Inconvenience now

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In "Which justifies what?" (7/3/2019) and "Thematic spoonerisms" (7/14/2019), we noted cases where writers exchanged noun phrases so as to produce literally nonsensical propositions: the inconvenience didn't justify the cause instead of the cause didn't justify the inconvenience, and ampicillin is resistant to multiple strains of U.T.I.s instead of multiple strains of U.T.I.s are resistant to ampicillin.

In this morning's email, Bob Ladd point out a letter referencing the story where the inconvenience didn't justify the cause, not to complain about the swap but to repeat it — "Have your inconvenience now and avoid it later", The New Scientist 7/17/2019:

Chelsea Whyte mentions that many people resented the disruption that the Extinction Rebellion protests created because they “felt the inconvenience didn’t justify the cause” (22 June, p 20). I think this sums up the global attitude to action on climate change.

Maybe people need to be reminded of the inconveniences that global warming will cause. Instead of stopping trains, perhaps future protests should cordon off low-lying coastal areas and hand out flippers and snorkels to those who want to enter?

Any complaints can be met with a polite reminder that this will soon become a permanent inconvenience.

Bob's comment:

I find it hard to believe that even with attention drawn to the specific phrase, both the letter-writer and the letters editor still failed to notice that anything was wrong.  This may prove something about "monkey brains", etc., but it surely also proves that linguists are weird.

The obligatory screenshot:

Is it possible that justify has a new meaning, in which the traditional roles of subject and object are reversed, so that a fault justifies an excuse rather than an excuse justifying a fault? That would be analogous to the development of infer to mean imply — if the standard prescriptive story about those words were true; but see "The truth about infer", 8/11/2008. As far as I can tell, there is no similar history of thematic uncertainty in the case of justify.



  1. AmyW said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 7:16 am

    Whenever I encounter this usage in student papers, I usually mark it as an incorrectly formed passive construction.

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 7:58 am

    @AmyW: Do you mean that you regularly encounter justify used with the thematic roles reversed in student papers? If so, then MYL may have a point about a new usage, analogous to imply/infer. Or do you mean that in general you encounter cases where students swap agents and patients, not specifically with justify but with a variety of verbs? In which case MYL's proposed term "thematic spoonerism" looks like a better description of what's going on.

  3. Zhou Fang said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    I think you are misreading the intent. Whether it's an error or not, the meaning of the line in the original is *not* "the cause does not justify the inconvenience".

    What seems to be actually meant is that the inconvenience (that is, the intended strategy of these protests) do not make the cause (of climate change mitigation) *appear more reasonable and just*. This is reflected in the following paragraphs which are about whether people reacted to these protests by identifying and agreeing with the protestors more or not.

  4. Yuval said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 8:59 am

    I always need help remembering where to put which argument in "comprises" (which is inverse to consists of, or something).

  5. efnenu said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 9:23 am

    A cause that justifies means can also be interpreted as a result of those means (or as something with a clear starting point). It strikes me that in this example, the inconveniences are more of a result (more inchoative) than the cause is.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 10:16 am

    I didn't read it as at all backwards the first time I read it. The future inconveniences that will be caused by global warming don't justify the cause (campaign) of trying to stop global warming. It took be a bit to even get the reading that reads it as backwards. If the referred to inconveniences are those caused by the protests, it's backwards. If the inconveniences are those in the future caused by global warming, it isn't.

  7. Grover Jones said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 10:29 am

    No, "comprises" is not the inverse of "consists of." The whole comprises the parts, just like the whole consists of the parts, and just like the whole is composed of the parts. (The parts constitute the whole.)

  8. unekdoud said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 10:29 am

    I too was surprised that none of the linked comment threads seemed to have mentioned the comprise/consist/compose conundrum. To me, justify is much more clear-cut than any of these because of its suffix.

  9. Bob Ladd said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 11:10 am

    @Ellen K: In the original context that MYL posted about a couple of weeks ago, the "inconvenience" definitely referred to the present inconvenience of traffic in Central London being disrupted by the demonstrations, not to anything in the future. This is what made me (and others) think that the usage in the original article had the thematic roles reversed.

