The biggest bug in the English language

I propose that the biggest bug in the English language is the ambiguity of plurals.

Consider the following statements:

“Republicans want to destroy the Department of Education.”

“Democrats want open borders.”

“Silicon Valley techies want us addicted to our phones.”

“Teenagers love Oreos.”

With each of these statements, it feels like information is being contributed. But is that really so? What do these statements even mean?

Let’s look at the first one, “Republicans want to destroy the Department of Education.”

Obviously there exist at least two Republicans who want to destroy the Department of Education. But on the other hand, obviously not all 100% of Republicans want to destroy the Department of Education.

So when someone says “Republicans want to destroy the Department of Education” does that sentence mean anything? Does it convey any information whatsoever?

Presumably, when someone makes a statement like that, there’s an unspoken implication that the percentage is high enough to be worth commenting on. But I suspect that in many cases the folks making these statements don’t even know what the true percentage is. Is it 2% of Republicans? 10%? 50%? 90%? 98%?

And even if the speaker has a fraction in mind, without telepathy, their audience will have no idea. Maybe the speaker intends “Republicans” to mean “A significant chunk of Republicans, like 20%” while a listener hears “Republicans” as “Most Republicans, like 80%.”

Not always, but often, these sentences seem to be vehicles for Motte and Bailey fallacies. Someone will say “Democrats want open borders.” Perhaps you ask “Oh, what fraction?” They say “I haven’t seen a survey, but look at this crazy Democrat who wants open borders. What a wackadoodle!”

The expansive, undefined version of the argument - the Bailey - sounds like it covers most Democrats. But when challenged, it retreats into the narrow defensible Motte, transforming into “well, here’s an example of someone who believes it. There are a lot more like them, I’m sure.”

The next time someone says “Group X thinks Y,” I encourage you to wonder “Hmm, but what fraction of Group X thinks Y?” Often this technique helps me realize that nothing is being said at all.

P.S. For a contrary point of view that discusses why language like this exists and is useful, check out The Language of Generalization by Tessler and Goodman.