It turns out…

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James Somers, on his blog, has a subtle and convincing literary analysis of the mildly dishonest use of a rhetorical device I have often reflected on: the embedding of an assertion in the context "It turns out that _______."

Skilled readers are trained, Somers suggests, to be disarmed by the phrase: over time they learn to trust writers who use it, "in large part because they come to associate it with that feeling of the author’s own dispassionate surprise." So an unscrupulous theorist who tells you his theories by revealing how "it turns out" that they are true is being subtly dishonest, but with very considerable deniability. After all, if P is true, you can hardly deny that "It turns out that P" is also a true assertion, can you?

Somers is spot on, I think. In fact he has helped me to identify me what has always struck me as very subtly annoying about a very famous linguist I know, at a university in California, who uses the device constantly in those conversations where he reveals what his own theories and opinions are (and that characterization covers essentially all of his conversations). "It turns out," he says slowly, every minute or two, and I recognize that he is softening me up to accept another of his claimed theoretical explanations, which I always find unconvincing yet somehow not specific enough to challenge.

(Don't ask. Comments are closed so that the comments area doesn't turn into a huge guessing game about who I meant. Don't worry: it isn't you. It's that other person that you thought I might be referring to.)

Update: Fiona Hanington tells me by email that she has a similar feeling about the phrase and you'll find that…. Says Fiona:

This is perhaps even more irritating because the speaker is, without
much subtlety, elevating him or herself… "This is a fact. I know it
already, and if you're able to follow my reasoning, you'll come to
know it too."

True enough: it's a closely similar rhetorical move. Make it clear that you are the authority, you know how things turn out and what will be found by those
who seek the truth in the correct way. It turns out that these are superiority-establishing devices, and you'll find that has a lot to do with why they irritate us. (Do you feel your resentment level rising? Resentment that would have led you to type an angry and contemptuous comment into the area below if I hadn't cleverly kept comments closed?)


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