February 17, 2005

School of squander

According to a story in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer, Bill Clement had this to say about the cancellation of the NHL season:

"It is such a day of squander and a day of waste that anybody involved in both sides should be ashamed of who they are right now."

When I read this, I thought that Clement was creatively nouning a verb, but it turns out that the nominal form of squander is well established. The OED has citations from 1709

1709 MRS. MANLEY Secret Mem. (1736) I. 27 Will he one Day set it all at Stake upon a Royal Cast, an Imperial Squander? Or descend to his Grave, choak'd with greediness of Gain?

It's easy to check a case of word usage like this, to see whether an example that strikes me as odd is an innovation or just something that I've missed in my experience of the language so far. It's harder to check something like Clement's use of anybody and both.

When he says "anybody involved in both sides", Clement clearly means that all the participants, regardless of which side they're on, should be ashamed of their fatal unwillingness to compromise. He's not slamming fence-sitters or double agents -- he's not even suggesting that any members of these categories exist. The negotiation between the NHL owners and the players' union has been a polarizing dispute, and if there is any individual who's consequentially involved with both sides at once, he's keeping a low profile.

However, when I read this, I first interpreted "anybody involved on both sides" as referring to people with split allegiance. [Yes, I know, he said "in both sides, but one oddity at a time, please...]

So the question is, did Clement make a mistake in saying this? Or did I make a mistake in understanding it? Or do we speak slightly different dialects of English? As in the case of the AHD's definition of patriot, this is not an easy kind of question to answer. In general, people's judgments about what they could or couldn't say or write, and what things can and can't mean, are not a reliable predictor of what how they actually speak, write and understand. This is partly because of the influence of perceived norms -- people tend to underestimate their use of stigmatized variants like "g-dropping" and cluster simplification, for instance -- but there is also apparently an influence of what we might call "mind set". Sometimes you just get stuck in a certain way of interpreting an ambiguous expression, especially if you're operating in an analytic mode.

Research 30-odd years ago on "quantifier dialects" found this pattern (as I recall) in the interpretation of (sentences like) "All the arrows didn't hit the target". There are two meanings, in this case roughly "all the arrows missed" and "it's not the case that all the arrows hit". Some people can understand such sentences either way, but others are quite sure that only the first meaning is possible, while others are equally strong partisans of the second meaning. The curious thing is that these judgments, including the partisan ones, are apparently unstable over time. If you test people again after a suitable lapse of time, some of the partisans of one reading have turned into partisans of the other one.

As far as I can tell, neither prescriptive norms nor random mind-set is influencing my interpretation of "anybody involved on both sides". But maybe I'm wrong.

It's certainly easy to find other examples, out on the web, of Clement-style interpretations of "any ... both":

They couldn't track it throughout the family. They couldn't remember anybody on both sides that ever had it.
Here we are a year later and it is evident to anybody on both sides that they lied to invade Iraq.
Most anybody on both sides of this debate can copy and paste articles by others.
And I'd like to apologise to anybody on both sides for the 1000 charicter limit, that's beyond my control, that's a Haloscan policy.

In the first cited example, for instance, there's no one (absent incest) who can be "on both sides" of a family. In the second example, I'm sure that the writer was not talking about people who flip-flopped on the war, and thus were (as individuals) somehow "on both sides" of the relevant dispute.

There's some (weak) evidence from relative frequency that many people agree with me about the interpretation of "any ... both"

  both sides either side
anybody on __
anyone on __
everybody on __
everyone on __

But I'm still uncertain how to distinguish between the "production error" and "dialect variation" theories about the people whose behavior indicates that they disagree.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 17, 2005 12:55 PM