538 snags Trent Reznor Prize nomination

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Rick Rubenstein has nominated this sentence (from Oliver Roeder, "The Supreme Court Is Allergic To Math", FiveThirtyEight 10/17/2017) for the prestigious Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding:

Justice Neil Gorsuch balked at the multifaceted empirical approach that the Democratic team bringing the suit is proposing be used to calculate when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far, comparing the metric to a secret recipe.

Rick notes that "This passage from 538 took me several readings".

Courtesy of treebanking expert Beatrice Santorini, here's the constituent-structure tree:

Her comment:

The Penn Treebank style would omit the function tags -SBJ for subject and -OB1 for direct object, deducing the functions from the syntactic context.  Current annotation versions may also explicitly indicate compound nouns, which the structure below doesn’t.  The subjunctive on “be” isn’t explicitly indicated.


  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 8:30 am

    I'd like to see a copy of the rules that state the conditions that aspirants to the Reznor Award must satisfy, because this doesn't look to me like a tricky embedding.

    The structure is predominantly right-branching, and it only has the appearance of center-embedding due to the phrase that's tacked on at the end, but not really integrated into the structure. It looks to me like what CGEL calls "supplemental" constituents, or something like that.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 8:46 am

    That strikes me as easy to follow, and I'm surprised that it took her several readings to follow it. But, then, maybe there's a correlation between my ease at understanding that and my habit of sometimes writing long sentences that I fear some will have trouble following.

  3. Mike B said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    If you strip out the extras I think it would be "Gorsuch balked at the approach be used .." which just seems like a really awkward construction regardless of all the decorative clauses around it.

  4. Craig said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    The sentence is rather long, and it might have been better to end it at "too far" and rewrite the rest as a separate sentence (which relates to Neal Goldfarb's comment), but I didn't find it hard to follow. I think I would have written "the plaintiffs propose to identify gerrymandering" rather than "the Democratic team bringing the suit is proposing be used to calculate when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far". Not only would this be simpler, but also, I think by definition gerrymandering is always partisan and always inappropriate. To say "when [it] has gone too far" implies that there is a lesser amount of it that would be okay, which I don't think is correct.

  5. RP said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    I haven't read the article yet, but my interpretation of the sentence was that it intentionally implied that the Democrats believed a certain amount of gerrymandering was OK, and that they had drawn up rules that would identify the excessive (or Republican) kind. I thought the intention of the sentence was to mock the plaintiffs.

  6. Craig said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 10:03 am

    @RP: I think if you read the article it's clear that the writer is not trying to mock the plaintiffs. If anyone is being mocked, it's the conservative judges the writer claims are "allergic to math".

  7. Ellen K. said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 10:26 am

    @Mike B: No, "be used" goes with "proposed". If you drop "that the Democratic team…is proposing", then you also have to drop "be used to calculate when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far", which attaches to it. If you want to attach "be used…" to "empirical approach" where it sits in the sentence, you have to add something in front of "be". Which is what's done, actually.

  8. John Roth said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    First, as another data point, I had no trouble with it.

    Second, the courts need a concrete rule to determine when the line has been crossed. Without such a rule, they're in the "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it" territory that got anti-porn laws into trouble a couple of generations ago.

  9. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    Wouldn't making it read "approach to be used" disambiguate the function of "be"?

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    The "goes too far" makes sense if one assumes that the lawyers think it's counterproductive to ask the court to rule an extremely widespread and longstanding practice per se unacceptable versus asking the court to clamp down on extreme versions of the phenomenon that are more abusive or problematic than the historical norm, although that gets you right to the "how far is too far and what's an objective metric for that which could be reliably applied in practice" question, which is a serious one.

  11. Christy Goldfinch said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

    As a legal copyeditor, primarily for ABA books, I would be thrilled if most of the sentences I read were as easy to follow as this one.

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

    It didn't take me several reading because I gave up after two tries; it just wasn't worth it.

  13. Rubrick said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 4:25 pm

    FWIW, my difficulty in parsing it (I was the one who sent it to myl) was probably not strictly due to the embedding per se. I was predisposed to thinking the person doing the balking was also the one who thought something had "gone too far", which isn't the case. I suspect I was using some lookahead rather than strictly scanning the words in order.

