Sunday, October 15, 2006

If You Think A You Must Say B.

Geoffrey Pullum has an ongoing campaign over at Language Log to defend his claims regarding what he calls "linguification." He provides this example of the rhetorical device, then he comments on it.

It's difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word 'bisexual' without finding that it is immediately followed by the word 'chic'.

Instead of talking about mainstream media attitudes, [Alexis Long] linguified the claim, constructing a new statement about obligatory word adjacency in running text.

Apparently a lot of journalists are deciding to make observations about language that they believe imply something about cultural values. Mr Pullum has heard all the defences of this technique. Too many people have written to him trying to explain that this is just a figure of speech and it's a nod to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and it shouldn't be taken literally and it's often intended to be humorous. And Pullum is fed up.

What I wanted to draw attention to was simply the strange practice of publishing linguified claims: for example, saying the name X is invariably followed by the phrase Y when it isn't, or saying X is always accompanied by the qualifier Y when it isn't, and so on and so on. Why linguify? I have no idea. It just doesn't look like a good writing idea to me.

I agree. One of my old pet peeves is the snowclone "I never thought I'd hear _X_ and _Y_ uttered in the same sentence." This one makes no sense considering how easy it is to construct a sentence that reasonably uses two terms that no one thought would ever be related. But what's worse is that the cookie cutter phrase often fills the blanks with two things that are very closely related through controversy. It is common to hear this form generate a sentence like the following:

I never thought I'd hear "Pope" and "Ozzy" in the same sentence.

Really? Is it so hard to imagine that a religious leader might have an opinion about the prince of darkness? Or that there might be some completely legitimate reason to mention the Pope and heavy metal music in the same sentence?

A simple Google search for the exact phrases "thought I'd hear" and "same sentence" calls up 205 results. That's quite a few considering the phrases have to be exact. Change the first exact phrase to "thought I would hear" and you get another 104 sentences. Change it again to "thought I'd read" and you get another 206 results. Let's get rid of the whole first phrase. I searched for just the exact phrase "used in the same sentence" and I got 105,000 results. Not all of them were examples of the linguifi-clone, but seven out of the first ten results were using the formula in question. The rest were about other linguistic issues.

I thought Mr Pullum's concerns would be easy to relay. I told Buffy about it. And when I borrowed one of Pullums examples, quoting a writer who says that the phrase "spiraling costs...has virtually become a prefix for the words 'health care'" she balked. "But it's a figure of speech" she said. "Writers can do what they want" she said. "It's not like they're actually thinking that this is happening in the language..." and I nod remembering that she really doesn't like to make sweeping dismissals of anything. But she does come through for me when she offers, unprompted, that anything that's overused becomes weak. "If the phrase 'virtually a prefix' becomes too common" she says, "then it becomes a lame cliche."

Seeing my chance I risk the question "And if linguification in general becomes too common you're saying its a bad writing device?" She realizes what I'm doing. She shrugs her shoulders and says "yeah sure."

Mr Pullum is a close observer of language formulae. He notices usages that don't stray far from the stencil. And some of those stencils don't show much promise for encouraging creativity or generating fertile ideas.

I believe the following is his best example. After quoting Daniel Gilbert:

"Movies, theater, parties, travel — those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce."

he says

How's that again? Kids actually damage the record of phonological information in your mental lexicon? Sounds even worse than the worst that parents had previously suspected...

He takes specific issue with the habit of turning a valid observation "into a claim about language that is wildly and demonstrably false." Can we at least agree just because something is a figure of speech it isn't automatically good writing?


  1. I agree, some figures can be less than flattering.

  2. "Movies, theater, parties, travel — those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce."

    In response to this: I work at a children's clothing store with lots of moms of young children and I'm shocked at how many will leave their kids with grandparents or friends of the family and go off on a two week trip without the children! A lot of them still seem to see plenty of movies and go to parties actually saddens me...


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