June 18, 2004

Criticizing Pinker the right way

A few days ago, Joshua Macy posted an interesting review of Pinker's The Language Instinct. I agree with his overall evaluation:

It’s entertaining, it’s informative, it’s even funny sometimes, so what more could you want of a popular science/language arts book? My problem is that Pinker comes across, as the song goes, just an inch too sure of himself for me. The Language Instinct gives the strong impression that there are no rival theories worth mentioning, or at least it never bothers to mention any except when relating how Chomsky destroyed this or that primitive misunderstanding.

However, when he treats a couple of examples in detail, Macy undermines his thesis by unfairly misconstruing Pinker's argument.

The issue that Macy picks is one on which Pinker is vulnerable: the difference between mice-eater (which seems OK) and rats-eater (which is disfavored in comparison), and the interpretation and implications of the difference. We've discussed some of the issues on Language Log over the past few months, at least in passing, and I cited a recent paper that's extremely critical of Pinker's position: Haskell, T.R., MacDonald, M.C., & Seidenberg, M.S. "Language learning and innateness: Some implications of compounds research". Cognitive Psychology, 47, 119-163. (2003).

However, Macy's argument against Pinker is just wrong. He starts out by quoting Pinker:

The rules of syntax can look inside a sentence or phrase and cut and paste the smaller phrases inside it. For example, the rule for producing questions can look inside the sentence This monster eats mice and move the phrase corresponding to mice to the front, yielding What did this monster eat? But the rules of syntax halt at the boundary between a phrase and a word; even if the word is built out of parts, the rule cannot look “inside” the word and fiddle with those parts. For example, the question rule cannot look inside the word mice-eater in the sentence This monster is a mice-eater and move the morpheme corresponding to mice to the front; the resulting question is virtually unintelligible: What is this monster an -eater?

and then comments:

Nonsense. What is this monster an eater of? is perfectly intelligible. (As is Of what is this monster an eater? for you anti-Churchillian prescriptivists, which puts it in a form closer to that of Pinker’s question rule.) Compound words of this sort are not indivisible “syntactic atoms” even if the syntactic rule for splitting and rearranging them is more complex than the one that Pinker proposed.

But What is this monster an eater of? is completely irrelevant, because "an eater of mice" is not a compound noun, it's a phrase consisting of a noun phrase connected to a prepositional phrase. Pinker's point was that compound words (like mice-eater) are "syntactic islands" (to use Haj Ross's justly celebrated phrase), in a way that syntactic phrases (like eater of mice) made up of the same morphemes generally are not. Macy's example counts in favor of Pinker's position, not against it.

Macy compounds his error by bringing Winston Churchill into the discussion.

He's referring to Churchill's legendary attempt at a reductio ad absurdum of the stupid prescriptivist prohibition against preposition-stranding: "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put".

The trouble is, Churchill's example is almost (not quite) as unfair as Macy's: "... up with which I will not put" is bad because the fronted string involves not just the preposition with, which is genuinely connected to the which, but also another preposition, up, which is not:

...bloody nonsense [I (will not put up) (with which)]  ↔
...bloody nonsense [up with which I will not put ( )]

That's roughly like trying to compose a phrase as

This is something [I (do not agree completely) (with which)]  ↔
This is something [completely with which I do not agree ( )]

(as opposed to "This is something with which I do not agree completely ( )", which is syntactically fine, if pragmatically wishy-washy).

I suspect that Churchill knew better -- no one ever accused him of fighting fair when he had a point to make. But it's amazing that people interested in language hardly ever catch him out. This tells us something about the state of syntactic education in the Anglosphere today, alas.

I don't mean any disrespect to Joshua Macy, who is clearly an intelligent, insightful and accomplished person. Nor do I mean in any way to send the message that amateurs are unwelcome. In the field of syntax, I'm an amateur at best myself. But we desperately need to find a way to help people to learn to do elementary syntactic analysis in a coherent way.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 18, 2004 11:46 PM