The reality could not be further from the truth

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This morning, email from Yu Guo drew my attention to yet another example where the combination of a negation, a modal, and a scalar predicate leaves writers and readers in a state of confusion. In this case, however, the result is not a phrase that means the opposite of what its author intended, but rather an expression that seems to have no coherent literal meaning at all.

The phrase is "The reality could not be further from the truth", and this intrinsically nonsensical expression is used, surprisingly often, as if it meant something like "the reality is otherwise". We find examples even in published work by competent writers. Thus on p. 10 of Toby Miller, Television: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, we read

In the best of all worlds for neoclassical theory, the government might act as an objective guarantor of contracts, and would intervene only when absolutely necessary to correct extreme imperfection in markets, or to provide the essential public goods like national defense. It seems that the reality could not be further from the truth.

And on p. 232 of Sarah Neal and Julian Agyeman, The New Countryside: Ethnicity, Nation and Exclusion in Contemporary Rural Britain, we read:

The term 'rural' has often been used to describe communities that are seen to be homogenous and static. Further, settlements of populations under 10,000 had remained the basis of the definition until recently. The reality couldn't be further from the truth.

On p. 91 of David Scott Domke, God Willing: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the "War on Terror", and the Echoing Press:

It is unfortunately the case that there will be a desire by some to dismiss this book as the product of an anti-religious, anti-conservative mind-set. The reality could not be farther from the truth.

BBC News ("China arms sales 'fuel conflicts'", 6/12/2006):

China rejected the accusations, insisting it had strict safeguards to prevent any unethical sales of weapons.

Amnesty challenged these safeguards in its report.

"China describes its approach to arms export licensing as 'cautious and responsible', yet the reality couldn't be further from the truth," the author's report, Helen Hughes, said in a statement.

(Note that in this case, the reporter or editor was sufficiently out of it to give us "the author's report" in place of "the report's author", so we should probably take a skeptical attitude towards the validity of the quotation. However, whether or not Helen Hughes said it, BBC News published it, and it remains on their web site three years later.)

A press release from J.P. Morgan quotes "Client Portfolio Manager" Pinakin Patel as telling us that

China has long been considered the workshop of the world, providing low cost goods at minimal cost. The reality could not be further from the truth, for example more than 70% of the world's laptop computers are manufactured in China.

A page from the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester:

Mainframe Computing may be a topic on which you think you have little or no experience, but the reality could not be further from the truth.

On p. 69 of Michael J. Holosko and Marin D. Feit, Health and Poverty:

In the popular press and public rhetoric of the United States, one of the most striking views of the Canadian health care system is that it represents "socialized medicine." This very terminology conjures images of health service rationing and enforced physician selection. The reality could not be further from the truth.

Overall, there seem to be several thousand examples on the web:

"reality could not be further from the truth" 2,170
"reality could not be farther from the truth" 100
"reality couldn't be further from the truth" 1,100
"reality couldn't be farther from the truth" 201

There is a penumbra of other variants as well:

We seem to think that we can make it through the day on little or no sleep, when the facts couldn't be further from the truth.

Many people credit the Clinton administration with creating a fantastically strong economy, as well as handing that economy to the Bush administration. The facts couldn't be further from the truth.

For some reason, people seem to think that jackpots at an online gambling site won't be very good. They think that for real money, you need to gamble at a casino in Vegas, Atlantic City, or Monte Carlo. However, the facts couldn't be further from the truth.

While most doctors are perceived to be experts in nutrition, the reality cannot be further from the truth.

… too many people view video games as the reserve of the Billy-No-Mates teenager sitting in a darkened room on sunny days, when the reality cannot be further from the truth.

The polemics surrounding the lead up to Doha have sometimes portrayed the developing countries as being intransigent. The truth could not be farther from reality. Developing countries are keen to make Doha a success.

For some discussion of other perhaps-relevant phenomena, see "'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'", 11/6/2008, or "Misunderestimation", 4/4/2009, and the links therein. In  other cases discussed there, it seems that people have been off by one in deploying negatives, or have gotten a sign flipped and used a word in place of its opposite. But none of those explanations will help here.

