September 19, 2017

The Secret Language of The LSAT (Not) – LSAT Quantifiers

The Secret Language of The LSAT (Not) – LSAT Quantifiers

It’s important that LSAT courses, LSAT tutors and third party LSAT books justify their existence. Therefore, LSAT courses and books focus on every conceivable aspect of the LSAT.

The bottom line is that the LSAT is a test of reading and reasoning in context.  High LSAT test scores require effective reading and  a heightened awareness of language.  Given that the LSAT is a reading test, difficulty is to be presumed. There are certain instances where language distracts test takers, creates huge anxiety, and provokes endless discussion. One such area is the use of “quantifiers” on the LSAT. Here is an email that I received from a student:

“Hi John:

I have a question regarding the words few and some. In LSAT world are they of equivalent meaning.

I know some indicates, in numerical terms, 1-100.

But what would few be in numerical terms.

Cheers,”

(Those interested in my response are invited to see:

http://lsattoronto.wordpress.com/2010/02/02/lsat-poll-meaning-of-the-word-few/)

Who could have imagined that a Law School Bound student, would be interested in this question?

What is a quantifier?

Even if you have not heard the word (it sounds boring), you can probably figure it out. It seems to be based on the word “quantity” which means “how many”.  A “quantifier” is a word that that describes “how many” or “what proportion”. Quantifiers are common in everyday language. Here are some examples: “all”, “none”, “most”, ”many”, ”few”, “several”, “some”. These words are so common on the LSAT that at least one (that means a minimum of one, but does not preclude all) scholar has written an essay about the use of quantifiers on the LSAT. For your reading pleasure I refer you to:

http://nlp.stanford.edu/projects/nlkr/scoper.pdf

The obvious question is how to interpret these words on the LSAT. There is commentary from various sources that suggests that these words have a different meaning on the LSAT, than they do in real life. I know of no evidence that this is true. But, before I continue, let’s allow common sense to prevail. It is impossible for words to have a different meaning on the LSAT than in the dictionary or in real life. That said, it is possible  that some test takers may not know the meaning of certain words.

How To Interpret ALL Language On The LSAT – A General Guideline

The following two guidelines will help you navigate the terrain of the LSAT:

First, take small steps. I.e. don’t try to infer too much at once.

Second, focus on what you are most sure of (maximum certainty). The LSAT in general and Logic Games in particular requires you to be alert to the distinction between what MUST BE TRUE (always) and what COULD BE TRUE (sometimes)*.

Third, be mindful of the context. You cannot simply look at a word outside of the context it is used.

If you believe in these three principles (and I have seen “many” LSAT scores improve by following them), then we must apply them to reading quantifiers.

For each of the following quantifiers let’s start with the dictionary definition.  We then focus on what is most certain (MUST INCLUDE) and then focus on what is less certain (COULD INCLUDE).

A. The Quantifier Dictionary – What Do The Words Mean (Not intended to be exhaustive)?

All = used to refer to the whole quantity

“All” MUST include everything. There is nothing remaining that it COULD not include.

None = not any

“None” MUST include nothing. There is nothing remaining that it could include.

Several = more than two but not many

“Several” MUST include more than two or at least three. If the total number available is only three, then several COULD include all. (At least three would not logically restrict it to three.)

Some = an unspecified amount or number of

This is the word that LSAT books love to focus on . (A logic course would teach the word “some: to mean: There is at least one that and that it could include all.”)

“Some” MUST mean at least one. But the fact that it is an unspecified number, means that the number could conceivably include all. It is true that in the lexicon of day-to-day “people talk” the word some means “not all”, you can see that this is inconsistent with the dictionary definition.

Most = greatest in number and degree

“Most” MUST include more than any other possibility. It the greatest number is the largest number then Most COULD include all.

Many = a large number of

“Many” is an ambiguous term. In context, the word many should  be interpreted in a relative sense. By definition it  MUST mean more than one. It COULD mean all (if the context makes it clear that we are not restricted to a subset of the whole). For example the words “Many of the remaining travelers” would  mean something less than all of the travelers.

Few = a small number of

Although the word “some” means an unspecified number, the word “few” means “a small number of”. This mean that it is NOT a large number of, which means that:

“Few” MUST preclude all.  Contextually, it is almost certain to include at least one.

Conclusion:

When we consider the dictionary definition we know that:

Definite Numbers vs. A Proportion or Percent**:

“None” = Cannot include any = 0

“All” = Must include everything

“Some” = Must include at least one – Could include all

“Several” = Must include at least three – Could include all

Definite Proportions or Percent vs. A Definite Number**:

“Most” = Must include a majority – Could include all if the context allows

“Many” = Must include more than one – What it could include will be driven by he context. It is logically possible for “many” to include “all”?

“Few” = Must include a definite number that is a small proportion of the whole. Since it is less than many it could not include all.

Bottom Line: In terms of the dictionary definitions:

“all” and “none” are the most clear;

“Some, several, most and many, although they include different minimum numbers , could (depending on the context) include all;

“few” includes a definite number that is less than all.

B. How Does The Context Influence The Meaning?

Ultimately the context will be used to determine the meaning of the word. Therefore, when deciding whether the words “some”, “most”, and “many” could be interpreted to include all:

–       Don’t be a slave to the dictionary defintion’

–       Look at the context.

C. Does Any Of This Actually Matter?

The answer is NOT MUCH. I have seen  “some” (meaning at least one – do you think that in this case the context could include “all”?) LSAT questions where the answer did require one to know that the word “some” DID NOT MEAN “not all”. Beyond that,  this is unlikely to have an impact on your LSAT score. That said, I urge:

– all of you are who are LSAT teachers, LSAT scholars, LSAT Friends or LSAT Historians;

–  to post the source of actual LSAT questions where the answer depended on knowing that the words “some”, “most” and “many” could include “all”.

I welcome your comments.

John Richardson

*The “must” vs. “could” distinction is very important in understanding LSAT questions and answer choices.

**The percentage vs. number distinction has been a long time favorite LSAT question type.

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