April 17, 2004

Quantifying American suffering and enjoyment: 60 to 1?

Neal Whitman at Agoraphilia points out that enjoy and suffer from are often used as lightly-flavored synonyms for have:

To lower your risk of cancer, enjoy 3 to 5 servings of fruit per day.
American citizens enjoy the right to vote.
50 million Americans suffer from hemorrhoids.

As Neal observes, the positive or negative connotations are semantically non-restrictive, in some sense, so that the first example doesn't mean that you lose the health benefits if you happen to hate fruit and so consume it dutifully but without enjoyment. He suggests that something similar is going on in phrases like

Our friendly employees will be happy to assist you.

which is not meant to invite the inference that the surly ones will assist you reluctantly, if at all.

Inspired by Neal's post, I decided to use his identification of positively- and negatively-tinted variants of have to calibrate the textual mood of the nation.

Google has 52,000 instances of "Americans suffer from", and most of them seem to be examples of "negatively flavored have":

7% of Americans suffer from acid reflux
Native Americans suffer from high rate of asthma
Some 17 million Americans suffer from social anxiety disorder
3 percent to 24 percent of Americans suffer from substance abuse disorders

The last example is especially revealing, since I'm sure that some fraction of substance abusers would claim that they "enjoy" rather than "suffer from" their substances of choice, if asked.

In contrast, there are only 852 instances of "Americans enjoy". [note: see correction below; ed.] By internet text count, at least, we as a nation "suffer from" things about 60 times more often than we "enjoy" them. The textual disproportion may be even worse, since many if not most of the "Americans enjoy" ghits are matches across a sentence or other punctuation boundary. Of course, there are also plenty of the type that Neal is talking about:

For the most part, we in American enjoy the blessings of religious liberty.
As American's enjoy an unprecedented era of prosperity ...
...those who fought for the freedoms all American's enjoy.
... the appliances that are central to the lifestyles American's enjoy

This search also informed me that many people are very confused about apostrophes, including some who ought to know better, like the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, and that Google's index (perhaps for that reason) just gives up and merges final s and final 's.

In fact, Americans in my experience are a happy and optimistic bunch -- and with good reason -- so the disproportionate amount of American textual suffering is probably telling us something about language, not life.

[Update: Q_pheevr documents a previous discussion of "suffer from" as "negatively flavored have" in Pippi Longstocking, incidentally providing an example of a moral error in usage (check out the material associated with the underlined "usage" in the post).

Q also reports that:

"Canadians are a hell of a lot happier than Americans. Mark reports 52,000 ghits for "Americans suffer from" and only 852 for "Americans enjoy," giving an American suffering:enjoyment ratio of about 61:1. But I got 2,050 ghits for "Canadians suffer from" against 4,730 for "Canadians enjoy," for a Canadian ratio of about 10:23. By my calculations, this makes Americans about 140 times as unhappy as Canadians."

I haven't checked the numbers, but this certainly suggests an alarming enjoyment gap. ]

[Oops: the Language Log fact checking department ran the numbers again, and got 14,900 ghits for "Americans enjoy", as opposed to 51,300 for "Americans suffer from". This puts the suffering/enjoyment ratio at a mere 3.4/1. Checking the Canadian numbers, I get essentially the same numbers as Q did; so after the recount, Canadians are not quite 8 times more joyful. Still a significant gap in textual happiness -- but not such a spectacular one. Why the counts from Google are so unstable is a mystery: surely I didn't make a mistake! :-)

In any case, the Language Log subscription department will cheerfully refund your subscriptions fees in full, as usual, in case of less than full satisfaction.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 17, 2004 12:35 PM