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.


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