  14. D.O. said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

    The closest point of comparison is not porn laws, but equal-sized districts, required by the Constitution since 1960s. Sometimes it is called "one person, one vote rule", which makes little sense, but whatever. It is also was against a longstanding practice, but republic has been kept. I had no problem with the sentence (read it first not on LL, were people are naturally primed to read carefully and look for trouble, but on 538 itself).

  15. Jenny said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:32 pm

    I thought the Trent Reznor prize was for clear sentences, so being relatively easy to parse would not be an obstacle to winning.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

    This sentence, I think, is perfect (unlike the Trent Reznor sentence which was an ungrammatical mash-up of two streams of speech – of course spoken language must be given more leeway) and presents no difficulty, nor is it obvious that there'd be a better (and equally brief) way to write it.

    This is true whether you agree or disagree with Gorsuch (and the author disagrees, for partisan reasons that he does a pretty good job of hiding); I think I agree, and yet feel that this sentence does no injustice to his view.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

    To D.O.'s post of a few minutes ago:

    Yes, the 'one man one vote' decision (as I am used to calling it) would be a good comparison. In fact, it was 'worse' than ending gerrymandering would be in that it permanently reduced the power of certain constituencies, and went against something enshrined in the Constitution itself. Based on that I don't see any reason the courts couldn't decide to entirely ban it except for perceived practicality. (And if one goes beyond the electoral there are even stronger comparisons …)

  18. Lane said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 5:59 am

    I actually found this sentence from the same piece much harder to parse.

    "In his majority opinion, Justice Potter Stewart discussed how no data existed showing that people in states that had stricter rules regarding the admission of evidence obtained in an unlawful search were less likely to be subjected to these searches."

    It might be because

  19. Lane said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 6:01 am

    [oops, hit Submit too soon] I knew, before reading the first quote in the post, the context and what it was likely to say – ie, I knew the Democratic argument, and how Gorsuch was likely to respond. Lacking any knowledge about Potter Stewart and the 4th amendment in the 60s made this second sentence really hard.

  20. Misha Trettenbach said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 9:58 am

    It didn't strike me as especially hard to follow, but I read a lot of legal decisions. That said, it could have used some editing. Even a couple of small changes might have helped. For exmple, iIt reads noticeably more smoothly, with no significant change in meaning, if one just replaces "is proposing be used" with "suggests should be used," and "when" with "whether."

    Justice Neil Gorsuch balked at the multifaceted empirical approach that the Democratic team bringing the suit suggests should be used to calculate whether partisan gerrymandering has gone too far, comparing the metric to a secret recipe.

    That's simply a downside of blogs, compared to magazines (and a downside of online comments like this one, compared to letters to the editor): there's less time for self-editing or running one's prose past the eyes and red pen of someone whose job it is to make the way smoother.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    But, Misha Trettenbach, proposing something be used and suggesting something be used are distinctly different things. That change would make a very significant change in meaning.

  22. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

    @Ellen K. — I hope you are being facetious, because in my experience, at least some dictionaries list "propose" and "suggest" as synonyms. If there is a difference in legal terminology, many ordinary readers would not be aware of such a distinction.

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 10:49 pm

    I might not be a lawyer, but I do know English, and 'propose' and 'suggest' are not ordinarily interchangeable. The difference is that 'propose' is far more formal (the referent, not the word) – a proposal is part of, or the initiation of, some formal process; while a suggestion is outside of one.

    I do not understand Lane's comment about that sentence being harder to parse without the background knowledge. All that's required to grasp it is the ability to entertain the concept of 'unlawful search'; I really don't think you ever need be American for that.

  24. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 21, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

    In my experience, which includes attending hundreds of municipal, county, and school board meetings, people use suggest, recommend, and propose interchangeably at times. When discussing RFPs, proposal is used more formally, but I have always classed terms such as "request for proposals" as being bureaucratese, which leads me to think that "propose" is differentiated from suggest only in some contexts by some speakers.

    I looked up both suggest and propose in the most recent printed dictionary that I have, the fifth edition of the American Heritage dictionary. On page 1413, the first definition of propose says: "To,put forward for consideration, discussion, or adoption; suggest …" On page 1743, the first definition of suggest says: "To offer for consideration or action; propose…" In the third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage, page 668, Garner writes that "propose… ( = to offer or suggest [some course of action]) has no particular connotations except when used in the sense of asking someone to marry."

