Toward a recursive meta-pragmatics of Twitterspheric intertextuality

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A few days ago, I posted a post consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a Language Log post (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet (by me) consisting of…

a screenshot of a tweet by Lynne Murphy, a linguistics professor, quote-tweeting* an earlier tweet by Benjamin Dreyer, who is (although I didn’t know it at the time) a vice president, Executive Managing Editor, and Copy Chief at Random House.
* retweeting and adding a comment

The post was titled, "There's a fine line between recursion and intertextuality."

A screenshot of the post is provided below the fold—but I hasten to add that I am providing the screenshot solely as a convenience to the reader, to save them the trouble of having to leave this post in order to look at that one, should they be so inclined.


Puzzlement about the post was expressed in the ensuing comments:

TIC said,
Well, I guess I've waited as long as my curiosity can endure… (Sigh)… 'Fraid I'll have to reveal both my ign'ance and my cowardice… My ign'ance in that I must admit that I have almost no understanding of most of the key terms and concepts at play in these two posts, such as pragmatics, meta-pragmatics, maxim of quality, implicature, recursive/recursion and intertextuality… And my cowardice in that I must acknowledge that I fear the certainty that my head would explode if I were to even try to look them all up and piece their meanings together into any semblance of an understanding of what's going on in these two posts…
Would someone please provide even the start of an explanation of the dialogue for a lowbrow like me?… In doing so, you needn't even go to the trouble of defining each of the individual terms and concepts… With even a cursory understanding of the gist of the exchanges going on, I'll eagerly look up the components in order to gain a fuller(?) understanding of and appreciation for the nuances… Many thanks in advance!…

Coby Lubliner said,
My version of TIC's comment:

I knew when I posted the two posts in question that I was taking chances. The posts were obviously pretty high on the inside-baseball scale. And I’m aware that I sometimes amuse myself too much. Hopefully, the puzzlement caused by the two posts was not so severe as to inflict permanent psychological harm. And indeed it appears from later comments that TIC has, by dint of extended contemplation and perhaps some google-assisted research, started down the road toward understanding. That is commendable, as is their periodic posting of additional comments to report on the progress they have been making. Unfortunately, as is true of so many things in life, complete enlightenment has proved elusive.

So in an effort to mitigate whatever confusion has resulted from these posts, whether on the part of TIC or of anyone who was too traumatized or embarrassed to speak up, let me try to unpack what was going on in the various tweets and posts. I will proceed in chronological order, which corresponds to starting with the deepest level of embedding and working outward.

Benjamin Dreyer’s tweet

Benjamin Dreyer tweeted a message to journalists appearing on his TV set, saying that he would appreciate their knowing the difference between flaunting and flouting.

Dreyer’s description of the kind of the journalistic conduct that would elicit feelings of appreciation was presumably not intended only to inform journalists of his preferences as to the state of their knowledge of word meanings. It was also, I suspect, intended as an indirect request that they conform their speech habits to his preferences. In particular, he probably wants them to stop saying that Donald Trump flaunts the norms of democratic government and civilized conduct. That inference is an implicature that is generated by Dreyer’s statement: a part of the message that is communicated, even though it is not expressly stated.

Lynne Murphy’s tweet

Lynne Murphy quote-tweeted Dreyer. Murphy is a professor of linguistics, and I was aware of that fact when I read her tweet, but that information is not explicitly stated. (In a draft of this post, I said that the tweet presupposed Murphy’s status as a linguistics professor and that she teaches pragmatics. A reviewer has raised the question whether the existence of those facts was, strictly speaking, a presupposition, or was instead merely background knowledge that was necessary in order to fully understand the tweet. Revisions have been made to address that concern, while at the same time not revealing that I don’t know what the answer is.)

Murphy’s tweet says that she would appreciate it if students studying pragmatics would “do the same,” meaning that she would appreciate it if such students knew the difference between flaunt and flout. That sentence generates two implicatures.

First, the students she is speaking to are the students who she teaches, not pragmatics students in general. This is suggested by her in the second paragraph to “follow[ing] through with your mark.”

Second, Murphy's statement about what she would appreciate was, like the corresponding statement by Dreyer, really an indirect request. In Murphy's case, the request  was directed to her students, and the content of the request was that her students observe the distinction between flaunt and flout.

