July 29, 2006

James J. Kilpatrick, grammarian

A couple of weeks ago, James J. Kilpatrick opened his column with an astonishing piece of linguistic misanalysis (July 16, 2006, "Even a little ambiguity"):

This was a headline in USA Today on April 28: “Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers.”

Did you wince? Roll your eyes? Did you groan? Then you have the soul of a grammarian, and will go to heaven when you die…. There you will lecture the seraphim on the distinction between “all” and “not all,” and you will explain to them that if mass transit is not an option for “all” drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver.

Neal Whitman at Literal Minded ("If It’s Not for Everyone, It’s Not for Anyone" 7/21/2006) called Kilpatrick to account. As any linguist would, Neal explained the offending ambiguity in terms of the relative semantic scope of the negative not and the quantifier all -- in heavy English rather than predicate calculus, it's the difference between "it's not the case that mass transit is an option for all drivers" and "for all drivers, it's not the case that mass transit is an option."

And as any sensible speaker of English would, Neal observed that Kilpatrick is full of it when he asserts that "if mass transit is not an option for 'all' drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver".

Neal's evidence was his own linguistic intuition:

[I]n Mass transit [is] not an option for everyone, the most natural reading for me ... is the one the headline writer intended, the one with the wide-scoping negation...

My intuition agrees with Neal's, and we could cite evidence from published studies to the effect that most native speakers of English agree with the two of us rather than with Kilpatrick. But instead, since Kilpatrick is an authoritarian conservative who cares little for the opinion of the vulgar mob, I'll invoke the authority of respected authors over the centuries. When Kilpatrick starts giving his grammar lessons in the streets of paradise, there are going to be a lot of giggles from the better-informed pedestrians.

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset, vol II, chap. LXXI:

The solution of the mystery was not known to all,---was known on that night only to the very select portion of the aristocracy of Silverbridge to whom it was communicated by Mary Walker or Miss Anne Prettyman.

= it was not the case that the solution of the mystery was known to all
≠ the solution of the mystery was unknown to all

Herman Melville Mardi and a Voyage Thither vol. 1 chap. LXXXIV

But the imperial Marzilla was not for all; gods only could partake; the Kings and demigods of the isles; excluding left-handed descendants of sad rakes of immortals, in old times breaking heads and hearts in Mardi, bequeathing bars-sinister to many mortals, who now in vain might urge a claim to a cup-full of right regal Marzilla.

Joseph Glover Baldwin: The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi (1853), "Ovid Bolus, Esq., Attorney at Law and Solicitor in Chancery":

He did not confine himself to mere lingual lying: one tongue was not enough for all the business he had on hand. He acted lies as well. Indeed, sometimes his very silence was a lie.

William Shakespeare, As you like it, Act 3, scene 5; Rosalind says to Phebe:

But Mistris, know your selfe, downe on your knees
And thanke heauen, fasting, for a good mans loue;
For I must tell you friendly in your eare,
Sell when you can, you are not for all markets:
Cry the man mercy, loue him, take his offer,
Foule is most foule, being foule to be a scoffer.

T.S. Eliot, Choruses from 'The Rock' VI:

24 But the man that is will shadow
25 The man that pretends to be.
26 And the Son of Man was not crucified once for all,
27 The blood of the martyrs not shed once for all,
28 The lives of the Saints not given once for all:
29 But the Son of Man is crucified always
30 And there shall be Martyrs and Saints.

Since Kilpatrick may regard Shakespeare as out of date, and Melville as an untrustworthy Massachusetts liberal, I'll cite an example from a recent source with politically appropriate credentials:

In a sign of the difficulties Mr. Gingrich could face from other Republicans, however, Representative Tom DeLay, the House Majority Whip, immediately denounced the fund. ''Giving the I.M.F. more money is not a panacea for all the troubles that bedevil the Asian economy,'' he said. ''In fact, in many instances, the I.M.F is the problem, not the solution.'' [NYT, "Gingrich Clarifies G.O.P. Stands on Trade", by Alison Mitchell, June 26, 1998]

Or if The Hammer's recent corruption problems retrospectively disqualify him, how about the commissioner of baseball?