In this case, perhaps some people have registered "could not be further from the truth" as a fixed expression, meaning something like "show(s) that this idea is completely wrong". Or perhaps people are substituting "the reality" for "this claim" or "this belief". Perhaps an enterprising semanticist will be able to explain that this error tells us something about the logic of space and its metaphorical application to degrees of truth.

Yu Guo suggested, very plausibly, that the phrase is a blend of two different alternatives:

What they should have said is either "but *that* couldn't be further from the truth", or "but the reality couldn't be further from *that*". Somehow, the two were mixed up into a self-contradiction: "but the reality couldn't be further from the truth".

He added that

I find the example interesting because it's not immediately obvious that it is a slip.

Indeed. As originally suggested by Wason and Reich "A Verbal Illusion," Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31 (4): 591-97, 1979, such examples are like optical illusions, in that they tell us something about how the perceptual system works. (And unlike optical illusions, they also tell us something about the process of sentence creation.)

[Update: by the way, it seems to me that Yu Guo was too hasty in identifying this phrase as a "self-contradiction". On the contrary, it seems to me to be a necessary truth, since reality must by definition coincide exactly with truth (or must at least be a proper sub-set of it, depending on your ontology, and assuming de re interpretations throughout), and therefore it's not possible for reality to be any further from the truth than it actually is, which is not at all. However, IANAP and so YMMV.]



43 Comments

  1. Emily said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:27 am

    Maybe people are thinking of two different ways of expressing what they mean — something like "the truth could not be further from this claim" and "this claim could not be further from reality" — and splice them together somehow.

  2. Marie said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:15 am

    This may have begun with people truncating the phrase "your perception of reality couldn't be further from the truth" because for whatever reason they can't or don't want to ascribe the mis-perception to a particular party.

  3. misterfricative said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    FWIW I'd be inclined to favor a 'fixed expression' hypothesis over a 'blend' hypothesis. And to push this idea a little further, it occurs to me that 'couldn't be further from the truth' contains a strong element of absolute contrast, so maybe instead of Mark's suggestion of 'this idea is completely wrong', a closer paraphrase might be 'the opposite is true'.

    Massage the syntax slightly, eg by inserting 'is', or replacing 'the reality' with 'in reality', and I think you get something very close to the intended meaning —

    'The reality is [that] the opposite is true.'

    Or

    'In reality, the opposite is true.'

    (I'm also curious: what sort of experimental design would allow the 'fixed expression' vs 'blend' explanations to be tested empirically?)

  4. misterfricative said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    Another possible explanation (which occurred to me 10 seconds after posting! Doh!) —

    Perhaps 'couldn't be further from the truth' is simply being confounded with 'couldn't be more different'.

  5. Brandon said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    I believe it's a muddling of the phrase "in reality, this could not be further from the truth," or "the reality is, this could not be further from the truth." Both of these contend that although popular opinion might lean one way, in actuality, the opposite is true.

  6. Dan T. said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    Reality TV can be pretty far from the truth (or from real reality)!

  7. Nicholas Waller said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    I like "the author's report, Helen Hughes, said in a statement" from the quoted BBC piece. Presumably they meant "the report's author" but I wonder if most people's eyeballs slid over that (to deploy a Thogism) as they slide over terms like "The reality could not be further from the truth", deducing what was meant despite the fact that what was actually down in black on white was different.

  8. Fencing Bear said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    My guess is that what the phrase means is something like "the reality could not be further from the ideal," with "the truth" meaning "that which ought to be true given what has been previously supposed."

  9. joseph palmer said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    Language log constantly picks up on these types of things that we usually happily process and understand without noticing the "fault". Yet an insistence on flawless logic in language is one of the supposed sins, is it not? If I am correct and this construction is easily understood, more easily understood than analysed, where's the problem? Where's the "slip"?

    [(myl) You're laboring under a fundamental misapprehension about our motives. We're not picking out problems or pointing out sins, we're observing and analyzing usage. Patterns of usage that raise questions about the nature of language production and perception are especially interesting. We're not censorious, we're curious. ]

  10. Ellen said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    I find it fascinating that an expression that is so clearly self-contradictory, and thus meaningless, on it's own, can so clearly express the intended meaning in context. I can see how an editor could easily miss it.

    Misterfricative, even if it is used as a fixed expression (like "couldn't care less"), still, that doesn't explain where it comes from. Fixed expressions start somewhere.

