June 29, 2004

The thin line between error and mere variation (part 1 of 2)

In trying to write some commentary on Geoff Nunberg's discussion of "nucular" (in a 10/2/02 Fresh Air commentary on NPR, now in his collection Going Nucular), I've been reflecting on that thin line between error and mere variation.

Nunberg begins this piece by drawing a distinction between "typos" and "thinkos" -- in my terms, between inadvertent errors, things that are "wrong" for the person who produces them, and advertent errors, things that are ok so far as the producer is concerned but "wrong" from the point of view of at least some other people. (Faced with a typo, you call in the psycholinguist; faced with a thinko, you call in the sociolinguist.)

The distinction is a familiar one in the literature on language errors. In the typo camp, you have, for instance, Fay/Cutler malapropisms (so called from a 1977 article by David Fay and Anne Cutler), like my (alas, only too frequent) productions of "verb" for "vowel", or vice versa, in class lectures. In the thinko camp, you have, for instance, classical malapropisms (so labeled by me in a 1979 article), like "behest [beset] with all these difficulties", written by someone who *meant* to write "behest" (and was willing to defend this word choice). It might be hard to decide, in any particular instance, which kind of malapropism you're looking at, but in principle, with more information about the producer and their intentions, you can sort things out.

But matters are not so clear in the world of thinkos. The deviance of thinkos ranges from extremely high, as in clear examples of classical malapropisms, to extremely low, as in violations of the more fanciful proscriptivist pronouncements, like the one against possessive antecedents of pronouns.

(A side issue: It would be a good thing to expunge the moral language usually applied to thinkos, even by Nunberg, who should know better: Typos "can make you look foolish, but they aren't really the signs of an intellectual or ethical deficiency, the way thinkos are. It's the difference between a sentence that expresses an idea badly and a sentence that expresses a bad idea." (p. 59 of GN). Look at the most extreme case... Someone who writes "behest" for "beset" is certainly wrong. But they aren't morally defective, or evil, or stupid. Technically, they are very specifically ignorant, of one of the zillion facts about the world one might be called on to marshal in everyday life. It's like getting Björk mixed up with Bork, or not knowing at all who Hugo Wolf is.)

The "behest" thing is, yes, an extreme case. But things don't get any clearer as we work towards possessive antecedents. They just get messier and messier, in fact. As soon as we leave the clear "behest" zone (where almost everyone says the usage is wrong for them), we have to confront a world in which usage is contested and variable.

We come first to the Retart Zone, a label I use to honor a poster to the newsgroup sci.lang, 6/24/04:

Called by Peter Daniels on the voiceless final consonant in his insult "What a retart", the poster responds:

And what's wrong with my use of "retart"...it's a perfectly acceptable word when describing those who are SLOW. A retart is a SLOW person.

In later discussion, the pugnacious poster concedes that (some) other people say, and write, "retard", but maintains that *his* version is perfectly fine. That is, he claims that this is a case of variation, not error. He is surely in a small minority in his pronunciation, but probably not a loner; I have no doubt that some searching would turn up others with his pronunciation.

Certainly, there *are* plenty of examples of variation. Some English speakers (I am one) have a voiceless final consonant in "with", some have a voiced final (a fact that I did not appreciate until I gave an exercise in phonetic transcription in an introductory linguistics course); I believe that the voiced variant is statistically the predominant one, by a considerable margin (some dictionaries list only this pronunciation), but theta-speakers like me don't provoke dark looks and snickers with our minority pronunciation. Similarly, some English speakers (including a great many South Africans) have edh rather than theta in the "South" of "South Africa"; I believe that they are definitely in the minority in the English-speaking world, but who am I, an American theta-speaker, to tell South Africans how to pronounce the name of their country? Similarly, many New Yorkers stand "on line" rather than "in line"; they're a small minority in the English-speaking world, and they are aware (at some level) that other people use "in" here, but everybody knows that people speak differently in different places, so where do you get off telling them they're "wrong"?

On the other hand, we do tell "needs V-ed" speakers (again, a small minority in the English-speaking world) that they're "wrong". These folks are aware (at some level) that other people say "needs V-ing", but most of the people they know personally are "needs V-ed" speakers, so from their point of view, they're talking appropriately, and the dark looks and snickers from outsiders are just nastiness.

Even in the Retart Zone, we're in trouble. What's unremarkable variation, and what's a thinko-type error?

But then we get to the Nucular Zone, the Hone-In-On Zone, and the Another-Thing-Coming Zone. The percentage of people who use the (historically) innovative variant steadily increases. (Google web searches have "home in on" somewhat above "hone in on", 64,200 to 35,200 in raw numbers, but "another thing coming" *way* over "another think coming", 21,400 to 5,830.) Those who use the innovative variants are probably aware (at some level) that other people have other variants, but for them this is just unremarkable variation, and their version is, well, *their* version, and perfectly ok.

The argument from history isn't going to carry much weight for these people, and anyway it's intellectually disreputable, since very few current standard variants have a pedigree going back to Old English; almost everything was an innovation at some point. How to decide when the ship of language change has sailed?

The argument from authority won't carry much weight, either. I can tell you that *I* (a noted linguist and writer) use "nuclear", "home in on", and "another think coming" (and "too big a dog" rather than "too big of a dog", but don't use positive "anymore", etc.), but you're entitled to ask why I should be telling you how to talk and to note that anyway you think I sound bookish and prissy.

If anything might work, it would be the appeal to the practice of those who are noted for their abilities in writing and speaking -- there's a reason AHD ended up with a Usage Panel, awkward though it turned out to be -- but in fact these experts are quite often divided in their practices and in their opinions, and in any case they're not necessarily models for writing and speaking in other than formal contexts.

The fact seems to be that the line between mere variation and error is largely a matter of intellectual fashion -- lord knows why speaker-oriented "hopefully", restrictive relative "which", split infinitives, logical "since" and "while", etc. get picked on while other variants thrive without criticism -- rather than a result of observation and reasoning. In this context, the label "thinko" doesn't really seem much better than "error" or "mistake".

[on to part 2]

[also posted 6/26/2004 to the ADS-L listserv]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 29, 2004 05:23 AM