    Given these citations, I think that the use of "propose" as a term of art may be common in some fields, such as contract law, some business contexts, architecture, and some government contexts. The distinctions between propose and suggest do not seem to dominate ordinary usage. It is a distinction that dictionary compilers and editors should be watching for, apparently, but it may not be widespread yet.

  25. Ellen Kozisek said,

    October 22, 2017 @ 8:35 am

    No, Barbara Phillips Long, I am not being facetious. And I am also talking about the particular context. A proposal is something formal. A suggestion is not. Not at all the same. There's a big difference between submitting a proposal and saying "Hey, maybe we should do it like this".

  26. Rodger C said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 6:51 am

    Are you saying you've never seen the word "suggest(ion)" in a formal context?

  27. Ellen K. said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 8:38 am

    Rodger C, are you talking to me or Andrew Usher, or both? As for me, all I'm saying is what I said… that in this context the two words are not at all equivalent. I'm not trying to generalize to all contexts. Just that they are not always equivalent, and aren't in this context.

    I'm actually not convince they are ever equivalent, however, that's not the point I am arguing.

    Oh, and, for the record, I of course don't remember every word I've ever heard or read said to me in every conversation or thing read or heard. And whether the word is used in a formal context is totally beside the point. The point is about the meanings of the words in different contexts.

  28. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 1:45 pm

    Ellen Kozisek and Andrew Usher — I am perfectly willing to consider evidence that would show a difference between "propose" and other words in the context of this quote or in the context of legal writing, but I have not seen definitions or usage advisories that support such a difference.

    Part of the reason for my skepticism is that Bryan Garner, in his volume on American usage, doesn't mention such a distinction. Given that Garner is an authority on legal writing, I am puzzled by the contention that "propose" has become so different in function or nuance that it is no longer suitable as a synonym for "suggest" or related words in this context and perhaps in other contexts.

  29. Ellen K. said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

    You've got that backwards, Barbara Phillips. My point is not about whether "propose" can substitute for "suggest". It's that "suggest" can't substitute for suppose.

    And, sorry, but I don't have a catalog of all my experience with the language to back up my observations of word meanings. Dictionary differences aren't perfect. And a distinction not being covered in a usage manual doesn't mean the distinction isn't there. Sometimes it means quite the opposite… that the distinction is clear enough (in the opinion of the authors/editors) that they don't feel a need to cover it.

  30. BZ said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

    The title of this post was ambiguous to me in its own right. I initially interpreted "538 snags" as a noun phrase, partly due to only a vague idea of what FiveThirtyEight is, and partly because I've never heard of an entirely numeric title or proper name before (as in entirely composed of numerals), and FiveThrtyEight isn't one either. So unless it looks like a recent (say within the last 10-15) or famous (say 1812) year, I'll interpret a number in the beginning of a sentence/headline as counting something.

    As for the sentence in question, I didn't find it unusually hard to parse.

  31. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

    Ellen K. — I don't expect you to have a catalog of your experiences with "suggest" and "propose," but there might be evidence in a corpus or in some other usage authority. In my experience, modern dictionaries and usage guides go to a lot of trouble to provide nuanced definitions. I would be very surprised if the writers of dictionaries and usage guides thought that a "clear enough" distinction should be omitted from definitions.

    You have a clear preference for "propose" in the sentence being discussed. I contend that your preference is fine, but that your dislike of "suggest" in the sentence is a matter of preference and not a matter of widespread usage. I don't feel that Misha Trettenbach's wording changed the meaning of the original sentence, and until there's more evidence to consider, I have no problem with using "suggest" as Trettenbach used it.

  32. Ellen Kozisek said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

    It's not my preference. I didn't write the sentence. I'm saying switching the word to "suggest" changes the meaning. That's all I'm saying. Nothing more. Please don't pretend I'm saying more than I said.

  33. Joe Templeton said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 8:18 am

    It took me one reading.

  34. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 11:50 am

    Ellen Kozisek — I am sorry my wording offended you. I did not intend to. All I am saying is that I see no evidence that the substutution of "suggest" for "propose" creates "a very significant change in meaning" in the sentence under discussion. I would be happy to consider any evidence you present to the contrary.

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