"There's no sense kidding ourselves about the ballparks,'' Selig said. "They've been great for the game, but they're not a panacea for all our ills.'' [Houston Chronicle, "Baseball attendance flagging for several reasons", by Richard Justice, 4/16/2003]

Or if politial outlook doesn't matter, let's move a few degrees to the left for a quote from Clyde Prestowitz:

Clyde Prestowitz, whose 1988 book, "Trading Places,'' predicted that Japan's government-business partnership would allow it to dominate high technology at America's expense, now declares that "the Japanese model was a fantastic catch-up model, but it was not a model for all seasons.'' He has taken to denouncing crony capitalism and sternly lecturing Japan on the need for fundamental reform. [Paul Krugman, [NYT, "Predicting doom in Asia's 'miracle' economies", by Paul Krugman, 5/5/1998]

In fact, after a modest amount of searching, I haven't come across a single published example where a competent writer of English follows Kilpatrick's theory of semantic interpretation. There must be some out there -- if you can find one, please let me know.

What led Kilpatrick to open his column so confidently with such a spectacularly wrong assertion about how the English language works? I won't speculate about his psychology, and I don't know about possible precursors in the prescriptivist literature for this particular piece of weird semantics. But my impression is that artificial rules about usage often start when a half-educated commentator with more self-confidence than insight, and with no respect for either demotic or elite traditions, decides that some common practice is inefficient or illogical. Why such pronouncements occasionally gain widespread acceptance is a question that could be the subject of several dissertations in intellectual history or social psychology. My own guess, FWIW, is that more insight will come from the natural history of religion than from rational choice theory.

This puzzle goes beyond the distinction that Eugene Volokh pointed out several years ago ("The Language Police", 1/26/2003):

Language defined by changing usage is what some call a "grown order" -- a judgment formed by millions of people, based on their senses of what is convenient and comfortable for them. (Free market economic decisions are another classic example of something that's mostly a grown order.) Linguistic prescriptivism (dictionarymakers recording what they think should be the usage, not what is the usage), is a "made order" -- a judgment of a small group of people selected for the purpose of rendering their judgment. Made orders are sometimes useful, for instance in the setting of technical standards. But as to language, I think the grown order approach is far more likely to yield a language that is genuinely responsive to users' needs than the made order approach.

In the first place, we're not talking about changing patterns of usage here -- as far as I can tell, Kilpatrick is not only wrong about contemporary English, he's wrong about Shakespeare and everyone in between. Nor does he claim that he's talking about a change that should be resisted. And in the second place, this is nothing like an ISO committee setting up a technical standard, it's one isolated individual, with no particular standing, laying down the law about how things ought to be, while pretending that his irrational prejudice is a foundational principle of grammar. In commentary on Eugene Volokh's post Neal Whitman's brother Glen observed that

The linguistic prescriptivists are analogous to the managers of a firm who, upon observing a new competitor that claims to make a better mousetrap, stubbornly insist that the old-fashioned mousetrap is superior. And maybe they’re right; the real test is in the mousetrap-buying choices of consumers. Likewise, in language, the test of the prescriptivists’ prescriptions is their staying power.

But presciptivists -- like Kilpatrick in this case -- often claim the support of logic rather than tradition. In this context, most linguists are not really either "prescriptive" or "descriptive" -- we try to evaluate claims about tradition, contemporary usage and logic in an honest and realistic way. We often wind up debunking the false claims of those peddling dubious linguistic prescriptions, but we're just as happy to debunk false descriptive claims. And of course we're happiest to join in advancing the understanding of how (and why) speech and language work, rather than the essentially negative enterprise of debunking nonsense of any sort.

I can't resist ending with a small personal note. Neal observes that the only way he can get Kilpatrick's favored reading for "Mass transit [is] not an option for all drivers" is to imagine saying it "with a seriously high pitch on all drivers". I believe that this is a reference to a phenomenon that Ivan Sag and I discussed, under the name of the "contradiction contour", in one of my first published linguistics papers: Mark Liberman and Ivan Sag, "Prosodic form and discourse function", CLS 10, 416-27 (1974). The version of this work that we presented at the annual meeting of the Chicago Linguistics Society may well have been the first scholarly paper ever performed with kazoo accompaniment -- in order to show how effective pitch contours can sometimes be in conveying meaning in English, we acted out some little skits in which Ivan's side of the conversation was performed on the kazoo. And we didn't debunk anything, though we did respectfully disagree with Ray Jackendoff about how to explain the effects of intonation on semantic scope. But all that belongs in another post.

[I should also mention that Eugene Volokh was mistaken about how most dictionary-makers see their role, when he wrote that they "[record] what they think should be the usage, not what is the usage". While lexicographers try to distinguish older usage from recent usage, and standard usage from dialect usage, and formal usage from informal usage, they're definitely in the business of describing rather than legislating. As a result, Robert Hartwell Fiske, in his screed The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, calls them "laxicographers". ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 29, 2006 10:37 AM