Why would Murphy make such a request? For two reasons. (1) There is an important set of phenomena in pragmatics known as the flouting of conversational maxims, such flouting being an act that can generate implicatures. Therefore, one can assume that Murphy wants her students to use the proper technical terminology. (2) I am reliably informed that Murphy’s linguistics undergrads write flaunting instead of flouting ALL THE TIME.

Murphy footnoted her use of the word appreciate, saying that her use of the word was an understatement and therefore flouted the maxim of quality. I think she really means the maxim of quantity—make your contribution as informative as is required. The maxim of quality has to do with truthfulness. But in any event, it is this flouting that generated the implicature that the first sentence of the tweet was really an implied request.

At this point, things start to get interesting. It is highly unusual for someone who has flouted a conversational maxim to explicitly call attention to that act of flouting. So Murphy’s description of her use of appreciate as an understatement, and her admission that she had flouted one of the conversational maxims, were themselves arguably independent acts of flouting the maxim of quantity, with that flouting consisting of explicitly stating what should have gone without saying (assuming that her first implicature went through). The intended implicature was again directed at Murphy's pragmatics students, and it exploited the fact that the students know that Murphy is their teacher, and that the subject she teaches them is pragmatics. This is part of the common ground that Murphy and her students share.

The content of the implicature is essentially, PAY ATTENTION. THIS IS IMPORTANT. The precise mechanism by which the implicature is generated is Murphy's conspicuous reference to the flouting of one of the conversational maxims. Thus, not only does the second sentence of Murphy’s tweet flout a conversational maxim, but that flouting is accomplished by flaunting the very same conversational maxim. Which, in light of the subject of that tweet by Dreyer (remember him?) that had started everything off, wow.

In the third and final sentence of her tweet, Murphy gilds the lily even more by calling attention to the fact that her first statement, with its maxim-flouting understatement, was intended as an implied request. (By the way, by talking about implied requests, we’re getting into speech-act theory, which will make another appearance shortly.) But note that Murphy doesn’t say that the first sentence had the illocutionary force of a request; instead she communicates that through yet another implicature—an implicature that is generated by yet another act of flouting-by-flaunting: “You’ll have to follow through with the implicature….” And to put the icing on the twice-gilded lily, Murphy concludes with an implied threat: “…like I’ll follow through with your mark.”

My first tweet

When I read Murphy’s tweet, I had only worked out some of the levels of meaning that are discussed above (or as Bryan Garner would want me to put it, I had worked out only some of those levels). Nevertheless, it was clear to me that Murphy’s tweet was operating on multiple levels, and that she'd had fun writing it. I wanted to respond with something that commented on the multileveledness of Murphy's tweet, and that did so in the same spirit as her tweet.

After mentally composing a few drafts, I settled on this:

Twitter is an education in pragmatics, on multiple levels.

This tweet itself had several levels of meaning. First, it was a comment on the fact that because of the brevity that is imposed by the Twitter’s character limit, the intended meaning of many tweets is communicated indirectly, by implicatures. That’s something that I’d previously tweeted about, as I did here:

So Twitter is an education in pragmatics in that following Twitter exposes you to an enormous number of instances in which the intended meaning is communicated pragmatically rather than semantically.

On another level, my statement that Twitter is an education in pragmatics was a comment on the fact that Murphy was using Twitter to assist her in carrying out her task of teaching the academic subject of pragmatics (i.e., the study of the pragmatic processes that contribute to communicating meaning).

Finally, by describing Twitter as an education in pragmatics “on multiple levels,” I was, in addition to what I have already explained,  commenting on the fact that both my tweet Murphy's operated on multiple levels.

My post about my first tweet

It occurred to me that although I could simply tweet my comment on Murphy’s tweet and let it go at that, I could instead turn my tweet into a Language Log post. All I needed to do was to insert a screenshot and think of a title that was deadpan and kind of inside-baseball, but hopefully not too inside-baseball. I came up with “The meta-pragmatics of Twitter.”

In retrospect, I may not have entirely succeeded in avoiding an excess of inside-baseball.

In any case, I could have stopped there. Maybe I should have stopped there. But remember: I sometimes amuse myself too much.


My second tweet and the post about it

All that’s left is for me to explain my tweet-about-the-post-about-the-tweet-about-the-tweet-about-the-tweet and then to explain the title of my post-about-the-tweet-about- the-post-about-the-tweet-about-etc.

