October 16, 2003

Fewer physics, fewer politics, fewer italics

Geoff Pullum has pointed out a grammatical mistake in the Economist: "fewer annoying italics". I agree with his judgment and his reasoning, but I can also easily imagine making this mistake myself. There is a sort of continuum of perceptual plurality here, I think.

Consider these:

  1. We need fewer italics in this article.
  2. We need fewer politics in this field.
  3. We need fewer physics in this curriculum.

When I imagine hearing or reading these, my reactions are:

  1. seems uncertain, is wrong on rational reflection
  2. seems wrong, is wrong on rational reflection
  3. clearly wrong, is also wrong on rational reflection

I bet that a reaction-time study would show that other English speakers share this ordering.

This is an example of the gradient judgments for which Haj Ross coined the term "squish" in a 1971 article. I just checked google and found only two hits for "Haj Ross squish". Two! Finding any combination of three random terms with such a small number of hits on google is not trivial: for example, "sam gundy mullah" (which I made up as random first name, random last name, random low frequency word) yields THREE. How the mighty have fallen!

Phenomena like the physics << politics << italics continuum are also relevant to the Great Morphophonemics Debate between Steve Pinker and Mark Seidenberg, about which more later.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 16, 2003 07:43 AM