May 20, 2007

Hearing the sentence in your head

From Atul Gawande's op-ed piece "Let's Talk About Sex" in the NYT, 5/19/07, p. A25:

Reducing unintended pregnancy is the key -- half of pregnancies are unintended, and 4 in 10 of them end in abortion.

The first reading I got was that 4 in 10 pregnancies end in abortion.  But whoa, that can't be right; surely the abortion rate isn't that high.  Gawande must have intended to say that 4 of 10 UNINTENDED pregnancies (2 in 10 of all pregnancies) end in abortion.

I read the sentence in my head with unaccented them, the usual prosody for anaphoric pronouns; with that accenting, the referent of them is pregnancies, pregnancies being the nearest available antecedent NP, an NP moreover in a phrase (of pregnancies) parallel to the phrase (of them) that them is in.  Gawande presumably heard it in HIS head with accented them, the accent here signaling that the usual referent-finding procedures don't apply.  (The accented HIS in my last sentence illustrates a different use of accent: to point up a contrast, his head vs. my head.)

Gawande could have made things clear -- by putting them in small caps or italics, to indicate accent, or by choosing those or these, which here would convey the introduction of a new discourse referent, one the reader has to identify from the context: unintended pregnancies.  Why didn't he make things clear?

Because he heard the sentence in his head and didn't realize that he'd have to mark the accent for the reader (or choose a different anaphor).

One of the hardest tasks in writing is taking the viewpoint of your audience, reading your own stuff the way your readers are likely to; putting the sentences in your head down on paper isn't enough.  Sometimes even excellent, practiced writers get it wrong.

[Added 5/22/07.  First, a clarification: Gawande was reporting on abortions in the U.S. specifically, not around the world.  The 20% (rather than 40%) figure is consistent with a report, passed on to me by Alexa Mater, in the latest Economist: "In the United States, Australia, Canada, Britain and most of the rest of western Europe, around 15-25% of pregnancies are terminated." Even better, Ray Girvan has found what was probably the source for Gawande's statistics, in a Guttmacher Institute report: "Nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion" (note these rather than them). Finally, Andy Hollandbeck points out that the anaphora error might be an editor's, rather than Gawande's.]

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 20, 2007 03:45 PM