July 11, 2006

Throughout the ranks of left-wing bloggers

A nice example of a plain vanilla linguification of the true-to-false type that I first noted here here and here occurs in Anthony Dick's review of a new George Lakoff book in National Review Online:

On any day of the week, you can read throughout the ranks of left-wing bloggers the following fervent incantation: "We need to reframe the debate."

His underlying claim: all over the left-wing blogs, on every day of the week, there is a lot of stuff about Lakoff's ideas concerning the importance of framing the political debate. The linguified claim: the actual string of words "We need to reframe the debate" appears just about every day on large numbers of left-wing blogs. Let's check that the latter is true, shall we?

The total number of hits for "We need to reframe the debate" on the entire web is tiny: 126. And of course by no means all of those are on left-wing blogs (one of the top Google hits for the phrase is from an electronic media show web site). All sorts of six-word clauses will get this many hits; "We need to defend our country", for example, gets 129. "You need to wash your face" gets significantly more (nearly 200).

When we limit things to find pages that have both "We need to reframe the debate" and the name "Lakoff", we find we are down to a mere dozen pages. This is so small as to be roughly equivalent to not occurring at all. The number of pages containing the randomly chosen clause "the eagle has landed" and the randomly chosen word "peripatetic" is also about three times as big (32 hits). If we pick "why did the chicken cross the road" and the randomly chosen word "archbishop" we get 646 hits — 54 times as many as "We need to reframe the debate" and "Lakoff".

So Anthony Dick's linguified statement is wildly, absurdly false. Yet I have no doubt that the claim he started with — that left-wing blogs talk a lot about Lakoff's debate-reframing ideas — is broadly true. Why did he switch? Why did he linguify?

One can only speculate. But in this case, humor is not a candidate explanation (even the people who pointed out to me that the Daniel Gilbert case was striving for humorous effect cannot invoke that here). This guy is trying to convey a serious claim about activity on the left in politics. So why doesn't he just state it?

I think my best guess would be that in cases of this sort the author is a bit sheepish about the subjective character of the underlying claim (it has that unscientific "I hear people talking about it everywhere" character to it), and they decide that a linguified alternative will look more objective, like something they might have actually checked out on Google or Lexis-Nexis. But then they don't bother to actually check it out.

So I do have an objection to what I see going on in a lot of cases of linguifying in current journalistic prose. It's about linguistic error, and it's not really about bad writing style. It's about intellectual laziness (that's the connection to snowclones), and about the cynical assumption that fact-checking is unnecessary for a public as stupid and gullible as us.

It's about lazy writers deploying pre-assembled clichés that come in kit form (just a small amount of assembly required): too lazy to check the facts, quite happy to follow the trend of linguified claim-making, just glopping the sentences down like a painter who doesn't give a rat's ass how good the final result will look. It's about columnists who hand us invented blather concerning the frequency of words and phrases, secure in their confidence that their friends will all nod approvingly and even their opponents probably won't lift a finger to check anything.

People write to tell me they think I should lighten up a bit on linguifying — that I'm being over-serious and too harsh on a bunch of harmless metaphors and hyperboles and snowclones. But I don't think I want to lighten up on sloppy columnists casually assuming that unverified frequency claims about linguistic material can be tossed about at will. And I don't think I should.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 11, 2006 09:37 PM