The text of the tweet about the meta-pragmatics post was:

[[The meta-pragmatics of Twitter][can be recursive]]

Recursive is the adjective derived from recursion. And recursion is the phenomenon in which a linguistic unit is embedded in another unit that belongs to the same category. My meta-pragmatics tweet was recursive, if we treat tweets and blog posts as belonging to the same category (which they do in a sense, given that Twitter is a form of microblogging), and it called attention to the fact that its contents were also recursive:


The brackets in the text of my meta-pragmatics tweet were there in order to add yet another level of self-reflexiveness, since such bracketing is one of the ways that the hierarchical structure of linguistic units can be shown. (However, in writing this post (the one you are currently reading), I realized that the tweet’s bracketing didn’t reflect recursion, strictly speaking, because it didn’t reflect the embedding of any linguistic unit within another unit belonging to the same category.)

And at last we come to my second post, which added yet another level of recursion. Also another level of confusion, due to the introduction of a new piece of jargon: intertextuality. That is a concept that I will explain by (of course) quoting someone else:

Derived from the Latin intertexto, meaning to intermingle while weaving, intertextuality is a term first introduced by French semiotician Julia Kristeva in the late sixties. In essays such as "Word, Dialogue, and Novel," Kristeva broke with traditional notions of the author's "influences" and the text's "sources," positing that all signifying systems, from table settings to poems, are constituted by the manner in which they transform earlier signifying systems. A literary work, then, is not simply the product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts and to the structures of language itself. "[A]ny text," she argues, "is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another"

Is there really a fine line between recursion and intertextuality? I’m sure there’s a French semiotician somewhere out there who would say there is, and that’s good enough for me. But regardless of whether my statement was true and not merely truthy, my tweets and posts certainly scored high on L’indexe Internationale d’Intertextualité.

Finally, as for whether there really is a fine line between intertextuality and self-indulgence: You’re on your own.


  1. Keith Clarke said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 2:44 am

    Rather more than 2000 words of clear exposition there, thanks! But now I'm unclear if you've just flouted or flaunted the maxim of quantity. I guess that's a matter of pragmatics?

  2. maidhc said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 3:41 am

    Didn't Twitter just double their character count? (I don't use it myself, I just remember reading about it in the news.) So it would be less pragmatic than formerly?

    I remember hearing Updike on NPR talking about how great literature had to be recursive, giving as an example some old Indian stories told by a dead vampire hanging from a tree. (Baital Pancsihi 'Twenty Five Tales Of The Vampire', 11th c.) Then there was his own book he was plugging, starting with someone finding a cassette tape at the beach, taking it home and playing it…

    You may have out-Updiked Updike in miniature form.

  3. ktschwarz said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 4:09 am

    Benjamin Dreyer tweeted a message to journalists appearing on his TV set

    But the tweet wasn't really to journalists appearing on his TV set. Since we all know that a tweet does not penetrate the TV screen and fly to the target, the real intended audience must therefore be his followers, and the implicature is "Join me in complaining about flaunt misusage." If he wanted to address journalists, he would say "to journalists reading this", and probably @ them if he noticed specific ones.

    Now we just need Prof. Murphy to come here and analyze the inferences we've made…

  4. Eleanor said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 6:49 am

    "I am reliably informed that Murphy’s linguistics undergrads write flaunting instead of flouting ALL THE TIME."

    In my work as a copy editor I sometimes come across the bet-hedging hybrid "flounting". Usually it's clear which one the author meant to write… but not always. Perhaps "flounting" could come into use to describe occasions like that described above, when "flouting is accomplished by flaunting".

    (Thanks for the explanation. I enjoyed it.)

  5. Mark Meckes said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 6:55 am

    Is it plausible that Murphy may have deliberately made the quality/quantity substitution as an additional subtle joke?

  6. richardelguru said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 7:43 am

    But do flaunting flautists never flout?

  7. Andrew D. said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 8:42 am

    I think what makes it confusing is that it's not at all obvious what "do the same" is referring to given that there is no "doing" in the original tweet.

  8. Draconaes said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 10:29 am

    @Andrew D. The statement wasn't entirely clear to me on first read either, but I think it's apparent that "do the same" refers to "knowing the difference between flaunting and flouting" in the first tweet. Dreyer's tweet is essentially "do this.", and Murphy's tweet is "if you are x, do the same [thing as "this"]."

