Julie Sedivy

Website: http://www.juliesedivy.com/

I'm a cognitive scientist and writer, entirely smitten with language. I hold an adjunct appointment in Psychology and in Linguistics, Languages & Cultures at the University of Calgary, where I can be found teaching the occasional course. I'm the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You and have recently published a psycholinguistics textbook titled Language in Mind. I sporadically spend time on Twitter as @soldonlanguage.

Posts by Julie Sedivy:

    You use the present tense, you persuade people to save money

    We've had some discussion lately about the sports subjunctive/baseball conditional/bare paratactic conditional. I'm going to stay out of any naming controversies, but I do want to pick up on the fact that this construction typically involves using a present tense verb form to describe a future event. Like this:

    We've also been discussing Keith Chen's controversial proposal that the grammatical marking of future tense leads to unwise spending and eating habits—allegedly, these behaviors are curtailed when the same form is used for both present and future time, since people are encouraged to perceive a stronger continuity between their present and future interests. (Commentary on the subject has been offered by Geoff Pullum, Mark Liberman and myself.)

    It only seems right, then, to point out to proponents of Chen's hypothesis that perhaps they should consider that the construction in question offers some excellent potential for persuasive applications. You want to cut the deficit, you know how to address your colleagues in Congress. You want your patients to stop smoking, you avoid the future tense. You want to cut back on your credit card debt, you walk around talking like this all day.

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    Thought experiments on language and thought

    Keith Chen's recent proposal that the grammar of tense marking in a language has a causal effect on future-oriented financial and health behaviors is too intriguing to resist talking about. In fact, it reminds me of the words of a prominent linguist who once announced during his talk: "The explanation in question is almost certain to be false. However, if it were true, it would be incredibly interesting, so we have no choice but to explore it."

    I'm not sure that this is the best argument for, say, how research funding should be allocated. At least, I've never had the guts to put that in a grant proposal. But if Language Log isn't the place to explore almost-certainly-false-but-incredibly-interesting-if-true ideas, then I don't know what is.

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    What exactly did Romney win?

    Today's crash blossom likely involves multiple aborted landings:

    Romney wins mask lingering questions about his candidacy

    Since the word wins occurs much more often as a verb than as a noun, you have a good excuse if you needed to take several runs at this one. Just what exactly did Romney win? A rubber Ronald Reagan mask? A mask-lingering contest? The right to ask or answer questions about lingering masks? It takes some untangling of the parser to get to the intended reading where Romney wins is the compound noun subject of the verb phrase mask lingering questions about his candidacy.

    Bad enough as a headline, but CNN's website has a nasty setup. By the time you've finally sorted out the main headline, you then have to contend with the "Breaking News" headline in the embedded video:

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    Language logging at Discover Magazine

    You, dear readers, understand that the scientific study of language is, well, scientific. But the rest of the world doesn't always see it that way. So I thought I'd let you know that I've signed on to contribute to Discover Magazine's recently-launched science blog, The Crux, where you'll be able to read the occasional piece on language alongside some fine articles on particle physics or avian flu. My first post is on bilingualism's impact on cognition, and can be found here.

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    What would Jesús do?

    This bit of social commentary comes from the Latino Rebels website. Like many brilliant ads, its impact is multiplied by the fact that, even after you've had the Aha! instant of "getting it", your mind continues to unspool a series of relevant inferences.

    I bet if you sat down and started listing them, you could easily reel off a good dozen or so.

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    The unbearable loss of words

    Everyone has a private terror—often abetted by a checkered family medical history or having witnessed the torment of a loved one—of being struck with some particular affliction. For some, it's the ravages of a slow and painful cancer. For others, it's being caught in a freak accident that renders them quadriplegic in their prime. For me, it's the fear of surviving a stroke that blasts away tracts of neural tissue in the left hemisphere of my brain, leaving me with profound aphasia.

    As usual, the degree of fear is based on a calculus of probability and of loss. In my case, there is the specter of probability: My father suffered a fatal stroke in his sixties. His own father, unluckier, was bedridden after a stroke in his early forties until another one finished him off a few years later. But it's the prospect of the loss that is overwhelming. How could I, ardent worshipper at the altar of language, ever cope with being left unable to talk or write fluently about language or anything else? For that matter, would I even be able to think about language? Or think in any meaningful way at all? It's the afflictions that strip you of who you are that seem most unthinkable.

    So it was a sense of morbid attraction that led me to Diane Ackerman's newest book One Hundred Names for Love, in which she documents the stroke and subsequent language deficit suffered by her husband, novelist Paul West.

