Shedding and casting doubt and light

« previous post | next post »

Philip Spaelti writes:

I am having one of those moments. Correcting a student's paper I came across:  "This behavior seems to shed doubt on treatments which always regard V2 as head."  "Shed light",  "cast doubt (on)", OK, but "shed doubt (on)" doesn't quite compute for me. Or have I just been in Japan too long?

Judging from the frequencies in COCA, "shed doubt" is indeed the most improbable cell in the table of pairwise associations:

[doubt] [light]
[shed] 1 1007
[cast] 437 88

(The square brackets mean that I inquired about sequences of lemmas, so that e.g. "casting doubts" or "sheds light" would be counted.)

This raises the usual question about collocational association: Are these collocational differences random and unpredictable facts about lexical attraction and repulsion? Or do they follow in some way from the meanings of shed and doubt and cast and light?

This is also a good example of the kind of writing advice that modern statistical NLP could in principle provide. Of course, people who favor jarring prose may wish to point the advice in the opposite direction. But that's an aesthetic judgment – the problem in such cases is usually not that the writer knows what the common collocation is, and decides to blaze a new trail. Perhaps some day, your word processor's collocation engine will have a user-settable collocational bizarreness knob, running from "conventional" through "unremarkable" to "odd" and on up to "WTF?"…


  1. Rubrick said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    I'm sure confusion (or mere sloshiness) among these is due to the fact that "cast" in the sense of "cast doubt" is rare in modern English, and "shed" as in "shed light" is essentially nonexistent.

    In fact, one would rather expect "shed light" to mean "to get rid of light". I wonder what Hyman R's son would think about the matter.

  2. Jon Lennox said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

    Rubrick: Maybe I'm reanalyzing, but I interpret "shed" in the phrase "that fact sheds light on this discussion" as a metaphorical use of the same meaning of "shed" as in "the cat sheds hair on my clothing."

  3. Xmun said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

    Anyone familiar with the King James Bible will remember such phrases as "cast thy bread upon the waters" and "cast out devils" and "cast him into the bottomless pit". Do not fishermen still "cast" a line or a net? Clothes that no longer fit us become "cast-offs". One can not only "cast doubt" but also "cast aspersions" on something or someone. In short, I think Rubrick exaggerates the rarity of the the verb "cast" in modern English. Such an expression as "cast a shadow" can still be used both literally and metaphorically. We cast votes in an election (am I right in thinking this refers only to ballots, not to the voices at a meeting?). And now I'm casting about for a neat finish but can't find one.

  4. Xmun said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 10:03 pm

    I don't believe Jon Lennox is reanalysing "shed" either. The cat — and the dog — shed hair literally. Lucid speakers shed light on a subject metaphorically.

  5. Gene Callahan said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 12:27 am

    I agree with everyone else, Rubrick: these don't strike me as rare uses at all.

  6. C Thornett said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 2:18 am

    Is this a case of a NNES confusing two collocations? Native speakers do the same thing, of course, but this is frequently encountered in ESL/EFL classes.

    Thinking of Mark's final paragraph, how far should ESL/EFL teachers attempt to push students in the direction of completely standard writing beyond 'acceptable' grammar, syntax and so on? Some contexts and registers of writing offer less tolerance of non-standard use of language, of course, but there are far more contexts and registers where 'standard', idiom and collocation often merge with stereotype and cliché.

    Teachers have to rely on an internal bizarreness gauge to decide what is a non-standard but acceptable, perhaps even pleasing, variation on a collocation or idiom and what is going to get too many WTF or 'stupid foreigner' reactions from readers. Or listeners, for that matter, bearing in mind how easy such confusions and blendings are in spontaneous speech.

  7. Michael Newman said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 2:36 am

    I think generally the creation of these jarring expressions by undergraduates has the banal origin in a student using an unfamiliar genre and trying to imitate a register that they haven't fully acquired. It's similar to a second language learning error. They are following a hypothesis, "use expressions that sound weird to me in the same way as those other ones in those books I read."

    There is for all that some kind of semantic opposition between "casting doubt" and "shedding light." "Shedding doubt" certainly makes metaphorical sense, which leaves that empty cell for an insecure undergraduate to fill.

  8. Ben Hemmens said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 7:50 am

    I'm with Xmun on "cast"; it does a similar job in other collocations.

    Whereas the more I think about "shed light", the odder it seems. Is there any other form of radiation (or sprayable fluid) that one could shed on something? Here, Joe, shed a few X-rays on this for me, will ya?