    [(myl) The fact that "further from the truth" has more than a million Google hits is probably a clue. But normally, a "fixed expression" continues to have its literal meaning, merely getting used more often than the chance combination of its syntactic and semantic parts would predict. So even if semantic-mutation-of-a-fixed-expression is the right theory, I agree that there's a puzzle about why this one mutated, and why its mutation is so easy to fail to miss. ]

  11. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    I couldn't fail to disagree with you less. W. Safire, who generally could not be further from linguistic reality, once (in 1990) characterized such expressions as portmanteau phrases with the index phrase "Perish forbid!" from the Late Bronze Age radio show The Goldbergs. There should exist the complementary phrase "Heaven the thought!" to preserve global symmetry of discourse, but I, for one, have never encountered it.

  12. John Cowan said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    I have an entirely different theory: that for these people truth simply means 'claim', neither more nor less. They have listened to too many people saying The truth is … when all that was meant was We claim that ….

  13. bianca steele said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    I agree with Ellen. What's interesting about this turn of phrase involves both the mutation from the "standard" expression and why it's used here but not there–but from a nerdy point of view, I can imagine nearly half a dozen ways it could have arisen initially, and half a dozen more reasons it might have been attractive to people who subsequently heard it used, and so on and so on and so on. We might list all these possibilities and still miss the one that explains where Yu Guo saw the expression, I think. Also, the more we find plausible explanations, the more people might come to think these are justifications for why the expression is correct in this context.

    The expression, however, that I found most interesting was the first: "in the best of all worlds for X theory," followed by a straightforward description of the theory.

    And surely "seen to be" should be "seen as"? Though, "seen as" implies they are not really, where "seen to be" accepts that they are.

    OT, though.

  14. CWV said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    "There is a penumbra of other variants as well."

    I'm slightly confused by the use of penumbra here (where I would have expected plethora or something similar). Assuming penumbra is intentional, is it meant to convey that the variants cluster amorphously around the primary example, like a shadow? Or something else?

    [(myl) OED sense 3 for penumbra: "A faint intimation of something undesirable; a peripheral region of uncertain extent; a group of things only partially belonging to some central thing."]

  15. Kris Rhodes said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Did anyone else have to read and re-read the headline a few times to realize what was wrong with it? I did. (FTR, I did it after reading the first sentence of the article, before having read the rest.) Strange! It seems so obvious in retrospect. And reading texts critically is part of what I do every day. You'd think I'd see immediately what was wrong at least once it had been brought to my attention that something was wrong with it.

    But am I the only one?

    [(myl) Given the number of competent writers who have created versions of this phrase, and the number of competent editors who have passed these creations without challenging them, it's clear that you have a lot of company. ]

  16. comwave said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    Isn't there any possiblity that the "reality" is a misuse or a tweak of "realization" in the sense of conceiving or being aware?

  17. comwave said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    Oh, Marie already commented this sort.
    Differentiation: Hers didn't mention the possibility of misuse or tweak.

  18. Russell said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Mark L, re: "We're not picking out problems or pointing out sins, we're observing and analyzing usage. Patterns of usage that raise questions about the nature of language production and perception are especially interesting."

    Not to put words in joseph's mouth, but it seems like viewing this as raising questions about production and perception does reveal a certain viewpoint. Why, after all, does it not raise questions about the (literal) meanings of the words and combinatory rules that license the phrase in question, or even about the utility of such a notion (i.e., using logic to interpret human language)?

    [(myl) What would a question about the literal meaning of words and combinatory patterns be about, if not about how language is produced and perceived? OK, this does tend to ignore the perspective of those for whom English words and combinatory patterns are platonic forms, so apologies are due to the spirit of Jerry Katz. But the point here is that the literal meaning of this phrase is not what its authors wanted to say, and thus we're back with the hypothesis that it's the result of a common mistake in applying — in production and perception — the normal principles of English structure and meaning, whether one thinks of them in logical or psychological terms. ]

    Not to say that such a viewpoint is in fact invalid, nor that in every case one wishes to note something like the topic of the OP one must also defend the use of logic or some similar tool to analyze semantics. And surely there are phenomena best understood as involving perception, processing, etc.

