October 02, 2004

What "a hundred times" means

Animals are exquisitely sensitive to deviations from the expected frequency of events that matter to them. For us humans, I believe, this statistical sensitivity applies to all sorts of linguistic events, which often strike us as unusually common at counts as low as two or three, spread over hours or days of talk, or hundreds of pages of text. In a post last spring, I gave some evidence from my own reactions to dialogue in a novel, but I'm hardly an unbiased observer. So I'm happy to be able to cite some additional evidence from a journalistic source.

Jay Nordlinger, chronicling his impressions of Thursday's debate, noted Bush's repetitions:

Bush said, "We're makin' progress" a hundred times — that seemed a little desperate. He also said "mixed messages" a hundred times — I was wishing that he would mix his message. He said, "It's hard work," or, "It's tough," a hundred times. In fact, Bush reminded me of Dan Quayle in the 1988 debate, when the Hoosier repeated a couple of talking points over and over, to some chuckles from the audience (if I recall correctly).

Staying on message is one thing; robotic repetition — when there are oceans of material available — is another.

The actual counts for these phrases in Thursday's debate are given below:

Bush count
Kerry count
making progress
mixed messages
it's hard work
it's tough

Now, if I were really one of those bloggers who "shriek 'gotcha!' at tiny factual errors in articles written on short deadlines by people who actually have to leave the house to do their work", as NPR critic John Powers put it, I'd be all over Jay Nordlinger. "Ha!" I'd say, "over the National Review, I guess that their math is a little fuzzy these days. They seem to think that 100 equals 3. No wonder the budget deficit doesn't bother them..."

But I'm not, so I won't. I understand perfectly well that when Nordlinger said "a hundred times", he really meant "a lot", or more accurately "often enough that I noticed it and it annoyed me".

What's interesting is that "often enough that I noticed it and it annoyed me" turned out to be three times, in the case of Nordlinger's reaction to the phrase "making progress" in Bush's debate performance. In just the same way, "often enough that I noticed it and saw it as characteristic of a particular speaker" turned out to be three times, in the case of my reaction to the phrase "and yet" in Max Barry's novel.

It's not that our math is fuzzy, but that our linguistic reactions are sharp. Yours too, I bet.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 2, 2004 11:31 AM