October 18, 2003

To see Italics in a Grain of Sand...

I've gotten a few emails about the italics thread, and as often happens when you focus on a tiny point of usage, the responses open up some big issues.

Dan Swingley pointed out that the originally offending phrase "fewer annoying italics" would have been ambiguous if it had been rendered correctly. "Less annoying italics" could mean "italics that are less annoying" as well as "a smaller quantity of annoying italics". Dan suggested that this might have played a role in the writer's choice. Anti-prescriptivists often play the ambiguity-avoidance card as a defense against the charge of solecism in cases where usage is descriptively mixed, so this move is a classical one.

However, Dan's note raises the whole fraught issue of ambiguity-avoidance in language use and language change. Like the idea that Eskimos must have many words for snow, the idea that speakers and speech-communities should avoid ambiguity is an amiable one. The trouble is, the facts in many (most?) cases suggest that people act, singly and in groups, as if they could care less. At least, that's my reading of the literature. If that's true, it raises some interesting questions about "theory of mind" reasoning in human communication.

Shifting focus to another small aspect of the original not-large-to-start-with point, one Jonathan Wright (whom I don't otherwise know) writes that 'As a Briton, I'm inclined to disagree with you on how unacceptable it is to say or write "fewer italics". . . Maybe you should check the national origin of those various usages. You might find that "fewer italics" is more frequent in England.' Another classic anti-prescriptivist move, appealing to dialect variation as a defense.

Jonathan didn't provide any evidence for his conjecture, and the intuitions of a handful of local informants of various national origins fail to support it (not that this means much). Google doesn't allow me to restrict searches to sites in the United Kingdom (much less England), and I'll leave it to others to check all the google hits by hand. The British National Corpus has 187 instances of "italics" but none of either "fewer italics" or "less italics", so it's useless in this case.

Though I'm skeptical of Jonathan's particular suggestion, it raises (or at least resonates with) a fundamental issue. "Less/fewer italics/politics/physics" is a case of apparently gradient grammaticality, supported by converging evidence from intuitions, statistical usage patterns and (perhaps some day) psycholinguistic experiments. Suggestions for how to model this kind of situation can be divided on several dimensions. One recently-debated question is whether grammars "play dice." That is, should models of linguistic patterns should be treated as intrinsically stochastic? or should variable data should be modeled as a mixture of non-stochastic grammars (whether mixed in a population of speakers or mixed in the head of a single speaker)?

This may remind some outsiders of the famous theological debate over an iota -- whether the Father and Son have homoousion "same substance" or homoiousion "similar substance" -- but (without prejudice to the theology) the linguistic question really matters! The issue is foundational: what should a model of language structure look like?

The "less/fewer italics" business enages this general "stochastic grammars vs. mixtures of grammars" question, and (I believe) supports my own view, which is that models of language structure should be intrinsically stochastic.

I'll make this argument in a future post, if the creeks don't rise. For now, I just want to point out how each of these two quibbles about a quibble helps us

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

or at least to see the nature of language in a quantifier choice...

NOTE: I certainly don't want to accuse my friend and colleague Geoff Pullum of quibbling -- his original post aimed to make an important general point about the need for careful grammatical analysis in evaluating questions of usage.

Also, when I cast him in the role of prescriptivist, I have to insist that I mean it in the nicest possible way, as Geoff has recently mentioned to me that

[a] libertarian who calls me a prescriptivist is a libertarian who is going to be asked to step outside in the back alley for a few minutes of profound unpleasantness, most of which he will spend lying on the ground by the dumpster.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 18, 2003 02:25 PM