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    Crashless blossoms

    Before reading further, consider the following newspaper headline, and make a mental note of what you think the article is about:

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    Honor killings and those misogynistic pronouns

    The misconception that language and culture march in lockstep fashion is so prevalent that pronouncements about grammar can often be used as a sort of Rorschach test to reveal how people really feel about a particular culture. I suspect it's more socially acceptable to vent indirectly about a culture by denouncing its grammar than it is to comment bluntly on the culture itself. Ergo, innocent grammar ends up shouldering the blame for the sins of its speakers.

    Journalist Christie Blatchford indulged recently in a bit of linguistic finger-pointing while covering the trial of Mohammad Shafia, an Afghan-born Montreal resident. Shafia, together with his wife (Tooba Mohammad Yahya) and son (Hamed Shafia), has been charged with murdering his three daughters and first wife in an alleged "honor" killing. Blatchford reports the following from the testimony of a relative of the slain wife (Ms. Amir):

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    When is a name a claim?

    The government of Canada, along with no doubt many others, frowns upon companies making health claims for which they have no evidence. This is supposed to nip in the bud deceptive practices like those exhibited in this pre-regulation 1652 handbill proclaiming the "vertues of coffee drink", in which the advertisement's author touted coffee as a prevention and cure for everything ranging from miscarriage to gout to "hypochondriack winds", whatever those may be. In that document, the claims were overt and brazen, with statements such as:

    "It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout and Scurvy."
    "It is very good to prevent Mis-Carryings in Child-Bearing Women."

    Yup, those are claims.

    But in a recent case that's made headlines here in Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has determined that the names of two brands of infant formula made by Enfamil, A+ and Gentlease A+, also amount to claims, the former constituting a claim about nutritional superiority to other brands, and the latter an additional claim about ease of digestibility.

    Which begs the question: What counts as a claim?

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    Buy our warmed-over grande supremo soda

    Psycholinguist Craig Chambers sent me this photo that he snapped recently inside a large pharmacy chain store (you know the kind, where you can avail yourself of all your better-living-through-chemicals products under one roof, whether it's anti-depressant, cough syrup, your favorite crunchy snack of Olestra and yellow dye #6, jet printer ink, or the entire range of household plastics.)

    Along with the photo, Craig wrote:

    If you ever find yourself rubbing shoulders with an executive from Shoppers Drug Mart, you might tell them that they could use your expertise in

    (a) language for in-store advertising
    (b) scalar adjectives
    (c) both of the above

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    Ruminations on scientific expertise and the ethics of persuasion

    We've had a bumper crop of recent electoral events where I live, and given that I write a good deal about language and persuasion, at regular intervals I get asked to advise on political campaigns. I always decline.

    I have no trouble advocating publicly and with feeling for my own political beliefs. I also have no trouble accepting money from commercial entities (well, not usually, anyway) who want to hire me to consult on the technical aspects of their persuasion strategies. But I do get squeamish when it comes to drawing on my knowledge of language and psychology in order to tinker directly with the machinery of political messaging. It basically comes down to the fact that, in order to do so effectively, I would inevitably have to recommend—at least some of the time—the use of techniques that I would ultimately prefer not to play a prominent role in our political discourse. If you read much about political psychology and persuasion, it's hard to miss the growing pile of studies that reveal the various levers and buttons that reside in the less deliberative rooms of our minds and that can set in motion behaviors and choices all while leaving the persuadee convinced that it's his rational, thoughtful self that's been at the control panel all along. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think that the wholesale exploitation of shallow cognitive processes for political ends accomplishes no good thing for the overall health of civic life, and that thoughtful deliberation and evaluation of candidates and their ideas should drive our democratic impulses.

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    Three logicians walk into a bar

    We've had several posts recently (here and here) showcasing the humorous consequences of interpreting quantifiers overly literally, with a blind eye to the usual contextual limits on their domain of interpretation. The following comic illustrates another possible pragmatic failure when it comes to quantifiers:

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    Can grammar win elections?

    That's the title of a recent paper by Caitlin Fausey and Teenie Matlock that appeared in the journal Political Psychology. It's a heartwarming title, one that permits me to dare to dream of that better day when political parties will divert rivers of cash to linguistics departments, when a grad student will be able to defend a thesis on applicative constructions in East Asian languages one day and take up a lucrative job as Washington policy wonk the next, and when volumes by Noam Chomsky and Richard Montague will be pressed into the hands of military personnel charged with the task of winning the hearts and minds of residents in troublesome, volatile nations.

    The paper stems from recent interest in the persuasion sciences about the fact that how a message is expressed often has a startling impact on the choices and behaviors of its audience. Most of the attention has been lavished on questions of lexical choice, or on whether a message is framed as involving gains rather than losses. But these are happy days, and persuasion research seems to be taking a more adventurous turn, with investigators beginning to tackle questions involving finer points of semantics and their grammatical correlates.

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