Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Am I A Pedant?

Now before you all rush to answer I know that in general I can be pedantic. But what I'm interested in is this specific case. So without further ado...

I know a lot about questions and answers. For those of you who don't already know, my PhD thesis was entitled Open Domain Question Answering. If you are bored or an insomniac then you can even read it if you like. Chapter 1 deals with the problem of exactly what constitutes a question and more importantly what forms valid answers can take. For the purpose of this post, however, the OED definitions of question and answer will probably suffice.
question noun a sentence worded or expressed so as to elicit information.

answer noun a thing that is said, written, or done to deal with or as a reaction to a question, statement, or situation.
Seems simple right? Well in reality it is quite complex. For example, if in response to the question How tall is the Eiffel Tower? I was given the answer Belgium, then either a) I'm being sworn at by Zaphod Beeblebrox or b) the answer isn't valid as it doesn't answer the question. Now we know all there is to know about questions and answers let us move on to the meat of this tale of pedantic question answering.

Yesterday I saw an advert on the side of a bus which read:
How many UK children live in poverty? 1 in 3
Now am I being pedantic in saying that 1 in 3 is not a valid answer to the question? I would argue that only a specific number can form a valid answer to a How Many X? type question. Asking what proportion, ratio or percentage of UK children live in poverty could, however, be answered by 1 in 3 (I know 1 in 3 isn't a percentage but it is close enough).

So am I just being pedantic, is the advert wrong, or both?
5 November 2008 at 17:36 , Scriptor Senex said...

No, you are not pedantic. The advert is definitely wrong. And, any rate, in my book being pedantic is a Good Thing!

5 November 2008 at 20:15 , Marcel said...

However, the answer (as per the definition given by you and the OED) could be, 'I don't know', in that it is a response or a reaction to something said. I would have said, 'I don't know' might be a perfectly good, honest and utterly defensible answer to the question, although it doesn't answer it in the narrow way you demand.

5 November 2008 at 20:22 , Mark said...

Marcel, you are perfectly correct. "I don't know" is a perfect answer.

In my QA research we have an annual evaluation in which you can return the answer NIL. NIL means you think there is no answer in the text collection you are using as your knowledge base. So for human knowledge I'd say that NIL and "I don't know" are the same.

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