    [(myl) Questions about the role of logic in analyzing semantics are exactly the sort of question that our analysis of this case, and many similar cases, are meant to raise. I think that you must be making some point that I'm not understanding, or else I'm making a point that you're not understanding, because taken as a whole, your comment doesn't make sense to me. ]

  19. Bill Walderman said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    "there's a puzzle about why this one mutated, and why its mutation is so easy to fail to miss"

    You were joking, weren't you?

    [(myl) Yes.]

  20. Merryheart said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

    "The 'realization' could not be further from the truth"? I don't think it's commonly used to mean that. Nor do I agree that the users mean "claim" instead of "truth."

    I believe Brandon is correct. The phrase probably began as "In reality, this could not be further from the truth.

    BTW, I love Dan Lufkin's "I couldn't fail to disagree with you less." What a conundrum!

  21. Russell said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    "What would a question about the literal meaning of words and combinatory patterns be about, if not about how language is produced and perceived?"

    Linguistic competence, perhaps. In a paradigm of linguistic research which wishes to make the distinction between competence and performance, "production" and "perception" are key words for the latter. It seems that going right for "common processing error" bypasses the question of whether this is part of the grammar. Positing the development of a "fixed expression" could reintroduce the notion that at one point (for some individuals) this was due to some common semantic processing goof, and then at some other point (for some same or different individuals) it was simply registered in the lexicon.

    "…the literal meaning of this phrase is not what its authors wanted to say, and thus we're back with the hypothesis that it's the result of a common mistake in applying — in production and perception — the normal principles of English structure and meaning, whether one thinks of them in logical or psychological terms."

    I did not mean to contrast logical with other means characterizing what words and sentences mean. Rather, I wanted to interrogate the notion that we can be sure of "the literal meaning of this phrase" such that it is distinct from "what its authors wanted to say." I understood joseph palmer's comment, including scare-quotes around "fault", to get at a question like, "what if the meaning of "the reality could not be further from the truth" is, for those people who use and understand it without difficulty, not in fact due to a production or perception but due to competence: it "literally" means what is conveyed. That is, perhaps the meaning of "truth", "reality," "further," etc should be reexamined based on this and other hypothetical data involving these words, such that this sentence truly is compositional. And that this would be distinct from a situation in which "it's a fixed phrase" by which I understand that its meaning is unpredictable based on its constituent parts.

    To be clear, I'm pretty sure that's NOT what's going on here; but sometimes one sees new uses of words and thinks, "oh, a sense of that word I didn't realize existed before," and sometimes one thinks, "ah, I can see how it might be easy to produce such a sentence even though that word does not 'mean' that," and in yet other cases, "hey, it looks like in some very circumscribed contexts that word in fact means something completely different!" And it may, depending on what you think a lexicon is, be very important to have ways of deciding between these.

    "Questions about the role of logic in analyzing semantics are exactly the sort of question that our analysis of this case, and many similar cases, are meant to raise."

    I didn't use "logic" as I should have. What I meant to communicate was that the OP overall said, "the way to compute the meaning of this sentence results in proposition P, but what is clearly meant by the author is Q. How could this be?" To get closer to questioning the Fregean notion of meaning and meaning composition, one might say, "what is communicated by S is P, and this is exactly what is meant to be conveyed, even though looking at other contexts in which some of the words of S are used would lead you to believe that S should never mean P. Well, big deal: we shouldn't necessarily expect that anyway."

  22. Nick said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    The literal meaning of the phrase "The reality could not be further from the truth" could not be further from the intended.

  23. Alex Clark said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    The reality could not be further from the truth?
    So what does the truth refer to here? It must mean the truth conditions of the utterance, in which case it is perfectly correct.

    Truth and reality can't be compared directly — one is a property of sentences/utterances and the other is a property of possible worlds.

  24. joseph palmer said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    I put more conventional quotes around "slip" too because a quoted author used that word and this was followed by "indeed" from Prof.L.

    What I personally feel is that to use English well, as the Language Log writers do, you have to be aware of all kinds of things that might possibly set off the WRONG radar. Do the Language Log writers really think this structure is fine standard English? The ultimate test is whether they would happily use it themselves. I doubt that very much.

