Archive for Rhetoric

Sleight of 'quite'

John Gertner, "‘Elon Musk,’ by Ashlee Vance", NYT /17/2015:

He is now, quite arguably, the most successful and important entrepreneur in the world.

Matt Hutson writes:

“Arguably” is often used to temper an argument, so “quite arguably” should temper it even more. But here “quite” has the effect of strengthening the argument  rather than strengthening the tempering of the argument. Seemingly paradoxically, “quite arguably” approaches the meaning of “inarguably.” In essence, by adding “quite,” we suddenly see a proposition’s being arguable in contrast to its being untenable, rather than in contrast to its being undeniable. A neat sleight of word!

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Moving house with military precision

I just moved house this week. (Had to. Lease unexpectedly terminated on the second day of classes in the new academic year. Gaaahh!) Colleagues and friends keep asking me how it went. I've decided that the right thing to say is: "It all went like a military operation."

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The grammar of "Better Together"

The official name of the organization campaigning for a No vote in the upcoming Scottish independence referendum is "Better Together." That phrase was originally the campaign's main slogan. Much has been written in recent days about the campaign's evident signs of panic, but no one has commented on the stupidity of "Better Together" as a slogan. (It was actually ditched by the campaign in June, and replaced by an even more pathetic slogan: "No Thanks.")

Better together is an adjective phrase. Used on its own, without any logical subject or other accompanying noun phrases, it is apparently supposed to affirm that something will go better in some way for someone than something else if something is together with something else, but it doesn't specify any of these someones or somethings. Yet the cui bono issue (who benefits) is absolutely crucial to the debate. The ineptness of the sloganeering is almost unbelievable.

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Is English a "writer-responsible language" and Chinese, Korean, and Japanese "reader-responsible languages"?

These are totally new concepts for me.  Until David Cragin told me about them, I had never heard of reader-responsible language and writer-responsible language.

Dave works for Merck in the Safety & Environment group, knows Mandarin, has been to China 12 times since 2005, and teaches a short course on risk assessment and critical thinking at Peking University every year.  He was recently appointed to the Executive Committee of the US-based Sino-American Pharmaceuticals Professional Association (SAPA), so he has a professional and personal interest in cross-cultural communication.

In an earlier post, we discussed another, related issue that interests Dave:  "Critical thinking".

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Nicholas Wade: Genes, culture, and history

Nicholas Wade never met a genetic just-so story that he didn't like. For a partial survey, see "The hunt for the Hat Gene", 11/15/2009, where I observed that he pivots smoothly from mere over-interpretation to complete fabrication:

Nicholas Wade is an inveterate gene-for-X enthusiast — he's got 68 stories in the NYT index with "gene" in the headline — and he's had two opportunities to celebrate this idea in the past few days: "Speech Gene Shows Its Bossy Nature", 11/12/2009, and "The Evolution of the God Gene", 11/14/2009. The first of these articles is merely a bit misleading, in the usual way. The second verges on the bizarre.

Now Mr. Wade has packaged a large-scale version of this move as a book, where a somewhat tendentious account of human genetic diversity transitions into a fictional narrative proposing genetic explanations for essentially every aspect of human cultural, social, and economic history: A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, 2014.

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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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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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