February 12, 2005

Reaching your own constructions

In the Wall Street Journal on 2/10/2005, Bret Stephens wrote about Eason Jordan that "I'll leave it to others to draw their own verdicts". I thought this was a weird turn of phrase when I quoted him, but I held back from saying anything about it, in order not to worsen my reputation for intellectual ADHD. As I was re-reading the post for typos, this phrase nagged at me again. What you do to a verdict is reach it, not draw it, right?

I mean, think about about it. "The jury has reached a verdict." Fine. "The jury has drawn a verdict." Out of a hat? On a napkin?

So this morning I sat down to scratch this little itch by blogging about it. Now, I'm not going to sit here in my blogging pajamas and pontificate strunkishly about what people should or shouldn't say or write, even with compelling examples like these, so I thought I'd check with Norma Loquendi. Or at least the best approximation that I (and you) have easy access to, namely Google.

I suspected that Stephens was influenced by the rough semantic equivalence, in his context, of verdict and conclusion. You should reach a verdict, I reasoned, but draw a conclusion. Stephens wrote that he would "leave it to others to draw their own verdicts", so I decided to check the patterns

{"reach * own conclusion|conclusions"}
{"draw * own conclusion|conclusions"}
{"reach * own verdict|verdicts"}
{"draw * own verdict|verdicts"}

where '*' mostly ranges, as expected, over {"my|your|her|his|our|their|one's"}. Here are the results, presented as a 2x2 table:

  conclusion|conclusions verdict|verdicts
reach * own
draw * own

This is hardly convincing. In, fact, it's a pitiful excuse for empirical confirmation. True, conclusions are being drawn about 8 times more often than they're being reached, while verdicts are being reached about 5 times more often than they're being drawn. But to my ear, both reaching and drawing seem like fine things to do to conclusions:

Having the students reach their own conclusions is key to making this lesson effective.
For more information we strongly recommend that you read the full article and draw your own conclusions.

In contrast, the examples in which verdicts are drawn all seem weird to me:

Each Cabinet member will be able to draw their own verdict: Mr Brown’s views will be one of many.
You can draw your own verdict on me in the comments.

There are not really even 46 of these examples -- Stephens' recent WSJ sentence is replicated many times, for example, and there are some other repeats. However, the pattern of Google counts so far doesn't come near to justifying my intuitions.

One hypothesis is that others are confused in the same way that Stephens was. Maybe the basic construction here is really {draw|reach|come to [one's] own conclusion(s)}, and all the examples with verdict are just epiphenomena. Constructional malapropisms, so to speak.

So let's get rid of the "one's own" part, and just check

{"reach|reached|reaches|reaching a conclusion"}
{"draw|drew|draws|drawing a conclusion"}
{"reach|reached|reaches|reaching a verdict"}
{"draw|drew|draws|drawing a verdict"}

  a conclusion a verdict

Much better! This time, the conclusion is reached more than twice as often as it's drawn, for some reason. (Why is there a factor of 16 difference in the relative frequency of reach and draw between the two patterns sets I tried? That's a topic for another post.) But now a verdict is reached a reasonably large number of times, and drawn 2,281 times less often. This is a satisfactory statistical image of my intuitions about Stephens' turn of phrase.

Of course, I've just committed a common fallacy of empirical research. I don't know if it has a name -- it's a little like begging the question, but maybe it should be called "waiting for the answer". You have a conclusion in mind, and you keep trying empirical tests until you find one that gives you the answer you want. An Indian friend once told him that his parents had dealt with astrologers this way, in the matter of his marriage: the first one they asked found his wife astrologically unsuitable, and so did the second one, but the third one found the stars to be in favor.

Then again, astrology is bunk, whereas Google counts are a reliable indicator of English usage :-).


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 12, 2005 11:07 AM