    "Shed [one's] doubt[s]" would on the other hand be the same thing as casting them off, wouldn't it?

  9. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 8:18 am

    Whereas the more I think about "shed light", the odder it seems. Is there any other form of radiation (or sprayable fluid) that one could shed on something? Here, Joe, shed a few X-rays on this for me, will ya?

    Why is this odd? We don't say something produces more heat than X-rays, either, unless we're talking very literally.

  10. Ben Hemmens said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    I only mean odd in the sense that it only crops up in this sense in this one collocation. What I really wanted to say was eigenartig.

  11. Dan Hemmens said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 10:29 am

    As I think somebody else pointed out, we say things like "the cat shed hair all over my new coat" and I think you can talk about an airforce shedding bombs on a target.

    I think you're right that the "allow to fall on" sense of "shed" is significantly less common than the "allow to fall from" sense though.

  12. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    It's still not clear to me whether Philip Spaelti's student was saying that the behavior increases doubt or decreases doubt.

    Also, as another example of "shed" in contemporary English, I've heard hikers talk of "shedding elevation" while descending a mountain.

  13. Johanne D said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    I now know that "cooccurrences" is "collocations" in English.

    Which reminds me that a federal government translator painstakingly took down all the collocations he came across in everything he read, and published the results. They are now available in, under Writing Tools ("Dictionnaire des cooccurences").

    Every time I use this tool – and it is quite useful for a translator – I take a moment to admire this "travail de bénédictin".

  14. Mr Punch said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    "Cast a shadow" is common usage. Shadows are the units in which doubt is measured ("a shadow of doubt"). So "cast doubt" seems perfectly right.

  15. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    No comments so far on the way words like "shine" and "shimmer" may reinforce the "shed light" idiom.

  16. Ethan said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

    @Mr Punch: Nicely argued. On the other hand, although "shadow of [a] doubt" is more common, there are also substantial numbers of N-gram hits for "glimmer of doubt" and "hint of doubt". And to my ears, both glimmers and hints must be shed rather than cast.

    @Dennis Paul Himes: It had not occurred to me until your comment that there was any possible ambiguity, only awkwardness. For me, "shed doubt on" can only be read as adding doubt rather than removing it. Otherwise it would have to be "shed doubt from".

  17. Theodore said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    I don't know about future word processors, but maybe future spambots will toss in a little "collocational bizarreness" as a red herring to confound the markov chain detector in your junk mail filter.

  18. Jay said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

    I certainly agree that "shed doubt on"* feels wrong.

    This question/intuition of Mr. Spelti that this is wrong reminds me of my own sense about the phrase "bathed in darkness."

    I think I want to reject it because bathing something in light is causing light(a thing) to hit it. Because darkness is the absence of light, it feels wrong to speak about casting it or bathing something in it. Not as crazy as "bathed in dryness"** would be, but along the same lines, perhaps.

    maybe I'm somehow being too literal about the nature of light and darkness, and I'm sure many (most) people won't make a distinction on the same grounds.

    more rambling thoughts:
    I don't like "bathed in cold/coldness"*, I do like "bathed in cold air"

    "cast a shadow" and "Bathed in shadows" sound fine to me. Perhaps the difference has to do with my having a unit for a shadow(i.e. 'patch of darkness' which is a familiar ).

    "bathed in shadow"*? is pushing back toward awkward for me.

    "bathed in shade"* – I can read "bathed in light" so literally, it hurts me inside not to be able to treat this phrase equally literally.

    Does anyone else have similar intuitions about "bathed in darkness/shade"?

  19. Joel Nothman said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

    One might have thought some of the reported frequency is due to the presence of "shed lights", but apparently COCA's not strong on DIY.

  20. Bloix said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 6:23 pm

    Verb preposition combinations that use the more generic verbs, like get, make, give, take, put, etc. have almost no inherent meaning at all – their meanings are almost entirely a matter of convention and they shift easily:
    get in, get out, get over, get past, get around, get by, get into, etc., etc.

  21. Bloix said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    Oops = meant to comment on a different post!

  22. Don said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    America! America! God shed his grace on thee

  23. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    March 23, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    […] Geoff Nunberg also had some words about the slang dictionaries in question, while Mark Liberman shed and cast some doubt and light, and Victor Mair interpreted a dubious Chinese tattoo. Meanwhile, BBC News profiled Zhou Youguang, […]

  24. Treesong said,

    August 13, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    I shed light like cats shed fur,
    Ride around town like-a Raymond Burr.
    — Beastie Boys

RSS feed for comments on this post