  9. TIC said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

    Thanks SO much, Neal, for this extraordinarily patient, thorough and informative (and extraordinarily fun!) walk-through explanation… My slight sense of guilt that I might have incited you to take so much time and effort on this is outweighed many times over by the pleasure, understanding, satisfaction and enlightenment that it's provided me… I've got a bunch of comments, but I'll try to keep each one brief…

    1) Thanks for introducing me to the term/concept "quote-tweeting"…

    2) Ditto for "below the fold" in this new context… It's SO cool that a newspaper-world term like this has such a perfect place/use in the digital world…

    3) Just above the pasted-in screenshot, you mentioned saving folks "the trouble of the trouble of" ducking out to reference the earlier post… I'm currently pondering whether this is a typo or an intentional bit of (reduplicative?) wit… A bug or a feature?… Still pondering…

    [NG: Bug, but a pretty appropriate one. Fixed now, thanks.]

    Uh-oh… My per-comment length is already showing alarming creep…

    4) I'm sure it's obvious that I share (in spades) the tendency toward self-amusement/self-indulgence…

    5) I've got to admit that your referring to me as "their" threw me for a minute… No judgment at all here; just commentary… I'm woke to that whole concept/issue… And I'm 110% on board with its use when an individual has expressed a preference for that personal pronoun… But I'm not at all accustomed (yet?) to its use in his way, when the individual's gender-identification and pronoun-preference is unknown… Not saying that I object… Just saying that I'm not (yet?) used to this usage — as evidenced by the fact that (honestly) at the instant I read the word "their", I was jarred, I paused and said t'm'self Huh?, and looked back a few sentences to see if I'd overlooked the introduction of a second character/commenter… It took at least a couple of rereads, and several second, before the ah-hah! moment… Old dogs and news tricks an all that, I 'spose… BTW, I'm a plain-old, boring-old he/him kinda guy…

    6) Re: LM's tweet, it's now clear that I was most thrown and befuddled by the fact that it wasn't at all obvious to me that by "the same" she was referring (waaay) back/down to BD's flouting-vs.-flaunting point… Perhaps it's a sign/relic of what an old-head I am… In a situation like that, not unlike when encountering a pronoun such as "it", my natural tendency is/was to begin by looking back within the same sentence for the most recent potential referent (the antecedent?)… So I got stuck by thinking "the same" prob'ly referred back to "appreciate", perhaps in a punning sense… In retrospect, of course, I should've been on the lookout for a connection to BD's quote-tweeted initial comment…

    More comments, but I'll save them 'til a bit later… Need to nap now and replenish my (extreeemely limited) ability to keep it brief…

  10. Bill S. said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

    Would understatement automatically count as a simultaneous violation of both the quality and quantity maxims? In not being an accurate representation of the author's meaning (thus justifying the "under-" part of "understatement"), it's a quality glitch (although at the same time, it is presumably an accurate signal of the author's intent to use understatement). But "the amount of information you need" is usually "the amount of accurate information you need," so providing deliberately inaccurate information leads — at least, among readers who perceive the understatement as such — to a perception of there being pieces missing (the quantity glitch). But this triggers the act of figuring out the understatement, so from that standpoint it *is* enough information. Labeling here seems not entirely straightforward.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    Richardelguru: possibly, but they are more likely to flounce.

  12. TIC said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

    Nattering onward, but surely not upward…

    7) It's notable, and surely not unexpected, that the point in NG's explication of LM's comment that he says "things start to get interesting" is the same point at which things begin, for the most part, to spiral dizzyingly over my head and beyond my grasp… Especially in trying to understand the original post, but also to some degree in fully understanding and internalizing NG's awesome explanation… And, of course, there's not a thing wrong with all of this inside-baseball stuff… That's one of the many beauties of LL — its diverse diversity of diverse content… In retrospect, I prob'ly should've had an earlier realization of my place and not chimed in at the outset… The adults here would no doubt have appreciated it if I'd recognized my placement at the kids table, not interrupted the conversation at their table, and instead satisfied myself with listening to the other kids amuse themselves and each other with merriments such as flouting-flaunting-flautist-flounce wordplay ('til one of us wins the game by inevitably saying some hilarious variant of fart)…

    8) Although I mulled over a few aspects/characteristics of Twitter that I thought NG might have been referencing in his "Twitter is an education. . ." comment, its character-limit-necessitated brevity, alas, wasn't one of them… (And that's perhaps its single most widely known and defining features, fer chrissakes!)..

