October 09, 2006

Virtually a prefix for the words

Of all the topics I have addressed on Language Log, the one that brought me the most flak and the least sympathy has been my critical remarks about linguifying. And what is linguifying, newbies may ask? From Jesse Sheidlower comes this beautiful textbook example (one could scarcely ask for a better one):

The average cost of a family insurance plan that Americans get through their jobs has risen another 7.7 percent this year, to $11,500... These spiraling costs—a phrase that has virtually become a prefix for the words "health care"—are slowly creating a crisis.

(David Leonhardt, New York Times 27 Sept. 2006)

The main claim here is that the spiraling costs of health care are slowly creating a crisis. But dropped in the middle is a parenthetical interruption that at first sight is an astonishing irrelevance, since it has to do with language: a claim that the phrase "spiraling costs" has virtually become a prefix for the words "health care". I take that to mean that where you find the words "health care" you will find, or generally find, that the phrase "spiraling costs" immediately precedes them.

Now, to be picky, *spiraling costs health care is not grammatical and does not occur at all, but let's be generous, and allow the insertion of the obligatory of or other material to restore grammaticality. The claim is that virtually all occurrences of health care are in sequences of the form spiraling costs ... health care. Let me present the facts, as roughly estimated by a comparison of Google countsearly on October 9, 2006. (Kevin Smith reminded me that both the British and the American spellings should be taken into account; in the first version of this post I mistakenly used the British spelling throughout. It's the one feature of the difference between British and American spellings that I never properly internalized after my emigration. I'll list the results for the two spellings separately.)

"health care" 315,000,000
"spiralling costs of health care" 75
"spiraling costs of health care" 648
"spiralling costs * health care" 132
"spiraling costs * health care" 914

Even if we forget about the idea of prefixing and just ask that "health care" and "spiraling" and "costs" in other combinations, the figures are not vastly different:

"spiralling health care costs" 2,100
"spiraling health care costs" 39,200
"health care" "spiralling costs" 15,200
"health care" "spiraling costs" 58,400

Bottom line: the occurrences of "health care" that do not have "spiral(l)ing costs of" immediately before them outnumber those that do, by vast factors, ranging from thousands to millions. In fact on average you need to read through thousands and thousands of pages mentioning "health care" before you find one that even has the phrase "spiral(l)ing costs" somewhere else in the page, regardless of where. It's not exactly looking like invariant prefixing of one phrase by another, is it?

I have asked before and I'll ask again: why would someone do this? Why take a claim about the medical care industry that might well be true (that health care costs have been rising) and turn it into a flagrantly, disastrously false claim about occurrence of word-token sequences in published texts?

When I say this, people write me patronizing messages to explain this sort of thing away, talking to me as if I were roughly five years old. People will probably write to me to explain that what Leonhardt really means is that lots of people talk about spiraling costs of health care. I know that. My whole point is that while he means lots of people talk about increasing health care costs, which is no doubt true, he doesn't say it. Instead he asserts something wildly false about occurrence of word sequences. Why?

Other people will write to me to explain confidently that it is hyperbole, i.e., exaggeration. It isn't. To say "There have been three billion articles on the rise in health care costs in the past two weeks" would be an exaggeration; but to say something about the word sequences that typically precede the sequence health care in English text is to completely change the subject.

Still others will tell me confidently that it's a "metaphor". This is a very broad claim indeed, but even if some linguifications can indeed be said to fall within the domain of metaphorical usage, that misses my point. In general, for most kinds of metaphors, it is easy to understand why people use them. They get the point across briefly and vividly. To say that the new office manager is a pussycat establishes instantly — just as a good caricature might — that the man's general demeanor and behavior suggests a cute, cuddly, playful, non-serious, easy-to-deal-with, tractable, non-fearsome nature that otherwise might take a considerable amount of time-wasting careful description to get across.

But I simply do not understand why people use linguification. If it gets the point across at all, it does it only indirectly and clumsily: we have to infer from statement about word distributions, usually one that is false, some underlying statement that is only very imperfectly connected to it.

Lots of people seem to think I am being judgmental or prescriptive about this. Not really. Lots of journalists seem to think this is just the kind of effect they want. I'm not saying there is something linguistically incorrect about it. I'm saying I just cannot see an explanation for the way people choose to use this particular rhetorical device, when it seems (unlike a well-chosen metaphor) almost always to work against their interests rather than for them.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 9, 2006 12:49 AM