    [(myl) Perhaps I'm being dense, but I don't really understand your point. The sentence under discussion, "The reality could not be further from the truth", is properly spelled, syntactically impeccable, and semantically incoherent. And therefore, of course I wouldn't use it unless I was befuddled or joking. (I'm often enough one or the other, but never mind that for now.)

    You seem to want to get me to admit that some phrases in common usage, like this one, are mistakes. Am I right about this? If so, you don't need to work so hard, since I've been discussing mistakes of various kinds on this weblog for years. It's true that I didn't actually use the word "mistake" in the body of this post, but I feel that phrases like "state of confusion", "no coherent literal meaning at all", and "intrinsically meaningless expression" should have offered adequate clues to my opinion that this example is certainly not "fine standard English". ]

  25. SteveDT said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    CWV and MYL, I would guess that "penumbra" is a word fixed in many minds with the 1965 Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticut, which held that a statute making the use of contraceptives illegal violated the constitutional right of marital privacy. Because there is no right of privacy specifically mentioned in the constitution, the court's opinion famously said that "the First Amendment has a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion." It also said that "specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance." Griswold was an important precedent for Roe v. Wade, and its discussions of penumbras and emanations has sometimes been ridiculed by critics of the later decision, even if they don't disagree with the holding of Griswold. Until now, I can't remember hearing "penumbra" used in any other context.

    [(myl) I can't lay claim to any originality in this. The OED's citations for its sense 3 include plenty of relevant pre-Griswold examples, e.g.

    1925 G. K. CHESTERTON Everlasting Man Introd. 5 They cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy.

    ]

  26. SteveDT said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

    I should add that it's good to see the word being used in other contexts.

  27. joseph palmer said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

    My point is, then, that pointing out this mistake in this way is essentially the same as telling people not to use it, even though many people use it, and it doesn't really present any problems in terms of comprehension. That is fine with me, because I say (an at least partially arbitrary) prescriptivism is basically unavoidable, but it is most certainly a kind of prescriptivism. The great professor thinks people who write this common thing are being daft. The great professors keep digging such items up. Who will read the articles and use the structures again?

  28. Interesting Stuff: Late April 2009 « The Outer Hoard said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    […] Language Log draws attention to a nonsensical statement about reality and truth. […]

  29. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    So much to learn …
    Little did I know that "I couldn't fail to disagree with you…." has once been assayed in the LL crucible and found to be dross.

    Dec. 7, 2004: I could not fail to disagree with you less" is a unoriginal and slightly childish play on the problems of overnegation. As a choice for the most "truly baffling comment" of the year, it's pathetic.
    I would have written "an unoriginal…," but no matter now.

    Ah, well — It's something I picked up on the playground years ago and have since derived a certain amount of amusement from. (Said he, saucily ending a sentence with a preposition just to demonstrate his LL chops.)

  30. Ellen said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    Joseph Palmer:

    My point is, then, that pointing out this mistake in this way is essentially the same as telling people not to use it

    It may look that way to you when you read it, still, that doesn't make it the same. I know I'm inclined to want to share something just because it's interesting. Certainly a linguist with a language blog to post to might be so inclined as well. "Hm, this is interesting", and "don't do this" are two very different perspectives to write from. It really is possible to observe and note something, and even have an opinion, without being judgemental about others.

    [(myl) To show that I have no problem in principle with being judgmental, I hereby award Mr. Palmer the Troll of the Week Award. ]

  31. acilius said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    @Mark Liberman: I have to disagree with you about Mr Palmer. He may be wrongheaded and irritable, but it seems clear that he's making an earnest attempt to contribute to the discussion. So it's unfair to call him a troll.

  32. joseph palmer said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    It is now daylight, and I am lurking in my broadband-connected cave, however I still believe that when language professors find an "interesting thing", point out why it is illogical, and then say they would not say it unless they were befuddled, it amounts to advice to other people not to say it. People do not attempt to obey prescriptivists because they fear jail. They do this becasue they fear their use of language will make them look silly in a formal context. You have contributed to making this phrase seem dumb and out of place. This is all that counts.

  33. DH said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    Interesting. This Youtube clip contains an example at 0:07.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJuNgBkloFE
    I wonder how many of the 19 million viewers noticed this!

