April 20, 2004

Grice, Pascal, the Times, and Barry Bonds

"Le moi est haissable," said Pascal, and nowhere so much as at The New York Times. Take the story by Lee Jenkins on today's front page about Barry Bonds, centering on his "aloofness" and "frosty demeanor." By way of making his point, the writer says:

"I just wanted to meet Barry," Ellison said as he dragged his vessel back into the water. "I just wanted to shake his hand."

That proposition can be as daunting as catching one of his rising line drives. When a reporter hovered near Bonds, a hulking left fielder, for the first time, Bonds asked: "What do you want? Why are you looking at me? I don't like people staring at me." Then he loped onto the field, where more than 40,000 people studied his every move.

Ordinarily, you would take that description "a reporter" as denoting someone other than the writer, on the assumption that otherwise the writer would be flouting Paul Grice's Maxim of Quantity by giving less information than was relevant.

As Grice famously notes, when someone says that Jones is meeting a woman tonight, we assume that the speaker knows that the woman in question is someone other than Jones' wife or mother.

But the institutionalized diffidence of The Times trumps that principle, even if the immediately following paragraph makes it clear that the reporter in question is none other than the writer:

It is difficult to home in on Bonds, but not impossible. After insisting he would not give interviews -- "I don't like a lot of stupid questions and questions people already know the answer to," he said -- he relented rather easily.

The Times' interdiction against using "I" may be imposed in the service of objectivity, but in this case its effect is exactly the opposite -- it turns a statement that might otherwise be suspected of resting on wounded amour propre into one that has the sound of a neutral, third-party observation. You have the feeling that a local sports reporter would have told Jenkins that what he perceived as "hovering" was likely to have been perceived by Bonds as something more intrusive than that.

PS: LanguageHat writes to remind me that the avoidance of I is scarcely restricted to the Times. True enough -- I'm probably overly sensitive to all the slights that Bonds suffers at the hands of national sportswriters, who aren't aware of the mutually appreciative relationship between him and the fans.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at April 20, 2004 12:36 PM