Oddly enough, McArdle did not err

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David Russinoff suggests to me that I should think again about the following two sentences, which featured in this recent post of mine on an apparent writing error by Megan McArdle:

  1. Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.
  2. Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews that suggests that they're probably a bad idea.
Russinoff draws attention to the initial adjunct oddly enough, which I had been ignoring. He remarks:

You say that the second is correct and the first is not; I say you're wrong on both counts. Don't you see? It's the "oddly enough" that does you in. The intention of the first sentence is first to report that a health blog has an entry on performance reviews, a circumstance that the reporter thinks odd. The content of the entry is then included as additional information. It's true that the sentence is ambiguous, i.e., it can be interpreted as intended or otherwise (only bacause we can't agree that a relative pronoun should have an antecedent), but that doesn't make it ungrammatical. The second sentence is unambigous but incorrect insofar as it can't possibly be interpreted as intended, unless you really want to insist that it is not merely the appearance of an entry on this subject on a health blog that is considered odd, but rather the position taken in that entry.

And you know, oddly enough, having ruminated on the data again, I've decided he is right.

The first point about sentence A on which I would revise my judgment is that the summative relative reading (the understanding where the relative clause which suggests… has the whole main clause as its anchor) does not wipe out all possibility of it have a noun phrase (NP) as its anchor. It is adjacent to the NP an entry on performance reviews, and that is a perfectly good anchor.

The second point about it is that the introductory modal adjunct oddly enough crucially takes just the main clause as its scope, not the relative clause as well: it expresses the opinion that it is odd to find an entry about performance reviews in a health blog.

So A has two meanings: an unfortunately salient crazy meaning where the relative clause is summative, paraphrased in A1, and a sensible meaning paraphrased in A2:

Meaning A1:
"The New York Times health blog has an entry about performance reviews. (It is rather odd that a health blog should have an entry about performance reviews.) The fact of there being such an entry suggests that performance reviews are probably a bad idea." [Implausible meaning, almost certainly not intended.]
Meaning A2:
"The New York Times health blog has an entry about performance reviews. (It is rather odd that a health blog should have an entry about performance reviews.) The entry suggests that performance reviews are probably a bad idea." [Plausible meaning, probably intended.]

Russinoff also convinces me that I was wrong about sentence B being an appropriate correction. Now that I examine the question of the scope of the opening modal adjunct oddly enough, I see that there is no way to make it make sense. The sentence definitely has this crazy meaning:

Meaning B1:
"The New York Times health blog has an entry about performance reviews suggesting that they are probably a bad idea. (It is rather odd that a health blog should have an entry about performance reviews suggesting that they are probably a bad idea.)" [Implausible meaning, almost certainly not intended.]

When oddly enough is taken into account, I can't see a way in which sentence B can be assigned the sensible meaning McArdle was after: one in which (i) what is odd is for a health blog to have an entry about performance reviews, and (ii) what suggests performance reviews are a bad idea is the content of the blog entry referred to.

This double mistaken judgment of mine has the accidental virtue of providing a beautiful illustration of what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (chapter 12) means by using the term integrated relative clause for what most people call a restrictive or defining relative clause, and calling the non-restrictive ones supplementary relative clauses. In sentence A, the relative clause is supplementary; it floats on the end, a mere supplement to the main part of the sentence, so oddly enough can modify the entirety of the main clause, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews, on its own. That is apparently the right scope for oddly enough. But in sentence B the relative clause is tightly integrated into the structure of an NP, which means that oddly enough can't leave it outside of its scope.

That's why we get the surely unintended entailment that the oddness attaches to a health blog having an entry about performance reviews suggesting that they are probably a bad idea, as opposed to an entry about performance reviews saying something else: the bit about what the entry suggests is too tightly integrated to be left out when considering the meaning of the containing NP and its clause.

But instead of making that point, I made mistakes of analysis. I didn't read carefully enough or think long enough (this will happen. The blogging opportunities in the life of a professor and department head are too few and too short). That makes the present case different from this other case of error, where all that was wrong was my guess at the intent of a particular writer on a particular occasion. In the case discussed here I was actually wrong about the analysis of two sentences: I failed to see that A had a legal analysis with a sensible meaning, and I wrongly thought that B did have a legal analysis with a sensible meaning, when in fact it doesn't.

This means that Megan McArdle was wrongly maligned: her opening sentence was fully grammatical with the right meaning. The criticism that should be leveled at her is merely that she didn't notice the other meaning, the one that made Jonathan Falk do a double-take, so she wrote an ambiguous sentence that set at least some of her readers going off in the wrong interpretational direction. It was a case of an unintended, unnoticed, and unfortunate ambiguity. I apologise to Ms. McArdle.