  34. joseph palmer said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 12:29 am

    Why would they wish to?

    You know, on a deeper level the problem is that Language Log (and linguistics generally) seems to have no coherent theory of how language standards, or even norms, are formed and maintained. Given the nature of the crusade against "prescriptivism", this is astonishing.

    [(myl) I'm glad to see that you're working hard to demonstrate that your "troll of the week" award was well deserved! Some people would slack off; but not you.

    More seriously, can you point us to the coherent theory of language standards and norms that you wish we would adopt? Since you're not happy with the ideas on this topic that Geoff Pullum expressed in a popularly-accessible form in this 2004 address to the Modern Language Association of America, or with my own LL post "The origin and progress of linguistic norms", 2/22/2009, please give a link to your own understanding of the subject. Without this explanation, I can only assume that you're continuing to push the confused position that Geoff dissected in his post "'Everything is correct' versus 'nothing is relevant'".

    As for the alleged "crusade against 'prescriptivism'", I feel hurt that having exposed myself to the slings and arrows of outraged linguists in many LL posts from 2004 to 2009, and having even endorsed the development of prescriptivist science, I now find myself enlisted against my will into a battle against (apparently) all forms of linguistic analysis and evaluation.

  35. Steve said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    There are many expressions in common use which on closer examination do not actually make sense. Whether we categorise these as 'mistakes' or not is largely a matter of personal preference (or prejudice) and surely simply demonstrates that there is actually no single way in which 'language standards, or even norms, are formed and maintained', and that therefore there cannot be a single 'coherent theory' to explain it. The best we can do is to examine them curiously and non-censoriously and attempt to explain them, as this post attempts to do. I don't understand why such attempts should provoke the ire of Mr Palmer and his ilk, but then there are lots of things I don't understand.

    Still, I can remember noticing at the age of eight or so that the common name (in Britain anyway) for a simple somersault should not be 'head-over-heels' but rather 'heels-over-head', 'head-over heels' being the normal orientation of all bipeds. However, even at that age I realised that the expression was so common that pointing out its illogicality was not likely to dislodge it, but only annoy people and give one the reputation of being a clever dick.

    Many Brits probably have a similar reaction when we hear Americans say 'I could care less'. In Britain we say 'I couldn't care less' which is more logical, but again unlikely to dislodge 'I could care less' in American speech. In effect 'I could care less' and 'I couldn't care less' mean exactly the same thing in different dialects, even though they appear to be opposites.

    'The reality couldn't be further from the truth' is another expression that is used so commonly to mean the opposite of what it actually says, that one could argue that its 'meaning' is what (nearly) everyone thinks it means, rather than what it logically should mean. But it is certainly a sufficiently remarkable example to be worth examining, and whether or not its ubiquity eventually causes it to become as standard as 'head-over-heels' or 'I could care less', it is surely a characteristic of an intelligent and perceptive mind to notice and attempt to explain its peculiarity.

    It is also possible to deliberately use a plausible-sounding expression that means the opposite of what it at first appears to, for comic effect. As an example, I will end by suggesting that I feel that Joseph Palmer's contributions to these comments do an excellent job of filling a much-needed gap.

  36. Russell said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    It doesn't seem to me that having a "coherent" theory of language norms entails that there be "[a] single way" in which they are formed and maintained. And, from my decidedly non-sociological perspective, I would say that linguistic anthropologists and those (socio)linguists who play with them have had much to say about linguistic norms (on the micro and macro scales), language policy, and so on. Whether the frameworks developed are as syntactically- and semantically-sensitive as would be required to understand what's going in with "the reality…" is a separate issue.

  37. acilius said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    @Joseph Palmer: " Language Log (and linguistics generally) seems to have no coherent theory of how language standards, or even norms, are formed and maintained." I wasn't under the impression that Language Log represented any particular school of General Linguistics. Perhaps you might make more progress if you levelled your criticisms at specific linguistic theorists and their attempts to answer these questions.

  38. Ellen said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    Joseph Palmer:

    Why would they wish to?

    You know, on a deeper level the problem is that Language Log (and linguistics generally) seems to have no coherent theory of how language standards, or even norms, are formed and maintained. Given the nature of the crusade against "prescriptivism", this is astonishing.

