.

[Edited at 2007-04-15 11:28]


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