    That's it for now… Again, Neal, many, many thanks for all that you've done here… It's all very much appreciated…

  13. Hal Brown said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 6:04 pm

    I came upon this as I was taking a break from writing a job application, which activity was taking a break from writing a job application where I am providing an example of recursion in the computer programming rather than the linguistic sense. Eating linguini involves the sense of taste, which is involved in the activity of lunch, which is involves the activity of eating, which can often be used as a break from activities such as writing job applications and if I eat lunch now I will be taking a break from taking a break from taking a break from writing a job application because instead of going back to writing the example of recursion I will just go back to (re-enter the activity of) writing the second job application. Bon appétit, and I wish you good appetite for linguistic play. Of course, if I do go to lunch after writing this, I will be flaunting the ability to flout my own rules about sticking to what I was doing…

  14. Toby said,

    March 1, 2018 @ 9:47 pm

    Much do about nothing really

  15. JPL said,

    March 2, 2018 @ 8:11 pm

    Re: Toby @1.3.18, (9:47pm

    The post really was just one big flout. (I'm not complaining, mind you; it was intrinsically interesting. However, I would like to take issue with a couple of the sentences that implied a certain standard view of the relation between semantics and pragmatics. (Namely: "… the intended meaning is communicated pragmatically rather than semantically." and "… the academic subject of pragmatics (i.e., the study of the pragmatic processes that contribute to communicating meaning)".) I'm not a pragmaticist, so I think I can evade the charge of disciplinary aggrandizement, but I would consider the theoretical concepts and practices of pragmatics as foundational for the field of semantics. The task of pragmatics is the critique of acts of language use, and this includes determining the best interpretation of what the meaning of the sentence is, determining the intended reference of referential terms, and in particular, determining the truth or falsity of sentences considered problematic wrt truth value, among other things. The business of semantics on the other hand is to describe the objectively existing categories that make meanings possible, that determine whether a given word is used appropriately given the facts of the language system, and that determine the possible meanings of a given expression. So describing the "resonance" of a sentence beyond the contribution of the explicitly expressed "words on the page" is all part of the description of the meaning of the sentence. (This implies a "pragmatic" rather than a "semantic" conception of truth, which anybody is hereby urged to object to if they like.) Not the standard view, I know, but I would like to see a linguistic pragmatics that is an extension of Cassirer's critique of Dewey, just to see what could be done with it.)

  16. philip said,

    March 2, 2018 @ 8:21 pm

    Neal, if you have to explain a joke …

    But, serious question: is the 'inside-baseball scale' a well-known term for insider or arcane knowledge?

  17. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 3, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

    @philip: Neal, if you have to explain a joke …

    Yeah, I know. OTOH, I figured that if I'm going to explain it, I'm going to explain the everloving shit out of it.

    @philip: But, serious question: is the 'inside-baseball scale' a well-known term for insider or arcane knowledge?

    "Inside baseball" is well known. The "inside-baseball scale" I made up.

    On reflection, "inside baseball" wasn't really the right term to convey the idea of "implicit allusions to obscure things that lots of people won't understand."

  18. TIC said,

    March 4, 2018 @ 8:19 am

    1) Thee "inside-baseball (scale)" phrasing (allusion?) was, for me, a perfect and perfectly apt one when/where Neal used it… That appreciation of its use even sprung immediately to my mind at the time…
    2) One of my biggest regrets in having a hand in furthering, if not instigating, this whole brouhaha is that I chimed in "from the kids' table" when I perhaps should'n'tve… Neither Lynn's nor Neal's comments/jokes prob'ly needed one bit of explaining *to their intended audiences*… And so I prob'ly shoulda just said, "Well, this one's not for me" (as I do, for example, with many inside-Xinitic posts) and simply moved on… Among the last things I'd ever want would be for LL to be dumbed-down to toward the low(brow)est- common-denominator such as me…
    3) On the the other hand, that regret is greatly tempered by the fact that this brouhaha has introduced me to, and gotten me actively and very pleasantly engaged in edumacating myself about, pragmatics, implicatures, entailments, presuppositions, Gricean maxims/principles, etc., etc., etc… Still, though, I'm dismayed that my gain might be in any way at the expense, no matter how minor, of others…

  19. mg said,

    March 6, 2018 @ 11:00 pm

    @TIC – THANK YOU for asking those questions!!! I, too, needed and appreciated this explanation and I'm sure there are many other LL readers in the same boat (or outfield, if we're playing inside baseball).

  20. David Udin said,

    March 8, 2018 @ 1:09 pm

    @Hal Brown: I think this is a job for coroutines.

    @Neal: Thanks. I had only a dim idea of what pragmatics is (mostly from following LL). This has been an education.

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