    Given that the nature of their "crusade against 'precriptivism'" is to be against prescriptivism that goes against the existing standards/norms, it doesn't stike me as astonishing at all.

  39. Bill Walderman said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    '". . . penumbra" is a word fixed in many minds with the 1965 Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticut, . . . the court's opinion famously said that "the First Amendment has a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion. . . Until now, I can't remember hearing "penumbra" used in any other context."

    Are you suggesting that the Griswold meaning of the word "penumbra" has eclipsed its original meaning?

  40. joseph palmer said,

    April 22, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    I haven't really expressed any ire here, I don't feel I have an ilk (since I am an MA linguistics holder somewhat unhappy with the field rather than a tabloid ranter), I have read those articles before, and you are avoiding the main point I am trying to make. That point is that your intentions are not important. Your influence on other people's language depends on the attitude you show towards it. When some kids laughed at me for reading out broccoli as broccol/ai/ in school, as if it were Latin, they didn't wish to prescribe. They probably wanted me to carry on saying that so they could continue to snicker. However, I altered my way of speaking. We wish to fit in exactly with group X, and that is the main engine by which norms are established. Mark Liberman, a representative of a very high status group, is calling a particular illogical form a mistake, even though as Steve says, there is no clear basis to do this. The effect will be to make others afraid to use the form.

    [(myl) I certainly hope so. If you really think that there is nothing wrong with the cited phrase "The reality could not be further than the truth" except that a representation of a high-status group calls it a mistake, then you're badly in need of a remedial course in semantics as well as dose of common sense. ]

    Yes Language Log is made up of individuals, but the attitudes on this issue all seem rather similar. Does being numbskull "troll of the week" involve an invitation to roar out a lengthy essay on why pure "descriptivism" is impossible?

    [(myl) No, it's an invitation to say *something* coherent and interesting, rather than repeating over and over again the (frankly rather stupid) argument that it's somehow inconsistent for someone interested in the facts about linguistic norms to note that certain phrases seem to involve a semantic confusion. ]

    As to "scientific prescriptivism", it sounds like a better idea, but since I first read about it I haven't noticed much alteration here of the same old contradictory swings between labelling one thing a "mistake" and being perfectly OK with other things of a similar sort. (And as I said, if you call it a mistake, you might as well shout "Don't Say It!"). Can science really sort out the "mistake" from the "correct" for a particular group, when both the boundaries of group, and the frequency and type of usage needed to call something correct are unclear?

    [(myl) Yes — to repeat some examples from Geoff's MLA talk, both science and common sense can tell us that "At no time did he leave the room" is a sentence of Standard English, and "At no time he left the room" is not; or that "Ain't nobody gonna tell me what to do" is a sentence of AAVE, while (say) "Gonna ain't nobody me tell to what do" isn't. The fact that there are some gray areas doesn't mean that there are no linguistic facts at all.

    Your comments seem to me to promote willful misunderstandings and abstract objections without adding any interesting substance to the discussion — for example, your claim about LL posters "being perfectly OK with other things of a similar sort" is completely unsubstantiated. This style of argumentation is what earned you the "troll of the week" designation. Geoff Pullum is much less tolerant of this sort of thing than I am — he has recently deleted several large swaths of ignorant and contentless bickering, on the grounds that they clutter up the comments section without adding anything of value to the discussion. I'm beginning to think that his approach may be the right one. ]

  41. Russell said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 2:24 am

    I think the current issue is quite worth talking about, but for whatever reason there's a lot of dancing around, misunderstanding, or whatever. So, my next contribution is on my blog.

  42. Ellen said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    Well, personally, I wouldn't change how I speak or write just because Mark Liberman or whomever says something is wrong, or illogical, or whatever. I feel sorry for those who would. It's possible, however, change how I'd speak or write because of an argument he makes, because something he says makes sense to me. I think for myself. I listen, but don't blindly follow. Besides, blindly following could lead me to following the wrong person/people/group.

  43. acilius said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 7:13 pm

    @Russell: "I think the current issue is quite worth talking about" I wouldn't be at all surprised if it were. I wish Mr Palmer would follow your lead and post a full explanation of his thoughts on a site of his own. Whatever it is he's getting at seems to be too complicated for a comment deep in a blog thread.

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