25 August 2006

the vice president, if you will

I saw yesterday I've been quoted in the Chicago Tribune by culture and feature writer Julia Keller. Keller emailed me last week with a question about the construction if you will, which she had noticed occurs frequently in the speech of Vice President Cheney. She wanted to know what linguists call such phrases and where this one in particular comes from. She also sought my feedback on her interpretation that Cheney uses this to dress up his speech and make it sound more refined.

I did what I could to help, labelling the phrase a hedge and pointing her to this exchange from Language Log a few years ago, in which Pullum likens if you will to the discourse-marking/hedge like. (I added a quick definition of hedge, calling it "a phrase that slightly alters (possibly softens) the impact of a factual claim"). Keller said she'd seen the posts already, but thanked me for clarifying what we mean by hedge - I guess it's a term that linguists take for granted.

I also tried to dissuade her of being too interpretive of Cheney's usage, as my own opinion is simply that he uses the hedge that's appropriate to his age and the typical formality of his settings. I also tried to emphasize that it is indeed functional and not "basically pointless". Nevertheless, I agree with her that it's odd for Cheney, a blunt man for whom everything is either right or wrong, to use any hedges at all. (Although it's not so weird for him to use it as a discourse marker to highlight a particular component of his statements - indeed, in his case it may make a falsehood appear closer to the truth).

I say Keller deserves credit for seeking the input of linguists for this question rather than, say, literature critics or critical theorists. My only quibble is the indirect quotation which has me saying that English has a notorious grab bag of hedges to choose from, when I had been far less dramatic in saying English has a variety of such structures, but is not unique among languages in this respect. But hey, Keller has Pulitzer Prize on her shelf, so she can write as she wishes.

cosmic objects and linguistic objects

Well, I've been scooped on this whole current "definition of planet" issue and its linguistic interest, which is a shame given that I'd intended to post about it last February but was too unmoved to do so at the time. But piloklok is not about scoops, so I'll still add my thoughts.

Notably, two things written recently by Geoff Pullum make it clear how this debate is relevant to linguistics: first, indeed, this issue is not a matter of changing the universe; instead it's simply a matter of lexicography. It's a question of using definitions that provide a set of criteria to determine whether a particular entity (e.g., an individual heavenly object) fits into a larger category (e.g., planet).

Second, Pullum agrees with a correspondent that the general public's likely dissatisfaction with a definition that denies "planethood" to Pluto is similar to a prescriptive and by-rote approach to grammar instruction. In short, people do not want to admit that what they learned in school, such as the planetary status of Pluto, is no longer current (and perhaps never should have been). Likewise, the same people do not want to admit that what they learned regarding grammar (take your pick - singular-referring they/their, stranded prepositions, whatever) never should have been current.

Here's another parallel to consider: this is not only a discussion of definition and lexicography; it closely mirrors the linguist's choice of how to define linguistic categories. For example, here are some possible criteria that could be used to distinguish planets from other big things in outer space: (a) Made of rocks not ice; (b)spherical by virtue of its own mass; (c), in the same plane and solidified from the same nebulous stuff as other planets in the same system (and the central object). The first two criteria focus only on properties of the object itself, while the third relies on how that object behaves in relation to other big things in space.

Likewise, in linguistics we are confronted with how to develop suitable sets of criteria to define categories as varied as gesture, feature, phoneme, word, stem, noun, verb, utterance, message, and so on. Take noun: we have the elementary school definition, "a person, place or thing", and the syntactic definition, "word that can occupy subject or object position in a sentence". The first definition looks desperately to properties of the word itself (in this case, what can it refer to?), while the other relies on how this category behaves in relation to other linguistic objects. That this more suitable definition relies on close analysis of the structure of a sentence, rather than a handy memnonic, makes it less likely to be a widely-accepted means of defining nouns.

14 August 2006

On "need to"

My brother recently pointed out this article in Slate to me and wanted to know what I thought; unfortunately, I had to take issue with nearly everything in it. Happily, my brother enjoyed my response more than the article itself. The Slate article is by Ben Yagoda, a professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware. Yagoda has guest posted on Language Log but has also been taken to task in the same venue. As Yagoda is a professional writer and scholar of English, his take on the usage of a particular word – in this case, need – is decidedly unlike what a linguist would argue.

