The psycholinguistics of competitive punditry

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Matthew Dowd on ABC News This Week for 9/2/2012:

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The truth is a casualty in this. It's as if we're going to make any argument possible that's going to advantageous our side, in order to overcome the other side. The Republicans do it, the Democrats do it.

Mr. Dowd may have meant to say "…that's going to advantage our side…", and substituted advantageous for advantage. If so, this is an unusual kind of speech error. As Karen Emmorey and Victoria Fromkin, put it ("The mental lexicon", in Newmeyer, Ed., Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey – Volume 3, 1989):

Speech errors provide evidence that words may be organized by, or at least specified for, their lexical category, since word exchanges almost always occur between words with the same lexical category (Fromkin 1971; Garrett 1980).

And according to Trevor Harley and Siobhan MacAndrew, "Constraints Upon Word Substitution Speech Errors", Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 2001:

Previous research has shown that there is an overwhelming tendency for the intruding item to be from the same syntactic category as the target it replaces (Butterworth, 1982; del Viso  et al., 1991; Garrett, 1980).

In their collection of 1,028 word-substitution errors, this syntactic category effect was observed 98% of the time.

On the other hand, Mr. Dowd may have meant to say "… that's going to be advantageous to/for our side…", and left out the "be" and the "to/for". That would be an even more unusual kind of speech error — I couldn't find a study of the characteristics of errors involving multiple omissions of function words (though I'm not a speech-error expert, and a reader may be able to point us to research on the subject).

In any case, this particular error was striking enough for two readers to have sent me links to it.

If the error had occurred in typing, it would have been a relatively normal one. As I observed in "A Cupertino of the mind", 5/22/2008, mistakes like "software" for "softer" in "make the speech louder or softer" are pretty common in typing. These are cases where the writer starts the word off with the right sequence of letters, and then (presumably as attention shifts to the upcoming material) finishes with a different word that's not what was intended at all.

I do this kind of thing frequently, and just did it again in (intending to) search Google Scholar for

touch typing word substitution

where I actually typed

touch typical word substitution

Getting back to Mr. Dowd, we can observe that he was rushing to get his points out before George Will could interrupt him —  in the passage reproduced above, he fit 37 words into 8.329 seconds, for a rate of 267 wpm. And this speed leads him to make other speech errors, e.g. a bit later

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Paul Ryan what he did in his speech I think so stretched the truth, and I like Paul Ryan, have a lot of great respect for Paul Ryan, but the ((nelements?)) that he said about closing the G.M. plant, which closed before Barack Obama took president …

Leaving aside what happened in the region that I've transcribed as "nelements", we see that he blended "Barack Obama took office" and "Barack Obama became president" to produce "Barack Obama took president".

Overall, the pressures of competitive punditry should provide an interesting laboratory setting for psycholinguistic research. In these unscripted group discussions, we have several highly verbal people with mental lists of talking points, each speaking quite fast in an attempt to get all those points out before someone else interrupts.


  1. Matt Juge said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 7:25 am

    There's an interesting contrast between this type of context and live sports commentary. As you point out, pundits have talking points, so it might be more accurate to call such exchanges semi-scripted, whereas sports commentary that follows the action leaves less room for pre-fab units.

  2. Peter said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    Dowd’s the ((nelements)) could be parsed as a highly compressed then the elements, perhaps?

  3. Joe Green said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    In their collection of 1,028 word-substituiion errors

    Nice irony, especially given the later mention of typing errors. Glad to see you don't have automatic spell-checking on.

  4. Brett said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    @Matt Juge: I was actually surprised to learn how much of sports commentary involved working from prepared notes. It was demonstrated very clearly during one long inter-league baseball game between the Red Sox and the Braves (who are considered, "natural rivals" according to the special inter-league play rules, on account of the Braves having long ago played in Boston). It was an amazing game, and it went to (I believe) fourteen innings. It was late at night in Atlanta, and the cameras showed enormous swarms of insects swirling around the field—especially where there was bright light. Around the twelfth inning, the Boston commentators noticed that the lights had been turned out in the Atlanta broadcast booth. After a bit of discussion, they decided to turn out their own lights—to get rid of the bugs that were swarming all around them. It was really striking how different their commentary sounded with the lights off. They really just talked about the game. All sorts of asides about players, and scouting reports, and other supplementary information ceased. They obviously had a hefty pile of prepared remarks, which were designed to be inserted whenever appropriate into the play by play. Before turning out the lights, they mentioned that they'd gone through most of their notes already by that point, but there was still a stark change in the structure of the commentary when the booth went dark.

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    Matthew Dowd was previously featured for a speech error in my post from last December, "Newt's not not engaging." Don't know if he's particularly prone to such slip-ups.

