February 18, 2006

The infrequency illusion: a linguist's prayer

Arnold Zwicky has mentioned on Language Log a few times (like here and here and here) that there are "two seductive effects of selective attention" often noted among the soi-disant language mavens and blowhard usage pontifcators: "the Recency Illusion (if you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently) and the Frequency Illusion (once you notice a phenomenon, you believe that it happens a whole lot)." His point is that "your impressions are unreliable; you need to find out what the facts are." Daniel Ezra Johnson of the University of Pennsylvania just made a lovely observation by email: that linguists may often be prone to a kind of inverse counterpart to the Frequency Illusion about linguistic data: "the belief that something you've found is less common, and therefore perhaps a more interesting ‘discovery’, than it probably really is." It's a lovely point. It makes me want to say a prayer each morning (and I adapt to this purpose a saying of Confucius about noticing treachery): "Lord, let me be the first to notice a phenomenon when it is rare or unusual, and the last to think a phenomenon is rare or unusual when it is not." Amen.

I'll give you an example. A while back I noticed that I could only think of three businesses whose names were indefinite noun phrases: A Friendly Inn, a B&B on Cambridge Street near Harvard Square that I pass every day on my way to the Radcliffe Institute; A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, a bookstore with a few locations in the San Francisco Bay area; and A Pacific Café, a gourmet restaurant in Kapa‘a on Kaua‘i in the Hawaiian islands. But my feeling that this was an extremely rare phenomenon was completely wrong. Just look under "A" in the business white pages of any large city and you'll see. Because I had noticed something, I thought it was special. It wasn't. You need to find out what the facts are. Indefinite NPs are much less common than definite NPs as business names, but not so rare as to occasion comment by linguists.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 18, 2006 03:42 PM