The Power of Parts of Speech

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Michael Yoshikami "JC Penney's Troubles: The Power of Adjectives", CNBC 4/30/2013:

As you read news headlines and listen to and watch media reports on the market, it's important to recognize that language may have different meanings depending on your perspective. Just last week the media reported that J.C. Penney stock "soared" 11 percent—on the surface that seems to be a positive enough development.

While "soaring" is certainly more positive than "plunging," soaring suggests good news at J.C. Penney and for most investors this is how they will take the headline. Those investors will not look below the surface for the complete story.

Michael Yoshikami is "Founder and Chairman of the DWM Investment Committee at Destination Wealth Management". The headline was probably stuck on his piece by some nameless (and brainless) editor at CNBC, but still…

Perhaps I'm wrong to worry about what system of structural analysis we should be teaching, when adults gainfully employed in the media think that "soared", in the sentence "J.C. Penney stock soared 11 percent", is an adjective. It's like worrying about how to teach algebra to people who think that π (pi) is an integer.

Obligatory screenshot:

Update for clarity — Nothing in the piece itself depends on part-of-speech analysis or even mentions parts of speech. The headline should really have read "The Power of Words", or maybe "The Power of Temporal Perspective"; and as I noted, the headline may well have been supplied by some CNBC editor rather than by Mr. Yoshikami.



19 Comments

  1. Eric said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

    What part of speech are soaring and plunging in the phrase "soaring/plunging stock?"

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

    @Eric: Participles.

  3. dainichi said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 11:24 pm

    @Tom: I would say that the word "participle" is more often used to describe a verb-form than a POS. In POS-tagging, the tag for soaring and pluging in this context could very well be "adjective", but sure enough, I guess more detailed tagging schemes might distinguish between adjectival participles and regular adjectives.

  4. Rubrick said,

    April 30, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

    Your comment "It's like worrying about how to teach algebra to people who think that π is an integer" threw me at first — in any given algebraic equation, it's perfecly likely that n would in fact be an integer.

    I actually wondered for a moment if there was some math convention I was unaware of where n was normally used to denote non-integral quantities.

    [(myl) As other commenters note, it's actually the Greek letter "pi" rather than the Latin letter "n". I should have realized that the font in which many people read Language Log makes "pi" and "n" hard to distinguish, and used some other example, e.g. a piece about trigonometry headlined "The Power of Integers".]

  5. joe said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 1:47 am

    @Eric,

    Words ending in -ing can either be verbs (gerund-participle form) or (participial adjectives). The Cambridge Grammar of the English gives two diagnostics for distinguishing the two. A sufficient criterion for identifying adjectives is whether it can be modified by "very": the very interesting book/*the very soaring stock. Not all adjectives are gradable however (*the very alphabetical word-list), so modification by very is not a necessary condition. Another criterion is whether the word can appear as a predicative complement (that is, after a verb like appear, seems, looks, sounds, etc: Adjectives can appear in this position, not verbs: this seems/sounds interesting/*the stock seems soaring.

  6. Pompeius said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 2:07 am

    @Rubrick: Yeah, that was my first reaction, too. The sentence would be better by replacing algebra with analysis.

  7. John Roth said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 2:39 am

    I think the comment means people who think n must be an integer, rather than it might be an integer.

  8. LDavidH said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 2:46 am

    What does it matter whether "soaring" could be an adjective? The article initially uses the form "soared" which by all standards is a verb. After that, in the sentence "soaring is certainly more positive than plunging", surely both participles are used as nouns, rather than adjectives? So the headline misses the mark not just once but twice…

  9. fort said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 2:49 am

    If you are seeing "…people who think that n is an integer", your browser is misrendering the HTML, possibly due to a missing font. I see it as "…people who think that π is an integer", where "n" (if that is still what you see here) is the Greek letter pi.

  10. Breffni said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 2:58 am

    It's not n, it's a sans-serif pi.

  11. Plane said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 3:11 am

    Some commenters seem to have misread π ("pi") as the letter n ("en"). I can see why–the two appear quite similar in the font used on Language Log!

    Copy-and-pasting the character into a Unicode search reveals that it is 'GREEK SMALL LETTER PI' (U+03C0) and not 'LATIN SMALL LETTER N' (U+006E).

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 4:12 am

    ("The font used on LL"?

    I only ever see Libertine O here, except in Asian scripts.)

    Thanks, joe. That was very helpful.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 5:59 am

    The descriptions used in the mainstream media for market fluctuations often give meaningless, or misleading, impressions.

    As an example, for a very small increase in the Dow (say 1.7 points), they might report the Dow was up "almost 2 points today" which sounds more than "less than 2 points." Or, they may report "up more than a point" which also sounds like more than "up less than 2 points" .

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 7:33 am

    I know this is a digression, but: the very alphabetical word-list is grammatical to me. Semantically anomalous to be sure, but syntactically well-formed, and I can certainly imagine contexts where it could be used.

  15. Mr Punch said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    "'Michael Yoshikami is "Founder and Chairman of the DWM Investment Committee at Destination Wealth Management". The headline was probably stuck on his piece by some nameless (and brainless) editor at CNBC, but still…" Why blame the editor? The editor's not responsible for "the Destination Wealth Management Investment Committee at Destination Wealth Management," which, since "investment" pretty much means "wealth management," is about as badly phrased as anything I'm likely to read today.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    The whole crash-blossom phenomenon occurs because at least in the context of headlinese (and perhaps journalese more broadly?) English words can often be ambiguous as to which part of speech they are intended to be taken as. So just bad luck here that it's difficult to find any such ambiguity. This morning's New York Post has a headline "Freed 'wrong man' in 22-year time fog." Before I'd had my coffee, I misparsed "freed" as a verb, implying a story about how the authorities had mistakenly freed someone who shouldn't have been freed in connection with something mysterious but vaguely unsettling called a time fog. The correct parsing was as an adjective — The man who has the quality of having recently been freed because the authorities were finally convinced he had been wrongfully convicted of murder is now having some difficulty readjusting to life on the outside after 22 years in custody.

    (I think the broader point here is that because "soar" is intransitive it's hard for "soared" to be used adjectivally the way many participles can be, because a noun to which such an adjective could be attached would typically need to be one that could be a direct object of "soar" in an active-voice construction? OTOH, "soaring" can be used adjectivally, it just happened not to be in the example at hand.)

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    Mr. Punch: I agree that there's too much redundancy in the description you quote, but "investment committee" isn't it. Even if making investment decisions is the key or defining function of a wealth management firm, it's not the firm's only function, because lots of its employees will be engaged in other important tasks like marketing, regulatory compliance, keeping the computers working, etc. So identifying which people within the firm are ultimately responsible for investment decisions is a meaningful distinction to make, and many such firms will have a formal committee approval process that only specified individuals take part in.

  18. Lane said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

    I can tell you from experience: "web editor" is one of the lowlier rungs in journalism. (It's where I started.) And headlines are almost always written by editors. So the person who wrote this is about 50% likely to be under 25 and rather green.

    But a 25-year-old who went to college should still not make this mistake, leading to a second hypothesis: this was some dullard who got the job through a connection. It happens, even at places where it shouldn't.

  19. MikeA said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    Well, N is an integer, unless you declare it otherwise or use IMPLICIT.

    (Apologies to those who should be grateful not to get that. Ask Gramps about FORTRAN)

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