I don't, of course, apologise to you for having made mistaken statements. Language Log doesn't promise freedom from error. Quite the reverse: we promise that (in our more serious moments, anyway) we will always be trying to figure out from available facts how language actually works, what the actual rules of English are, and so on. This means we will be wrong a lot of the time, sometimes about the facts and sometimes in our analyses of them.

But we also promise to care about what's true and what's not. This means that when things turn up that refute what we previously thought, we try not to just blame the messenger ("How dare you try to correct me"), or change the subject ("Oh, never mind that, what's important is this…"), or throw up a rhetorical smokescreen ("My remarks were taken out of context"), or invent excuses ("I was misled by my research assistant"); instead we try to note our error, and correct it, and learn from it.

This is a very humble and ordinary little policy, and we don't claim any moral credit for trying to follow it. But it is one of the things distinguishing scientific from non-scientific discourse.

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33 Comments »

  1. Nathan said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    "But it is one of the things that distinguishes scientific from non-scientific discourse."

    I've often wondered about this construction. Of course it's perfectly grammatical, since we all do it. Prescriptivists would likely peeve that "distinguishes" should really be "distinguish", since "the things" is the subject of the clause.

    [You're quite right, I wrote "one of the things that distinguishes..."; and I have no idea why I find that grammatical. After all, there are several things that distinguish scientific from non-scientific discourse, and it may be that no one thing does. So why not "one of the things that distinguish..."? All I can say is that when I wrote it, it felt right; and you get about twice as many Google hits for "one of the things that distinguishes..." as you do for "one of the things that distinguish...", so the people are with me. However, not wanting to be needlessly distracting in a post about grammatical error, I have changed the text above to say "one of the things distinguishing...": gerund-participles show no agreement at all. We defer the puzzle of what is the agreement in the tensed version for future research. —GKP]

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    or invent excuses ("I was misled by my research assistant")

    There's always "I was hiking the Appalachian Trail."

  3. Sili said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    I thought the web 2.0 solution was to make the original error disappear down the memory hole, deny that it was ever there in the first place and ban and malign anyone who claims differently. Or have I missed something in the summaries of Boing Boing's policies? (I wouldn't dream of bringing up Uncommon Dissent. Noöne deserves that comparison.)

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    Do we at least agree that if we ignore the oddity and just write

    The New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews(,) which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

    then the must not be a comma, or we're forced into an implausible reading?

    The main problem with the sentence may be that it tries to cram to much meaning into a single sentence, so "it is odd that a health blog would write this" and "the item suggests performance reviews are a bad idea" compete for being its main point. (In context, it appears to be the latter, but a reader cannot really know this until he sees where the article is going.) Possibly, commas are just not a strong enough tool to disambiguate here.

    A better fix would be to move "oddly enough" from its prominent position at the start of the sentence:

    The New York Times health blog (oddly enough) has an entry on performance reviews which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

  5. Henning Makholm said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Also, I'm a bit uneasy about suggesting being held up as a safer alternative to which suggests. Is there a rule that gerunds cannot have entire sentences as antecedent? I would have thought that

    The New York Times health blog has been discontinued, suggesting that the editor does not care about health.

    was grammatical.

    [It is indeed grammatical, I think. The comma gives it a supplementary meaning, just as with relative clauses. —GKP]

  6. Sarra said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    So much effort put into this that I find it boggling that you've come up with an implausible choice of A2! A very clearly signifies A1. Removing the comma from A would change its signification to A2, as Henning notes.

    [If you still think I'm wrong, perhaps the most we are going to be able to agree on is that McArdle wrote a sentence that was very hard to understand, and she should have rewritten. —GKP]

  7. anon said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    I second Sarra's point. After reading the new considerations, I'd say that A1 is the more likely meaning of A.

  8. Bill Walderman said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    'You're quite right, I wrote "one of the things that distinguishes…"; and I have no idea why I find that grammatical.'

    This is somewhat like "More than one grammarian finds fault with this sentence." "More than one grammarian find fault with this sentence" just doesn't feel right, even though the verb technically agrees with the subject in number. Somehow, the word "one" overrides the semantically plural subject and attracts the verb into the singular.

    [Yes. It is an awful lesson in why one must never try to make logic suggest what the verb agreement should do (a very common sin by prescriptivists). In More than one grammarian agrees, the subject makes reference to at least two grammarians, but takes the singular anyway. In Less than two grammarians agree, the subject does not make reference to a set containing at least two grammarians, but takes the plural anyway. No grammarians doesn't make reference to any grammarians, which is less than one, but takes the plural anyway. In Cornflakes is not an adequate breakfast the unquestionably plural noun cornflakes takes the singular. In British English Chelsea usually win, the subject Chelsea (denoting a soccer team) is unquestionably singular, but takes the plural. Logic does not dictate these things. You have to investigate the language in actual use to find out what the agreement behavior is, and reverse-engineer from there to figure out what the rules are. —GKP]

  9. Joe said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    @Anon and Sarra,

    I think the reason why A1 is still implausible is that there is a no way to infer that the mere fact of there being an entry on performance reviews on a health blog would suggests that performance reviews are a BAD idea." We can only get that by reading the actual entry. After all, it isn't just things that are bad to health that are mentioned on such blogs: things that are good for health are there as well. So the fact that an item on performance reviews is on a health blog may be odd, but there is no way we can reach any kind of evaluative judgment about whether performance reviews are harmful or beneficial to health until we read what's on the blog. (if the supplementary clause had said something about performance reviews being a health issue than I think an A1 type of reading would be justified.

