Fall off

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Caioveloso

Senior Member
Brazilian portuguese
hello everybody!

I know that "fall off" means to fall from a higher place, but I couldn't figure out the meaning of this phrasal verb in this sentence:

"I did a survey and many people said they could speak six or seven (languages), but they started to fall off at 11"
 
  • sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    It's in our dictionary, buried in a mass of other meanings.:)

    fall off,[no object] to decrease in number, amount, or intensity; diminish:
     

    Caioveloso

    Senior Member
    Brazilian portuguese
    Ok, but I didn't understand its context in this sentence. I understood that the people who said they could speak six or seven languages, later increased (and not decreased) their number of languages to 11.
     

    xuliang

    Senior Member
    Chinese Mandarin
    No.

    The numbers of people who claimed they could speak 11 or more languages/dialects dropped rapidly.:)
    Hi, SD. I am curious to know, did you get this meaning right after you read the original sentence, or you first assumed the sentence was correct and then conclude the meaning by logic . I found the sentence in OP was unusual and had the same thought as Caioveloso.

    I am wondering if the structure of the sentences is common.

    Thank you.

    Edit: I corrected an error. (It should be "unusual")
     
    Last edited:

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    The numbers of people who claimed they could speak 11 or more languages/dialects dropped rapidly.:)
    If that's the intended meaning, sdg, (and it probably is) then the sentence is badly written. The only possible antecedent of "they" is the "many people" who said they could speak six or seven languages.

    When I first read the sentence I took it to mean that those people who could speak six or seven languages had difficulty managing eleven: their abilities would diminish rapidly at that point. Only after thinking about how such survey results might look did I realise that "they" must refer to the count of a different (so far unmentioned) set of people.

    Ws
    [Edit: missing word]
     
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    manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    Hi, SD. I am curious to know, did you get this meaning right after you read the original sentence, or you first assumed the sentence was correct and then conclude the meaning by logic . I found the sentence in OP was usual and had the same thought as Caioveloso.
    Good question! I had a similar thought at first, but my conclusion is that the phrasing is unusual, or better, an unlucky choice of phrasing.

    At first reading I assumed that the second 'they' is equivalent to the first:
    "... many people said they could ... but they started ...".
    That's a logical conclusion for an uninitiated reader/listener. Only when you realize that this interpretation makes no sense, your mind correlates the second 'they' with the next suitable element in the sentence (i.e. the people in the survey).

    The writer could have avoided this by replacing the second 'they', e.g.:
    "..., but the speakers started to fall off at 11 languages." (and this does break the mental 'they-they-correlation)


    [edit: crossed with WS. But I think, we're saying the same thing more or less.)
     

    sdgraham

    Senior Member
    USA English
    If that's the intended meaning, sdg, (and it probably is) then the sentence is badly written. The only possible antecedent of "they" is the "many people" who said they could speak six or seven languages.
    Quite true. It's poorly written. We should have insisted upon the OP providing the source.:oops:
     

    manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    Within context it sounds clear enough since he's talking about his work and the number of languages hyperpolyglots can speak in that whole paragraph.

    Well, to be honest, I'm not totally sure if it's the context that makes it much clearer, or the fact that I read and thought about the sentence in question yesterday.
    I could imagine to say something like that in an interview, but for written text that's planned to be published, I'd probably choose a different style.
    In fact, the whole article has a bit of an informal feel, it uses sort of simple language for a potentially complex topic. I'm not sure if this was chosen by the author of this article or if it's the style of the interviewee. I'm leaning towards the latter because the book seems to be targeted towards the mass market, and the intentional use of simple language can increase sales figures ...

    Just my 2 cents as a non-native speaker! I didn't read the book, it's just my (superficial) impression after reading the statements made, the language style, etc. etc.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    Thanks for providing the source, Caio. Having read it, I'm still in two minds about the intended meaning.

    1) It could be an incorrectly written sentence, with the second "they" having no direct antecedent and actually intended to refer to the number of people corresponding to each successive language-count (decreasing from the 11-language point). Bearing in mind that the sentence was written by a journalist, based on a spoken interview, it may not be exactly what the linguist Erard said (and the editor may not have picked up on the apparent anomaly).

    However, I have my doubts about that interpretation. If the number of people at the six- or seven-language point was "many", and the number "started to fall off" at the 11-language point, why wouldn't he say that there were "many" who spoke 8/9/10 languages. Or if there weren't many from 8 languages onward, then why wouldn't he say that that the number of people "started to fall off" at 8 languages?

    2) It could be (as I originally read it, and as the sentence structure suggests) that the second "they" has the same antecedent as the first "they", being the many people who claimed to speak six or seven languages; and that, of those people, there were very few who could get to 11 or more. Further on in the article, Erard speaks of a man who says he has 31 languages, "though the ones he’s able to use on a regular basis without any warming up are 10 or 11". So there we have an example of someone whose abilities "fall off" at around 11 languages.

    But even that second interpretation begs the question of what happens with people who claim to speak 8/9/10 languages.
    .

    Of course, there's a third possibility. Erard may have given a much fuller answer, and one that made sense, and the journalist may have cut it down to the point where it lost its meaning. (I've experienced many instances of that in my professional life!:()

    Or a fourth possibility: Erard was speaking, and so may not have explained as coherently as he would if writing; (that can easily happen in the 'hot-seat' situation of a press interview). The journalist may then have reported the sentence verbatim, without actually trying to understand it.

    Ws
     
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