Bertrand Russell, I believe, somewhere presents a joke (if I remember correctly). Someone is shown the boat of another, and the first says: "I thought that your boat is longer than it is." The owner replies: "No, my boat is not longer than it is."

Does someone know the reference?

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    $\begingroup$ A small nitpick: the first person would say "I thought that your boat was longer than it is." (Otherwise it wouldn't make sense!) $\endgroup$
    – TonyK
    Jul 11, 2021 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ @TonyK Yes, that it also what Russell had in the original, I see. Perhaps the irrealis were would be appropriate, as well. $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2021 at 3:19
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    $\begingroup$ No, were is definitely wrong here. There is no if. $\endgroup$
    – TonyK
    Jul 11, 2021 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ That's "Were I a grammarian, I could amplify." You can weigh in, but your earlier suggestion of irrealis were betrays your foreign status, as mush as your name does. $\endgroup$
    – TonyK
    Jul 11, 2021 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ Martin Gardner (an admirer of Russell) may have been thinking, in part, of Russell's example when he wrote this about the length of the Loch Ness monster: books.google.com/… $\endgroup$
    – Buzz
    Jul 12, 2021 at 2:25

1 Answer 1


Bertrand Russel, On denoting
Mind, October 1905, pages 479-493.

When we say: "George IV wished to know whether so-and-so", or when we say "So-and-so is surprising" or "So-and-so is true", etc., the "so-and-so" must be a proposition. Suppose now that "so-and-so" contains a denoting phrase. We may either eliminate this denoting phrase from the subordinate proposition "so-and-so", or from the whole proposition in which "so-and-so" is a mere constituent. Different propositions result according to which we do. I have heard of a touchy owner of a yacht to whom a guest, on first seeing it, remarked, "I thought your yacht was larger than it is"; and the owner replied, "No, my yacht is not larger than it is". What the guest meant was, "The size that I thought your yacht was is greater than the size your yacht is"; the meaning attributed to him is, "I thought the size of your yacht was greater than the size of your yacht".

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    $\begingroup$ Given how often I seem to hear this phrase in movies and TV shows (usually as a sarcastic comment by the Hero to the Villain, and sometimes the reverse), I suspect Russel, if writing now, would use the example "I thought you were taller than you are". $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2021 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Dave L Renfro: maybe he would've said: "I see your Schwartz is as big as mine"... $\endgroup$
    – Qfwfq
    Jul 10, 2021 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ Shouldn't it be "No, my yacht was not larger than it is"? $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2021 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ A friend of mine will often read one of his own papers, get worried about some technical point, then finally figure out that his paper is correct as written. On such occasions, he likes to exclaim, "I'm smarter than I am!" $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2021 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ Long ago at work I needed to know something from a topic I was clueless about, so I asked a senior co-worker. The co-worker was not an expert, but he gave me a good quick overview of the topic. I asked some followup questions, to which his answers became less certain. Finally, after another question, he said "I've already told you three times as much as I know!". $\endgroup$
    – none
    Jul 11, 2021 at 23:50

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