Since I have been so late in posting this discussion, there has been time for others in the linguablogosphere to have commented upon it, but I have seen little discussion elsewhere. I have only found it discussed in this entry on Translate This, and only for Yagoda’s apparent use of the term tense instead of mood (see also a comment by Polyglot Conspiracy on the same post).

Yagoda starts with a convenient observation that President Bush uses need to apparently as a tool of political innuendo, but offers no comparison about whether other leaders use it more or less. He then tries to argue that need to has effectively replaced all other verbs and modals of necessity:

In the battle for pre-eminence among verbs of compulsion or requirement, need to has won a bloodless and overwhelming victory over must, ought to, should, and the former and longtime champion, have to, which yields only about a billion Google hits compared to two billion for need to.

Like Bull Run, this may have been a battle that many of us civilians regrettably believed we could watch in safety as we sipped sweet tea while reclined on a picnic blanket. But I didn't witness it; although Yagoda cites Google counts for need to vs. other expressions of "requirement", he offers no time comparison, and thus has no way of showing that need to is indeed gaining on other constructions. Yagoda then claims that need to is more versatile than other expressions of requirement, citing its ability to work in the passive:

Its popularity is partly explained by its versatility. Passive constructions in the form of "the floor needs to be washed" or "the video needs to be returned" deftly finesse the question of just who will be doing the washing or returning.

But in "The floor needs to be washed", wash is the passive verb; meanwhile, "The floor has to be washed" shows that need to is not uniquely versatile in this respect. As does "The floor must be washed", "the floor ought to be washed", and "the floor should be washed".

Yagoda then claims that the "ascendance" of need to "dovetails perfectly with the long and sad decline of the traditional imperative mood." As with the absence of evidence regarding the increasing frequency of need to, there is no evidence for the decline in the usage of the imperative. Yet he goes on: "Without it, the Ten Commandments would be the Ten Suggestions." The Ten Commandments, in their English translation, are not imperative. If they were, they would read "Don't kill; Don't lie," and so on. "Instead of the pleasingly direct 'No Smoking,' we have the presumptuous 'Thank You for Not Smoking'." Likewise, No Smoking is not imperative (Don't Smoke is). Sure, there might be a difference between this and other ways of forbidding smoking, but they all forbid smoking.

Yagoda then implies that need to softens a command more than any other construction that expresses an order. Again, this is both unsupported and probably false: by this reasoning, "You ought to do the dishes" is not as "soft" as "You need to do the dishes". To me, ought is softer.

Up to this point, Yagoda has been discussing need to as a verbal construction, but here he switches to the noun, need. He manipulates the Oxford entry for nominal need, which offers a quoted example of its usage (in 1929) as a technical term in psychology, citing it instead as "the first use of need in an emotional context". This leads him to conclude that the author of the quotation coined the use of need to refer to emotional needs, which nevertheless has little to do with the modal need to.

He then moves on to attribute current usage of need to the theories of 1940’s era psychologist Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Human Needs. Indeed, the intended implication seems to be that Maslow's theories are somehow relevant to (and even influential on) the use of need to as a modal verb: "It led to a new and now-dominant meaning for the adjective 'needy' — more or less the antonym of 'emotionally self-sufficient'." Here is another empirical problem – there is no evidence that this the "now dominant meaning" in place of, say, "poor".

The ultimate upshot is that Yagoda claims that since Maslow and his students discussed "needs" of children, that anyone who uses need as a verb is using it in an infantilizing way. "The Bushian "Anyone who harbors terrorists needs to fear the U.S." certainly isn't an I message, although it does have a petulant, lecturing undertone that evokes the nursery. The president … is trading on the word's psychological connotation, with its subtle but ineluctable suggestion of strong inner forces at work." Really? The president ... subtle?

In short, Yagoda has misused a dictionary, misused Google, confused grammatical terminology, equivocated on nominal and verbal functions of need, and made unsupported claims about the frequency of various constructions. It all comes across as clever and entertaining to the casual, intellectual reader of Slate, but I have to read it as an exercise in creative writing more than an informed discussion of the meaning and function of words.

backloklok at piloklok

I haven't been able to offer any new posts for a few weeks, as all my writing time has been occupied with other obligations. Don't worry, though, because I have a few meaty posts on the way.