Archive for Rhetoric

Despicable human scum

For those wondering why on earth an official announcement about the solemn business of executing a traitor would use wildly overheated language like "despicable human scum" and "worse than a dog" (especially about the uncle of the reigning monarch), the BBC has published a short article on the language of North Korean posthumous character assassination.

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From a perception standpoint

During a game on 11/28/2013 between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin got in the way of a kickoff return by Jacoby Jones, as a result of standing with one foot on the field of play as Jones ran up the sideline. Video of the original incident is here, and an animated gif of the crucial interaction is here.

At Tomlin's weekly press conference a few days later, he issued an elaborate apology, partly for getting in the way of the play, but even more strongly for not taking the ensuing fuss more seriously. His statement is reproduced in full here, but the most linguistically-relevant part is this:

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I think probably my biggest error on Thursday night was not realizing that that play jeopardized the integrity of the game from a perception standpoint.

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"What can you ever say to Polonius?"

Looking into the background of the idea that modifiers are immoral, I read Richard Lanham's Style: An Anti-Textbook (available as an ebook from amazon and google), and found this description of writing instruction:

What we have now is a tedious, repetitive, unoriginal body of dogma—clarity, sincerity, plainness, duty—tarted up every week in a new, disposable paperback dress. The dogma of clarity, as we shall see, is based on a false theory of knowledge; its scorn of ornament, on a misleading taxonomy of style; the frequent exhortations to sincerity, on a naïve theory of the self; and the unctuous moralizing, on a Boy Scout didacticism.

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Ask Language Log: The historical future

J. Eric Butler wrote:

As an academic in a humanities discipline, I read a lot of formal prose concerning historical subjects. I often come across the English future perfect in these contexts, which strikes me as odd, albeit easy enough to understand. So I usually just barely register it and then move on. But at some point it occurred to me that I have no idea what motivates this usage, so I thought LL would probably have some insight.

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Sex in PISA

People are endlessly fascinated by average sex differences in cognitive measures, despite the fact that the between-sex differences are generally so small, relative to within-sex variation, that they have no consequential effects outside of the ideological realm. Here's a striking example — Hannah Fairfield, "Girls Lead in Science Exam, but Not in the United States", NYT 2/4/2013:

For years — and especially since 2005, when Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, made his notorious comments about women’s aptitude — researchers have been searching for ways to explain why there are so many more men than women in the top ranks of science.

Now comes an intriguing clue, in the form of a test given in 65 developed countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It finds that among a representative sample of 15-year-olds around the world, girls generally outperform boys in science — but not in the United States.

The arresting graphic that accompanies the text:

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Overestimating, underestimating, whatever

This post hits a trifecta of LLOG themes: the troublesome interaction of multiple negations with scalar predicates that we call "misnegation"; the flexible phrasal or conceptual templates we call "snowclones"; and the multiplication of careless variant quotations.

It started when a friend, in conversation, said something like "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. [pause] Or overestimating. Whatever."

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On letting one's guard (and pants) down

Mark Liberman noted (as did Neal Whitman on his Literal-Minded blog) a case of syllepsis in an Atlantic piece by Conor Friedersdorf: "What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for [Jennifer] Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election." But Weigel offered up a nice syllepsis of his own on Twitter today:

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Syllepsis of the month

Conor Friedersdorf, "How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File", The Atlantic 11/7/2012:

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

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Oldest linguistics department: research needed

Uh-oh! A friend of mine who recently looked at the websites of the Departments of Linguistics at both the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania just pointed out to me that each of them claims to be the oldest department of linguistics in the USA. This is bad. Language Log is headquartered on a server at Penn. Now we don't know whether our home is the oldest department of linguistics in the USA or not.

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The rhetoric of anti-Japanese invective

A commenter on this post, "'All Japanese must be killed'", stated that he thought that the sentiments expressed were "a little extreme".

How seriously should we take what appear to be calls for genocide against the Japanese people?

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(Not) Underestimating the Irish Famine

Breffni O'Rourke writes:

Here's one for the 'cannot underestimate' files. The publicity material for the recently published Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (which may coincide with the printed blurb or the preface; I haven't been able to check) starts off with (variants of) this:

The Great Irish Famine is the most pivotal event in modern Irish history, with implications that cannot be underestimated.

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Did Harry Reid lie? Politifact says so.

Harry Reid has made a lot people mad, justifiably in my opinion, by saying that a Bain Capital investor told him that Romney didn't pay income tax for ten years. Reid has repeated his claim of being told this, and also said that he doesn't know whether or not to believe it.  To be sure, this is below-the-belt innuendo.  Politifact, however, has given Reid's claim its "pants on fire" rating. In Time Entertainment, James Poniewozik argues that in so doing Politfact is damaging its own reputation for probity, because "pants on fire" in the context of truth and falsity can only serve to evoke "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"  And Politifact has no way in the world of knowing whether or not Reid was lying in reporting that someone had told him something potentially damaging to Mitt Romney.  Furthermore, although in its full article Politifact reports accurately that Reid claims only to have been told the damaging story, in its list of pants-on-fire headlines, Politifact writes, next to a captioned thumbnail of Reid, "Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years," nine words in a box that accommodates an entry of twenty-five words in the box above with space to spare. Politifact seems to have forgotten to preface this with "said he has been told." Let's say this unfortunate inaccuracy was just an oversight on the part of Politifact and return to the issue of whether "pants on fire" was justified.

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Hearing Lincoln

Lila Gleitman wrote:

I now happen to be reading "Team of Rivals," basically a history of Lincoln's cabinet.  Anyhow, there is constant mention (and pix of venues) showing Lincoln talking to very large indoor and outdoor audiences (at least once 2000 is the number of listeners mentioned).   They say he had a slightly high clear voice that carried very well, but still I can hardly conceive that he, and others of those times who are mentioned as speaking outdoors to multitudes too, notably Douglas of course., could be heard without amplification.   You must know all about this.  Can you tell me? or tell me how to look this up?   It flummoxes me every time I read of these seemingly prodigious feats of speaking-listening, the authors don't even seem to remark on how astounding it seems (or seems to seem, to me).

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"Factlets"

I don't think I've ever seen writing with a greater factoid density than these two paragraphs from the start of George Scialabba's essay "How Bad Is It?", The New Inquiry 5/26/2012:

Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.

Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.

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Generic comparisons

Last Friday, I heard Sarah-Jane Leslie talk about "Generics and Generalization":

Generic sentences express generalizations about kinds, such as "tigers are striped", "ducks lay eggs", and "ticks carry Lyme disease". I present and review emerging evidence from adults and children that suggests that generics articulate cognitively default generalizations — i.e., they express basic, early-developing inductive generalizations concerning kinds. Further evidence suggests that these generalizations don't depend solely on information about prevalence. For example, "ticks carry Lyme disease" is accepted, but "books are paperbacks" is not, despite the fact – well-known and acknowledged by participants – that paperbacks are much more prevalent among books than Lyme-disease-carrying is among ticks. Similarly, both adults and preschoolers understand that, e.g., only female ducks lay eggs, yet they are more likely to accept "ducks lay eggs" than "ducks are female". Rather than depending solely on information about prevalence, these primitive generic generalizations are sensitive to a number of content-based factors, such as whether the property in question is dangerous or otherwise striking (as in "ticks carry Lyme disease"), or is an essential or characteristic property of the kind (as in "ducks lay eggs"). This suggests that our most basic means of forming inductive generalizations about kinds is not guided by prevalence alone, but also reflects our nature as learners.

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