    However, it's possible that Zhou Fang's explanation above gets at something about what is going on grammatically. Googling the phrase "justifies the", I find quite a few cases where the meaning is something like "to provide a justification or rationalisation for". The clearest such examples in the first several pages of hits are "China justifies Tienanmen Square massacre" and "Zoo justifies the cost of acquiring new elephants". These are clearly different from, say, "the quality justifies the price" or "Italy's growing debt justifies the launch of a disciplinary procedure against Italy", but it's not hard to see how the first type of usage could get tangled up with the second in the original example with the inconvenience and the cause.

  10. Ross Presser said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 11:18 am

    Probably totally unrelated, but made me think of this passage from Flatland (bold added):

    Feeling is, among our Women and lower classes — about our upper classes I shall speak presently — the principal test of recognition, at all events between strangers, and when the question is, not as to the individual, but as to the class. What therefore "introduction" is among the higher classes in Spaceland, that the process of "feeling" is with us. "Permit me to ask you to feel and be felt by my friend Mr. So-and-so" — is still, among the more old-fashioned of our country gentlemen in districts remote from towns, the customary formula for a Flatland introduction. But in the towns, and among men of business, the words "be felt by" are omitted and the sentence is abbreviated to, "Let me ask you to feel Mr. So-and-so"; although it is assumed, of course, that the "feeling" is to be reciprocal. Among our still more modern and dashing young gentlemen — who are extremely averse to superfluous effort and supremely indifferent to the purity of their native language — the formula is still further curtailed by the use of "to feel" in a technical sense, meaning, "to recommend-for- the-purposes-of-feeling-and-being-felt"; and at this moment the "slang" of polite or fast society in the upper classes sanctions such a barbarism as "Mr. Smith, permit me to feel Mr. Jones."

  11. Chas Belov said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 11:28 am

    They did put the quote in quotes, so there is insufficient evidence that the letter writer missed the mistake. While they could have added a (sic) or a peeve, they might have felt a correction would have distracted from their point.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    @Bob Ladd

    I am referring to this post. No need for you to assume I don't know something just because I didn't say it because it really didn't need said.

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 2:34 pm

    At some level, the climate change debate is about whether the inconvenience (of living in a radically altered climate) justifies the inconvenience (of taking steps to prevent that).

    Regarding "resistant to", if one is under the impression that it means something like "biologically non-interactive with", then the relationship can be construed as symmetric and drugs can plausibly be said to be "resistant to" pathogens (in that somewhat idiosyncratic sense).

  14. Joe Fineman said,

    July 24, 2019 @ 9:00 pm

    In the 1950s, "The end justifies the means" was routinely presented as a belief that distinguished wicked people (e.g., communists) from virtuous ones (e.g., Christians). It was often misquoted as "The means justifies the end". I haven't seen it either way recently, but it may still be going on.

  15. loonquawl said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 1:13 am

    It's "Bob Ladd points out", surely?

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 2:48 am

    @Joe Fineman: I'd never heard the reversed version of the end justifies the means, but you're right, it's definitely Out There (a few hundred hits on Google for "the means justifies the end" in quotes). That provides further evidence that something like the "thematic spoonerism" explanation for these cases is correct – that for verbs without a semantically obvious agent and patient, the question of which noun is the grammatical subject and which object doesn't always have a very clear answer.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 4:29 am

    Yuval / Grover Jones —

    I always need help remembering where to put which argument in "comprises" (which is inverse to consists of, or something).

    It doesn't matter; any arrangement of the arguments is correct usage. As long as you maintain verb agreement, you're good.

    No, "comprises" is not the inverse of "consists of." The whole comprises the parts, just like the whole consists of the parts, and just like the whole is composed of the parts. (The parts constitute the whole.)

    This is wrong; the whole comprises the parts, but the parts also comprise the whole (and the whole is comprised of the parts). Both usages are fully standard. See senses 1 and 2 here:

  18. AmyW said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 6:55 am

    Bob Ladd, I meant for reversed agents and patients in general, not for this specific word. To be clear, I frequently work with English language learners who often form the passive incorrectly, such as leaving out the be-verb or not using a past participle, so I (perhaps incorrectly?) see this as part of the same phenomenon. I don't think I see this often from native English speakers.

