February 27, 2006

Multiple choice

Three scholars in social psychology (Barry Schwartz, Hazel Rose Marks, and Alana Conner Snibbe) contributed a column to the Sunday New York Times Magazine under the headline, "Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?" The writers summarize their findings on how class (or at least educational attainment) shapes American perspectives on the concepts of "freedom" and "choice." It's not always easy boiling down research conclusions for a popular audience, but something definitely seems amiss in this paragraph:

In a recent study with Nicole Stephens at Stanford University, we asked college students to pick "three adjectives that best capture what the word 'choice' means to you." A higher percentage of those who had parents with a college education said "freedom," "action" and "control," while more of those whose parents had only a high-school education responded with "fear," "doubt" and "difficulty."

Okay, but what percentage of those college students know what "adjectives" are?

Actually, I doubt the college students are at fault for the apparent mismatch between the adjectival request and the nominal responses. I bet that most of them really did respond with adjectives like "free," "tough," or "afraid." In fact, the students might even have been presented with a checklist of adjectives from which to select. But then the researchers likely did what social scientists usually do with survey results based on open-ended questions: they lumped these responses into several different conceptual categories. And since we tend to label concepts with nouns, that's the part of speech the research team used for coding and categorizing.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the process of writing and editing of the column, this adjective-to-noun move must have gotten lost in the shuffle. My guess is the writers originally said that the students responded with "words having to do with 'freedom,' etc.," but that extra verbiage got edited out for space considerations. Of course, it's still possible that the students provided a range of responses including adjectives, nouns, verbs, clauses, and emoticons. But I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here, and I'd even wager that the questioners used an adjective checklist (as behavioral psychologists are wont to do), taking the part-of-speech hassle out of the students' hands entirely.

Why am I so ready to blame the editors and not the students for misrecognizing nouns as adjectives? (It's not that I have an axe to grind with the editors at the Times Magazine, even though I've needled them in the past.) The reason is simply that well-educated adults regularly get confused on this precise point of grammar. Nouns that don't denote substantive things sometimes don't seem "noun-y" enough to qualify for that part of speech. Hence Jon Stewart can tell a graduating class that the word "terror" is "not even a noun," while Timothy Noah can write on Slate that words like "humbug" and "poppycock" are adjectives. So it wouldn't be surprising if an editor looking to tighten up the writers' prose made a quick redaction that ended up treating such nebulous terms as "freedom" and "fear" as adjectives rather than nouns.

The writers of the column assert that "Americans are increasingly bewildered — not liberated — by the sheer volume of choices they must make in a day." Add choices of grammatical description to that bewildering list.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 27, 2006 01:08 AM