October 24, 2006

This post fails to connect the unconnectable

A reader has sent me a linguification that truly highlights the depths of the dumbness into which a writer is likely to descend when using this trope. (I can acknowledge him only as HL; the nature of his work means that his name cannot be disclosed here, so don't ask. But he makes almost all of the points that I present here.) The New York Times has a review by Janet Maslin of Stephen King's new book, and it opens with this sentence:

This sentence is about to do the unthinkable: connect James Joyce and Stephen King.

Now think about that for a moment.

Set aside the philosophical aspects of the self-reference here, because it's a red herring. The sentence is coherent, and has clear truth conditions. (It turns out to be false.) What is its pragmatic intent? The writer's goal is to express the extreme unrelateness of two things (the oeuvres of Joyce and King), and chooses to do it by the device of tacitly claiming instead that the words typically used to name these two things are rarely encountered in the same linguistic expression. Yet this very use of the device self-defeatingly demonstrates its strange hollowness, for it demonstrates that fitting the two names into the same sentence can easily be achieved without in any way associating the things or the concepts.

The sentence actually asserts nothing except that it is about to perform an unthinkable act of connection; but it doesn't perform it. The phrase "is about to" makes a reference to future time; but presumably the time referred to must be regarded as having ended when the sentence is over or when we have finished understanding it. The sentence concludes without any connection between James Joyce and Stephen King having been made, so the almost-empty self-referential claim about its own future is in fact a false claim. It may be compared with something like This sentence contains more than nine words, which by its own form guarantees that it cannot be true.

I suppose a desperate defender of Maslin's prose could say that her sentence is true in a sense: simply by putting the names of Joyce and King into the sentence together she has created one connection, in that we attentive readers will have connected the two named authors in our minds. Whatever concepts we may have of Joyce (Irish guy who wrote a book I never read that they once tried to ban) and King (horror novelist who was nearly killed by a truck near his home in Maine) will be connected for us in that we will have thought about them both in the same short period of time after reading their names. Well, yes, sort of. But if provoking a thought like "Janet Maslin has just told me falsely that the sentence I am now reading is about to establish a connection between A and B" really counts as connecting A and B, the notion of connecting two topics has pretty much been reduced to a triviality, has it not?

Maslin's sentence is a remarkable example of what I continue to find a baffling phenomenon. Figures of speech are generally used because they work. They do something for the exposition that would not otherwise be done quite so well. But linguification does not accomplish a writer's purpose in a better way than non-figurative devices. Often (as here) it appears to obstruct the writer's aims without succeeding in anything. Yet this perversely pointless trope seems to me to be gaining popularity in contemporary writing. I have no idea why.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 24, 2006 02:41 PM