    Compare, for instance, A1 with the following:

    "These findings generally hold up cross-culturally, which suggests that they are at least somewhat independent of environmental influences."

    One can easily see why the inference between the main clause and the supplementary relative clause is licenced in the above example.

  10. MJ said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    @ Nathan

    Not only prescriptivist peeve about the singular verb; even perfectly open-minded copy editors–copy editors who, for example, reject the formalist idea that "one" is the subject of "one in five Xs . . ."–peeve about it. And because of that, I have spent a lot of time trying to think of an explanation that could account for the singular verb that these reasonable copy editors would accept–that is an explanation that doesn't just amount to noting that the singular verb has been used since the very beginning of the language and by writers like Shakespeare.

    One matter is that I don't think "one of those Xs that" is the same as "one of the [superlative] Xs that," that each calls for different analyses–the superlative perhaps introduces a scope issue in that superlative can't apply to all the Xs.

    With respect to "one of those Xs that," an idea I've been considering is the possibility that in many contexts the phrase can be heard by speakers as being semantically equivalent to "the type/kind/sort of X that." This "But it is the sort of thing that distinguishes scientific from non-scientific discourse."

  11. Army1987 said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    That's odd enough.

  12. ken lakritz said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    I think there's at least one more reading of the sentence, a reading which is extremely implausible but not ruled out by the grammatical data:

    Oddly enough, The New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews. The presence of such an entry suggests that health blogs (or New York Times health blogs) are a bad idea.

  13. Army1987 said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    I would say that in "one of the things that distinguishes scientific from non-scientific discourse" has "one of the things" as the anchor, which would be just be a very weird way of saying "one thing".

  14. Joe said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    Sorry, but I had one more point. Is it possible that there are two grammatical mistakes in A, one involving a mistaken comma, the other the scope of "oddly enough?" After all, if Prof. Pullum could make such a mistake in his correction…

  15. Army1987 said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    The oddest thing is that no-one of those who commented on the previous post spotted the intended meaning.

    [Quite right. Nobody other than Russinoff wrote to me to point out my error, either. He therefore wins the Alert Reader Of The Week award. He gets a reserved parking place outside One Language Log Plaza, a year's free subscription to Language Log, an oil painting of Mark Liberman saying thank you, a Language Log lapel pin, and a case of IPA beer (which is actually named for the initials of India Pale Ale, but linguists and phoneticians who see it always think it means International Phonetic Association). —GKP]

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    My rewrite of the original sentence: "Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews. It suggests that they're probably a bad idea."

    I misread the sentence too, but I agree with Joe that there's no reason to see meaning A1 here. MJ had a very good point in his or her response to me in the previous thread—that McArdle usually doesn't use which for restrictive clauses—but it seems the correct reading has a non-restrictive which.

  17. MJ said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    @ Joe
    I don't know–the underlying assumption seems to be that until now it was a truth universally acknowledged that performance reviews are a good thing. So the very fact of a health blog item reporting on them bodes ominous. It suggests an unexpected discovery has been made that challenges the taken-for-granted goodness of performance reviews. And that indeed is the tenor of the blog item–“After years of studying the ill effects of workplace stress, psychologists are turning their attention to its causes. Along with the usual suspects–long hours, bad bosses, office bullies–they have identified some surprising ones.”

    If you don't approach the sentence with that assumption in mind, then the summative reading may not occur to you. I'm not saying the summative reading is the correct one, just that I don't think it's implausible.

  18. Greg Morrow said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    @Bill Walderman: "More than one grammarian" appears to be _syntactically_ singular (but clearly semantically plural). It is probably the case that the matching verb is also syntactically singular to match.

    But it also seems plausible that "one" is attractive — in "one of the things that distinguishes", it may be encouraging the that-clause to attach to the "one" at the nucleus of the big noun phrase instead of the "things" in the little noun phrase. I think we have the freedom to attach the clause at either location; it's heavy, so it'd tend to float to the end regardless of where it attached, right?

  19. Joe said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    @MJ,

    Fair enough. But wouldn't a summative reading be more likely if the supplementary clause had said, "which probably suggests that they're a bad idea," rather than "which suggests that they're probably a bad idea?"

