"You can’t have too much chocolate"

I find it's more difficult to prove things about natural language than about well-defined specified languages (eg, computer languages). Sometimes a good counter-example is the clearest proof of all. A demonstration of your point can be more practical than a formal proof of it.

English (the natural language) is ambiguous, but it can be very meticulous to formally prove that. Even if you try, a skeptic can just refuse to understand your proof and accuse you of hand-waving tactics and smoke-and-mirror tricks. However, a sentence like "You can't have too much chocolate" very quickly demonstrates the ambiguity. Does that mean:

  • You must limit the amount of chocolate you have to some threshold ("not too much").

  • No amount of chocolate is too much.

If you think it has a cut and dry meaning; ask 10 of your friends to paraphrase that sentence  and see how it splits.


(p.s. It's post like these that led me to have a "random" category 🙂 )

Comments (8)

  1. Darron says:

    There was an old Saturday Night Live skit with Ed Asner that hinged on exactly what you are saying.

    It started in the control room of a Nuclear reactor. Ed Asner’s last words to the operators was "Remember, you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor."

  2. Not to nitpick, but technically "proof by counterexample" *is* a valid formal proof 😉

  3. Emphasis can change meaning too. Take this:

    I didn’t steal your money.


    – I didn’t steal your money (no emphasis)

    – I didn’t steal your money, but someone else did (emphasis on "I")

    – I didn’t steal your money, but I might have done something else with it (emphasis on "steal")

    – I didn’t steal your money, but might have stolen something else of yours (emphasis on "money")


  4. One of my posts (http://blogs.msdn.com/abhinaba/archive/2005/12/08/501453.aspx) led to an interesting discussion. What do you mean by "I executed the program". Did you mean that you ran the program of gassed/hanged/electrocuted it 🙂

  5. mike says:

    This is one of those scenarios where sticklers for the distinction between "can" and "may" actually have a point.

    A problem with getting all logical on language issues is that context means so much beyond just the words. For example, is this sentence uttered among listeners who are familiar with sayings like "You can’t be too thin or too rich!"? Is this a stern mother speaking to a habitually overindulgent child? IOW, no definitive declaration as to the meaning of this sentence is valid (or provable) without understanding the context in which it’s created.

  6. Mike – those are great examples of ambiguity. I totally agree that context can disambiguate; the tough part is that it’s tough to formally describe these contexts.

    I’m not sure "may" vs. "can" will help here. I think they’re both amibiougs.

    Does "You may not have too much" mean:

    – you are not allowed to have too much.

    – OR you accidentally might not have sufficient amounts. (as in "we may not have enough for everybody to have some")

    I think the ambiguity is easier to spot in "you may not say the right answer".

  7. Kristen says:

    It is completely and totally impossible to read "You can’t have too much chocolate" in more than one way.  Especially if you are female. Finally someone that agrees with me.


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