  6. Michael W said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    I wonder if "Obama took [the] presiden[cy]" was a possibility for Dowd as well. 'nelements' to me almost sounds like 'announcement' (or even 'pronouncement'?) giving way to something else midway through.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 11:26 am

    I couldn't access the Harley/MacAndrew article, but did their 2% of speech errors that did substitute across syntactic categories itself have any sort of pattern that would make this error more or less plausible? Even if only 2% of the total universe of errors involve this kind of substitution, the universe of live-tv speech errors is surely large enough that 2% of it will add up to a considerable number of instances.

    [(myl) Here's what they actually say:

    In 99.6% (781 out of 784) of semantic paraphasias, the intruding item was from the same major syntactic category as the target. The effect of syntactic constraint upon phonological paraphasias is less marked, with 92.2% (225 out of 244) of target-error pairs from the same category.

    Their example of a "semantic paraphasia" is "I mean, you’ve put too much hot water in. (Target: cold water.)", and their example of a "phonological paraphasia" is "I’m probably more sensitive than you. (Target: more sensible.)".]

  8. MattF said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    I'd imagine that you get different patterns of errors in competitive punditry speech, compared with errors in normal speech.

  9. Maryellen MacDonald said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    The Emmorey/Fromkin and Harley/MacAndrew articles are both discussing common speech errors in which the speaker has converged on a single syntactic structure for the utterance plan but has mis-selected or mis-ordered one or more words. This error instead seems to be one in which two alternative structures are competing, "going to advantage our side" and "going to be advantageous for our side," and the utterance is a blend of these. The question of whether alternative structures could compete is controversial–I think there's good evidence for some competition of this sort, others don't. I don't know of any discussion of this sort of blended error in the literature.

  10. boris said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    "that's going to advantage our side": I find this construction odd. Is "advantage" as a verb common? I see that has it, but it still sounds wrong to me.

    [(myl) It's reasonably common — some example:

    The underlying morality is that one must strive always to advantage one's own group and to disadvantage the other group.
    …the opportunity here is that this collaborative bargain that we have reached will advantage both companies.
    Court consent also advantaged the landowner because ….


  11. Andy Averill said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    @Maryellen MacDonald, that sounds right to me. I was a little taken aback by that 2% figure for errors caused by switching from one syntactic category to another. There aren't many things in life that happen only 2% of the time.

    What I think happens on these TV gabfests is a hurry-up-and-wait type situation. You have a lot of time to plan your next remark while everybody else is talking, during which time your mind may be weighing alternative ways of expressing your point. Then when it's your turn, you have to talk really fast. It doesn't seem at all surprising that someone's train of thought will occasionally derail (hit a speed bump? I'm losing the metaphor here…)

  12. seriously said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    A buddy of mine purchased a beach house and was suggesting to a woman in our office, well known for her love for the beach, that she would be welcome to visit. He evidently wanted to say to her either "you should come down and jump in the lagoon" or "you should come down and take a dip in the lagoon." He managed to conflate the two ideas into "you should come down and take a dump in the lagoon!"

    Don't know if that's the same syntactic category or not!

    (In a moment of my life that I treasure, I immediately said to him "Bob, you silver-tongued devil, you really know how to sweet-talk a woman." Usually I think of such remarks about five minutes later.)

  13. Rubrick said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    It seems that Dowd's lexical preprocessor knew something was going awry; there's a short but noticeable hesitation before "advantageous". My impression is that he sensed he'd misconstructed the phrase in the on-deck circle, paused, and then forged ahead in a "damn the torpedoes" frame of mind.

  14. Maryellen MacDonald said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    @Andy Averill, yes, I think that the pressure to speak when cued and to speak quickly on TV shows definitely increases errors. Note that the 2% figure is 2% of specifically word-level speech errors, not 2% of all speech errors. I suspect that competing structures are contributing to other types of errors, such as morpheme exchange errors like "slicely thinned" (this one from Garrett, 1980, I think), which may reflect competition between "thinly sliced" and "sliced thinly".

  15. David Morris said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

    Has any research been done into the prosody of word substitution errors? Substituting "ad-van-TA-geous" for "ad-VAN-tage" requires changing the flow and stress of the words, even at the speed of this utterance. Compare "sensible" and "sensitive" in myl's reply to J.W. Brewer above.
    @seriously – A long time ago I played mid-level competitive table tennis. During one game I wanted to acknowledge an opponent's good play, and got caught half-way between "(Good) shot!" and "(Well) hit!" and it had rather the opposite effect!

  16. Trevor Harley said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

    If anyone wants a copy of the speech error paper email me at (and remove the NOSPAM) of course. Very interesting! And thanks Maryellen.

  17. Chandra said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    Maybe some weird eggcorny interpretation of "advantageous" as "advantage us"?

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