May 10, 2006

Pulling within

Here's an easy bet. Tune in to an upcoming NBA playoff game — say, tonight's matchup between the New Jersey Nets and the Miami Heat — and wait for one team to fall behind by a significant margin. Let's say, for the sake of argument, the Heat fall 10 points behind the Nets. Then wait for the team that's behind to stage a bit of a rally, for instance if the Heat bridge a 10-point gap and make it a 5-point game. I wager that the announcer will say one of two things:

a) And the Heat pull (to) within five!
b) And the Heat pull (to) within 90 to 85! [Or whatever the score is.]

How did "pulling (to) within" a scoring differential, or even more oddly, "pulling (to) within" a score, become the standard sportscaster-talk to describe a losing team rallying against a winning team? The answer lies in how the spatial metaphors of racing contests have been transformed by American team sports.

We're used to hearing the verb "pull" in various competitive contexts to describe one contestant's movements relative to another, as in "pulling even," "pulling ahead," and so forth. This sense of "pull" goes back to the literal sense of pulling on oars in a boat race, attested since the 1860s. It didn't take long for "pull" to get applied to other types of races, such as horse-racing. (And, like so many other horse-racing terms, "pulling ahead" and similar forms quickly entered the world of politics to refer to the jockeying of candidates in the polls.) With "pull" coming to mean "move in relation to the position of another competitor," the expression could be used to quantify the relative distance between competitors, as in "lengths" for horses on a racetrack (a measurement likely borrowed from boat-lengths in crew racing). An announcer at a horse race could say: "Horse A pulls (to) within three lengths of Horse B," with the implication that Horse A was more than three lengths behind and has now passed into a position within three lengths relative to Horse B.

When the idiom of "pulling within" a distance in a race started to get applied to team sports like baseball, football, and hockey, the metaphorical fit was not exact. If a baseball team is down 6-0 and then a player on the team hits a two-run homer, the gap has been narrowed from six to four. Unlike the continuous movement of boat-racing or horse-racing, however, scoring in baseball and other team sports is "discrete," as mathematicians call it: a team's score jumps from one non-negative integer to the next with no fractions in between. So the spatial metaphor of being "within" a certain relative distance doesn't exactly match the context of a baseball team down by a discrete number of runs. Nevertheless, it became common by the mid-20th century for announcers and reporters to talk about teams "pulling (to) within" a certain number of runs, points, goals, or even games in the standings.

Once this usage of "pulling (to) within" a scoring difference was established, the spatially defined sense of "within" began undergoing a subtle change in sporting contexts. It no longer implied necessarily a movement "inside" a given limit, like a number of lengths on the racetrack. Instead, the preposition "within" could simply suggest a narrowing of the differential between two team's scores. From there it was a short step for the score itself, rather than the differential, to be used as the object of the preposition "within." By the mid-1970s it became rather common for sports reporters to use this new sense in print, as in "The Penguins pulled within 3-2," or "Houston pulled to within 115-112." And it wasn't long before verbs other than "pull" were used in conjunction with the sense of "within" meaning "to a score of": for instance, the AP reported in Game 1 of the Nets-Heat series that Shaquille O'Neal had a late run "that drew Miami within 92-83."

For now, this emergent usage is restricted to sporting competitions. But I wonder how long it will be before we see a news story reporting that proponents of a failed Senate bill pulled the vote to within 52-48. After all, everyone loves a good horse race.

[Update #1: Paul Kay notes that in today's on-line Time Magazine, under the headline "Why Jeb Bush Won Big," Tim Padgett writes: "And when challenger and political rookie Bill McBride pulled to within three points in polls taken earlier this fall, it looked like they [the Democrats] just might [get revenge]." Indeed, "pull (to) within" has long been applied in political contexts to poll differentials measured in percentage points. (Bruce Rusk sends along examples going back to 1972.) What I have yet to see, however, is a political equivalent for "pull within (a score)." That's what I was trying to get at with my posited example of pulling a Senate vote (to) within 52-48.

Meanwhile, here's a mathematical perspective from Adrian Riskin:

I think that at least mathematically speaking it makes sense to describe one team as being within a whole number of points of another team. Mathematicians at least use "within" to denote being in an interval, and the question then becomes whether or not the interval contains its endpoints. Often it does not, as in the case when X is said to be "within epsilon" of Y. This always has the implicit meaning that the absolute value of X-Y is strictly smaller than epsilon. On the other hand, it's not uncommon in other contexts to see "within" used to mean "less than or equal to the actual differential". To find examples of this I searched for the word "within" in mathematical articles on (a scientific preprint server) and found a number of examples where it's used to denote the differential of whole numbers. ...
So I think at least the first usage of "within" by sportscasters that you discuss is not so strange (assuming that being similar to what mathematicians do can be described as being "not so strange"). The second usage I won't try to defend. On the other hand, I'd like to hear a sportcaster say, when the score is 6-3, that the losing team has pulled within 8 of the winning team. It's still true!

Even if it's mathematically defensible to say that Team X is "within N" of Team Y when the difference in scoring is exactly N, I find I'm not the only one who considers the sporting usage a bit annoying. Vivian de St. Vrain, aka Dr. Metablog, posted peevishly about this use of "within" back in March.]

[Update #2: Paul Kay sends along another political example, this time a bit closer to "pull within (a score)":

Both events would help the Democrats pull within parity in one or both houses this fall. (The Left Coaster) ]

[Update #3: These turns of phrase are even older than I had thought. Documentation here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 10, 2006 02:56 PM