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Bugs in English

By December 11, 2023No Comments

This is an original essay by member “Fry”. We’ve been discussing the representation of knowledge within the UKS and how it relates to the ambiguity of language. Leave a comment!

Dec 7, 2023

English is a natural language. Most people think it is primarily good for communication between people. But it has a second benefit, which is perhaps even more important: Communicating *within* a person. This internal communication facilitates reasoning.   The big deal about our species is the ability to reason. Its hard to reason and/or think without a language to do that reasoning in. Most people do, at least the front-end step of reasoning, in their native natural language. Suppose that that language had a bug?   Analogy: You’re on a cell phone and you get a drop out. It’s a bug. It’s an important bug because it impedes the reason you’re on your cell phone in the first place: communication. Analogous to this analogy: what is the effect of a bug in English? Something that impedes a primary benefit of English: reasoning.

Some examples of English bugs will aid understanding.

Bug #1: Polysemy

English has a bug called “polysemy”. It means that a given word may have more than one meaning. Why is this a bug? The word bug, in computer science means a mistake in a program. If your program has a bug, it means it doesn’t work. It disables the program from achieving its intended goal.

Does the use of polysemy in an English sentence cause the sentence to not convey its intended meaning? Sometimes. We humans are smart enough to know that when we’re talking about farming, “bug” means an insect. When we’re talking about software it means “a mistake in the code”. But sometimes the “context” is ambiguous. Say you’re working on some software for choosing the right pesticide for growing corn and a colleague says: “We’ve got a new bug”. Are we in the “software context” or the “farming context”? That’s why “polysemy” is a bug in English. It is a “feature” of English that impedes the purpose of using English in the first place.

Bug #2: Anaphora

Anaphora is using a pronoun to refer to a more definitive, yet less concise, concept. “We wanted to use the boat to get lunch but it was late.” Does “it” refer to “lunch” or “boat”? Lunch is the closest to “it” so probably we mean that except its more likely that a boat could be late that lunch, so maybe it means boat.

Programmers rarely use anaphora because its ambiguous. By providing a “feature” likely to be ambiguous, English has a bug because it impedes communication. If we said:  “We wanted to use the boat to get lunch but the boat was late.” It would be slightly longer, but not nearly as long as someone thinking lunch was late and therefore going to get on the boat.

Bug #3 Elide Attribute name

Consider: “He is brown.” Pretend that this is a spoken statement. It could mean the color of He is brown or it might mean that the name of He is “brown”. Context: Someone says “The guy at the bar is smith,  the fellow sitting next to smith is jones, and the next guy, well he is brown.”

The speaker is taking a shortcut. Better would be to say “The last name of He is brown.” But English allows us to leave out the “attribute name” (last_name in this case) and just give the attribute value, because the TYPE of the value implies the attribute name. If we know that “brown” is supposed to be a last name, then sure, we surmise that “He is brown” meant “the last name of he is brown”. In this case perhaps the intended meaning of the speaker really was to refer a color, not a last name.

The Advantage of Bugs

Polysemy *can* give you a hint about word meaning. However, usually in English, the original relationship between one meaning and another is often long gone as English evolves.

Being concise is good.  However, a statement that is easily misinterpreted is better not said at all.

Ambiguity is useful when lying or to indicate a range of possible values, say “1 to 10” or “all dogs”.  However, unintended ambiguity impedes useful communication by confusing the listener.

English has lots of wonderful features.  But some features are of negative value. The programmer’s assertion “That’s not a bug, that’s a feature” is a joke. Bugs defeat the purpose of the language they’re written in.

Mitigating Bugs

Bugs in our reasoning language cause bugs in our reasoning which can be costly. How can we avoid them? The most thorough strategy is “change English.”  Rather difficult. But we can work around bugs in English via:

  1. Understand that English has bugs.
  2. Recognize the potential importance of such bugs.
  3. Catalogue common bugs in English.

Above are three but there are many more.

  1. Avoid using English in a way that incorporates bugs.

But what do pros do? They use a different language. Programmers use programming languages that just don’t permit the most common bugs in English, or at least don’t make it easy to create such bugs. Most disciplines, especially the more scientific or engineering disciplines, develop their own jargon to extend English with unambiguous terminology. Doctors don’t say “funny bone”, they say “ulnar nerve”. Chemists don’t say “water”, they say H2O. Programmers don’t say “goes round and round”. They say “loop”.

Bugs in English, like their counterpart in programming, can cause unnecessary death, destruction and disruption. Mitigating them is a high leverage technique for improving civilization.

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