The Rhythm of Conversation (pt. 1)

Many things in our lives have rhythms: music, poetry, the pace at which we walk, and even the rate at which we talk. One of the marvels of everyday conversation – overlooked, perhaps, because it seems so obvious and so easy – is turn-taking. That is, when one speaker finishes talking, someone else usually starts … Continue reading The Rhythm of Conversation (pt. 1)

That’s not what I meant!

Ambiguity pervades language. This ambiguity can be used strategically by speakers, but it’s also what makes language so challenging for machines to understand – and in some cases, it even leads to miscommunications between people, particularly over written communication. During in-person interactions, ambiguity is more easily avoided. If a speaker says of a recently released … Continue reading That’s not what I meant!

Sounding entitled

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being entitled. A worker is entitled to a paycheck; a customer is entitled to the goods they’ve paid for; all of us are entitled to certain inalienable human rights[1]. So why is “entitled” usually used as an insult? When someone says that somebody else is “acting entitled”, what they really … Continue reading Sounding entitled

“You Got Heat?”: Indirect speech acts in The Wire

Language is full of ambiguity. This fuzziness is often cited as a sign of imperfection, leading some to try to develop more precise languages of their own[1]. But ambiguity actually serves a purpose, and is frequently exploited in human interactions. Part of recognizing the utility of ambiguity requires understanding that language is more than just … Continue reading “You Got Heat?”: Indirect speech acts in The Wire

When will machines understand our intentions?

Imagine you’re at a new friend’s house for dinner, and the house is stiflingly hot. You feel uncomfortable turning on the AC yourself, so instead, you casually remark: “Boy, it sure is warm in here!” Your friend will probably infer your intentions, and will turn on the AC or open a window. Now imagine that … Continue reading When will machines understand our intentions?

The Interpretation of Indirect Speech Acts

In a previous post, I raised the problem of indirect speech acts – utterances in which the literal interpretation differs from the speaker’s intended meaning. These are interesting for two reasons: They’re an example of successful people communicating and interpreting nonliteral meaning, and thus would seem to involve the use of some inference mechanism. As … Continue reading The Interpretation of Indirect Speech Acts