    This is an interesting problem arising from analysing real discourse. Since we don't (yet) know what the author meant to say, we don't know whether it is a case of a unforeseen ambiguity in a construction or multiple grammatical mistakes. Of course, a published writer should be given the benefit of the doubt, and Prof Pullum is being very gracious in admitting he made a mistake. I'm just not yet sure he is wrong (although the analysis given above is enlightening nonetheless).

  20. MJ said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    @ Joe

    Yes, I think the summative reading would be the only viable one if she’d written “which probably suggests they’re a bad idea,” but it still works summatively even with the adverb coming after “they’re.” Consider, e.g., “Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an item on performance reviews, which means they’re probably a bad idea.”
    It is at bottom ambiguous. If it means what GKP suggests, then the original sentence is a disaster, in my view. I think a case can be made that the only reading that saves it as a sentence is the one that takes the clause to be summative. But that doesn’t mean that’s how McArdle intended it.

  21. Gary said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

    This is one of the many unintended consequences of the war on dashes.

  22. J. Goard said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    I wonder whether, when we get down to the psychology, there really is an absolute distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive modifiers, as opposed to, say, two types of activation pattern that can happen to degrees. For example, when a speaker conveys to a listener:

    I sure hate those boy bands(,) who sing those ridiculous songs.

    the relative clause can be processed as helping to identify the boy bands under consideration, or to predicate something about them, but do these have to happen categorically? I you stopped this speaker mid-conversation to go all logicky on her, would she necessarily have had in mind which "one" she meant? I have my doubts.

  23. J. Goard said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    It occurs to me also that conceptual slipperiness between restrictive/nonrestrictive modification (in human brains) may underlie group stereotypes and discrimination. It's hard to argue with "I hate all the Xs in my neighborhood who're committing crimes" ("restrictive"). But also, I think, pretty hard to keep saying stuff like that without the "nonrestrictive" pattern of association creeping in.

  24. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    I don't get why meaning B1 is implausible at all. It's exactly how I read the sentence. She's being snarky about the NYT post's stance on performance reviews.

  25. Mike M said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    I disagree on the intended meaning of "oddly enough." Why do you assume it is the blog about performance evaluations that is deemed to be odd? Without the context, I immediately thought it is the suggestion that they are a bad idea that is odd.

    For example:

    Oddly enough, scientists have just conducted a study, which suggests humans are healthiest on a diet of bricks.

  26. wally said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    "instead we try to note our error, and correct it"

    I would think a link from the first post to this one would be in order.

    [Yes. This has now been added. —GKP]

  27. James Wimberley said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    A simple way of expressing A2, also meeting the concerns of the Redmond style police:
    "Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews. The blog suggests that they're probably a bad idea."
    Any relative pronoun is hopeless because there are just too many possible antecedents – performance reviews, health blog, and the fact introduced by oddly enough.

  28. Charles said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    "This is one of the many unintended consequences of the war on dashes."

    With great dismay, I report that this post is the first and only google hit for "war on dashes." I was all set to enlist in the dash version of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Abraham-Lincoln-Brigade?)

  29. DaveK said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    I can read the sentence in ways that would make Meanings A1 and B1 completely plausible:

    Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.
    (A1: By the time health blogs start talking about a management technique, it's time for a good manager to ditch that technique.)

    Oddly enough, the New York Times health blog has an entry on performance reviews, which suggests that they're probably a bad idea.

    (B1: The New York Times is notorious for giving its staff frequent and exhaustive performance reviews. Therefore, it's rather odd that their own blog…)

  30. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 5:39 am

    In my mind it's more: "Performance reviews are obviously a good idea, so it's odd* that the NYT should have a blog post suggesting they're a bad idea."
    * Of course, McArdle doesn't really think it's odd. It's symptomatic (in her mind) of the NYT's mollycoddling liberalism.

  31. Aaron Davies said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    @nathan, gkp, etc.: i'm fairly sure this has been discussed on LL before. essentially, some people prefer to make verbs with subects like that agree with the syntactic number of the subject ("things"==plural), while others prefer the semantic ("one"==singular).

  32. MJ said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    @Aaron Yes, it's been discussed on LL before, but that explanation doesn't satisfy people who otherwise find notionalism attractive.

  33. Don said,

    June 3, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    I think you're missing a plausible intended meaning, which is "Oddly enough, performance reviews are probably a bad idea (not a good idea, as we might be inclined to think), as suggested by an entry on performance reviews in the NYT health blog." I don't know the context of the quote, but if McArdle was writing about performance reviews, it would be odd for her to make an off-the-cuff remark about the appropriateness of the post's subject matter. Whether the sentence achieves its intended result is something on which I won't venture an opinion.

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