December 06, 2004

Overpermissive quotatives: grammar change or thesaurusizing?

A few days ago, Geoff Pullum took Dan Brown to task for writing

"Terrorism," the professor had lectured, "has a singular goal."

Geoff pointed out that this not only violates Elmore Leonard's third rule of writing, it's flat-out ungrammatical in standard English. But Dan Brown is not alone. From Phil Sheridan's column in today's Philadelphia inquirer:

"We caught them on the wrong day," Reese understated.

As Geoff observed, quotative tags like "Kim said" normally require a verb that can take a direct quotation complement:

Reese said: "We caught them on the wrong day".

is fine, but

*Reese understated: "We caught them on the wrong day".

doesn't work. At least it doesn't work for me, and dictionaries like the OED and the AHD don't give any similar uses for the verb understate.

However, such (mis)uses in quotative tags are fairly common. Searching Google for "he understated", I find that most of the examples are of the kind countenanced by the dictionaries and by my own intuitions:

In three-year period, he understated sales by $600000 on tax returns ...
Applicant falsified a National Agency Questionnaire ... when he understated the full extent of his drug use ...
Perhaps he understated his doubt when he talked about putting you in touch with the Shadowed Ones organization.

However, among the first 30 returns, I found 4 quotative tags:

(link) But once he got going, "I know the turns pretty well," he understated, Carpentier started passing everyone, sometimes a laughable six cars in one turn.
(link) "The idea that we could connect all our networks together and create one global super carrier is dead, buried, and rubbish -- it’s completely impossible," he understated.
(link) "It's a cartoonist's dream come true," he understated.
(link) James was quite frank about it, "We were trying at the time" he understated, but the car flew over a crest and just failed to keep all four wheels on the tar when it landed.

This is a high enough rate to give me pause. What's going on?

It's possible that these writers have a different syntactic frame for the verb understate. We do find some examples like these:

Not wanting to say the par-72 layout owed him one, he understated that there has been chances and had never been able to pull it off.
37 of the 139 patients (27%) were ineligible to participate as they did not meet the criteria of the test protocol (he understated that this percentage is "atypical").
She understated that with Ronie is almost over,but every time they meet ,it ends in making love because"between us there is much chemistry".

But these examples seem to be rarer than the quotative tag uses of understate (though I haven't tried to count either category), and most of them seem to be written by people who have significant problems with English, well beyond whatever is going on with the professional writers who produced the "understated" tags.

It is also possible that some people have a more permissive idea about what verbs to use in quotative tags -- not just verbs that normally allow direct speech complements (like say, explain, insist, whisper, shout, etc.), but also other verbs of information-transmission, like lecture and understate. Unfortunately, it's hard to distinguish this from a less naturalistic explanation: thesaurusizing.

That's a word I just made up -- though as usual in such cases, I learn from Google that several people have been there before me:

(link) Don’t try to impress someone by thesaurusizing your email with terms you wouldn’t use in person– it sounds diaphanous, limpid, and transpicuous.

(Robert Merton once wrote that "Anticipatory plagiarism occurs when someone steals your original idea and publishes it a hundred years before you were born". One of the less widely recognized consequences of internet search is a significant increase in the rate of (a shorter-term variety of) anticipatory plagiarism.)

Anyhow, I first learned about thesaurusizing from a friend in junior high. He would write a composition assignment in his normal way, and then use a thesaurus to replace a few words or phrases in every paragraph with fancier "equivalents". Since he usually didn't know the meaning of the substitutions, or at least didn't think carefully about the consequences of sticking them in, the results were often incoherent as well as pretentious.

I strongly suspect that a variant of this practice remains common among some published writers. And this could explain how writers like Dan Brown and Phil Sheridan come to misuse verbs of information-transmission in quotative tags. They want to spice up their writing, by conscious and systematic violation of Elmore Leonard's third rule. This often puts them on the spot to think up yet another appropriately nuanced "synonym" for one of the common and natural quotative verbs, like say, insist, explain. They might refer to a thesaurus, or they might just rely on their own sense of word associations. When there's another communication word in the context, it's natural for them to thesaurusize in that direction -- the professor is lecturing his audience, or the linebacker is understating the extent of a mismatch, so why not tag the quote with "the professor lectured" or "Reese understated"?

If a word is inserted while editing rather than while composing, its lameness in context is easier to miss. This might be because the writer never re-reads the result, or it might be because the grammatical soundness of the original masks the problems with the revised version. People who have worked on speech synthesis or speech coding know from painful experience that it's a bad idea to listen to a higher-quality version of a phrase before listening to a lower-quality version -- the low-quality version always sounds much better than it should in that context, to the point where a phrase that is unintelligible when presented in isolation can sound pretty good after the listener has been primed.

For now, I'm satisfied with this explanation. But there's a problem in the other direction that still puzzles me -- there are many increasingly-common ways of introducing direct quotation that have no counterparts as quotative tags. As far as I can tell, no one is tempted to write:

"Oh my God", she was like.
"Whoa", he was all.
"Wow, dude", we were all like.

Why? Maybe John Rickford's project at Stanford has the answers?

[Update: Ray Girvan points out that said-substitution (at least when grammatical) is called "said" bookism in the Turkey City Lexicon. ]

[Update #2: Jonathan Lundell offered an alternative explanation by email:

I read '"We caught them on the wrong day," Reese understated.' as a modest essay at humor, modestly successful. Sheridan is committing a sports column here, after all, not reportage.

Maybe so. Obviously the joke, if there was one, went right over my head. ]

[Update #3: Eli Bishop sent in a case of on-purpose "said" bookisms:

The funniest short story by the British horror writer Ramsey Campbell, "Next Time You'll Know Me", manages to use said-bookisms ("'Take no notice of them,' my mother countermanded") exclusively for 13 pages straight - "say" is used in a quotative sense only once, in the first paragraph. The narrator is a homicidally insane writer who has the psychic ability to know the plots of other people's novels before they're published, but has still failed to achieve literary success for reasons that are inexplicable to him but obvious to the reader. Campbell writes that when the story was being anthologized, a humorless copyeditor tried to do him a favor by changing the verbs to "said" throughout.



Posted by Mark Liberman at December 6, 2004 10:03 AM