  19. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    I think 'the means justifies the end' could actually be meant, in a sense something like 'the actual behaviour of the people pursuing an end provides evidence of the justice of the end'. This would be a deliberate reversal of the traditional form, of course.

    [(myl) Or, "a certain kind of behavior is so highly valued that it justifies end results that otherwise seem undesirable" — as here:


  20. Rodger C said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 7:55 am

    Once about 1964 I overheard a couple of my fellow undergrads debating earnestly whether "the end is justified by the means."

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    Re "means justify the end" as a deliberate inversion rather than a spoonerism, one oddity is that we (by which I mean myself, and my best guess as to the median Anglophone) generally think of the relevant sense of "end" as meaning an *intended* consequence of an act, not just any old consequence or side effect. If you were to think of "end" more broadly as just meaning result or consequence, whether or not specifically intended, there are obviously situations where many people are willing to say that a problematic outcome that was an unintended side effect of generally laudable or benign behavior should not lead to culpability on the part of the person who caused that outcome. I myself would be more likely to use a word like "excuse" than "justify" if taking the position that the bad outcome should not be held against the actor, but that may because my own usage is probably to some extent affected by having gone to law school and being taught a specific technical contrast between excuse and justification that is important in criminal law but does not necessarily reflect the ordinary non-jargon semantic scopes of those words.

  22. Bob Ladd said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

    @AmyW. Thanks!

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 25, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

    One can talk about ends and means in fields other than morality and destiny. This post from the Art Matters blog is titled "The Means Justify the End".

    Of course, some usages are just errors.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2019 @ 7:26 am

    Here's yet another apparent such spoonerism in a (presumably to some degree edited?) news story: "He substituted the arrows in the eagle’s claw for a set of golf clubs," where the conventional way of expressing what actually happened would be "He substituted a set of golf clubs for the arrows in the eagle's claw" (or, if using a different verb but wanting to keep the same thematic order, "he replaced the arrows in the eagle's claw with a set of golf clubs"). I'm guessing this is a pure screwup rather than evidence of changing semantic scope of the verb "to substitute" but who knows?

  25. Rodger C said,

    July 26, 2019 @ 9:10 am

    @J. W. Brewer: I notice this usage a lot. I wonder if it's influenced by Spanish, where "replaced by" is substituido por.

  26. Bob Ladd said,

    July 26, 2019 @ 9:33 am

    @JWBrewer: I mentioned substitute as a similar case when I first drew MYL's attention to the New Scientist article that was the source of the original " the inconvenience didn't justify the cause", and I definitely think that it IS "evidence of changing semantic scope [ – actually, changing thematic relations -] of the verb" . In my experience, the more current version now is substitute with, so I doubt Spanish is involved, but who knows – perhaps language contact does play a role in such thematic reversals.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2019 @ 12:39 pm

    @Bob Ladd: "substituted with" strikes my ear as very weird, but might be more comprehensible, i.e. I might take it as a signal that "substituted A with B" was supposed to mean something different from "substituted A for B" and maybe that difference might involve a difference in the thematic roles occupied by A and B. Using the same preposition but deliberately flipping the thematic roles is the extra degree of weirdness that makes it seem more like a pure mistake to me, but maybe I just haven't been noticing the instances you and Rodger C have been.

  28. Andrew Usher said,

    July 27, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

    Re 'substitute':

    The reversed substituted for is surely of British origin. I first heard it from there and it is regularly used is British soccer commentary, while it is never seen in American sports writing. So the possibility of Spanish influence seems to me nil.

    The phrases substituted with or by, though some find them inelegant or even wrong, are unambiguous: 'subsitute' means 'replace' there, which normally goes with those prepositions.

    J.W. Brewer:
    Even in non-legal use, surely 'excuse' is more likely than 'justify' in saying that someone's mistake was excused/justified by his good intent. I think I'd read 'justify' is implying foresight of the negative consequence, which you stipulated was not the case.

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