May 25, 2007

Beyond dispute

From a story in the Wall Street Journal last week on controversies over Texas's new "Bible curriculum":

Mr. Adkins says the classes focus on historical fact. "We're not talking about miracles," he says. "We're talking about Old Testament sites located through modern digs.... Do you dispute the Bible influenced the founding of the U.S.?"

That use of dispute brought me up short. I can talk about disputing a pass, a parking ticket, or somebody else's version of events, or at the limit, about disputing whether something happened, but not about disputing that something happened (though it's obviously okay to use that-S complements with negative passives like "It isn't disupted that he met with Rove"). Nor can I use that syntax with related verbs like question.

Of course I'm reminded every day how subcategorizationally hidebound I am. But it turns out that the meaning of the verb has been shifting along with its syntax, with dispute coming to mean "deny" -- actually, very like what's happening with refute, a topic that Mark and I were posting on a couple of years ago.

It isn't easy to tell, of course -- in most situations, there isn't a lot of distance between disputing a claim and denying it. But Googling around turns up some examples where "deny" would seem to be the intended meaning. Sometimes it's because the person referred to by the subject NP ought to be in a position to deny the claim on the basis of personal experience without having to offer an argument, as dispute generally entails:

Before the Arbitrator, the grievant noted that the event at issue occurred five years earlier, and he disputed that he used profanity towards a co-worker.

He disputed that he was intending to "disrupt" the test, saying that he was there to "bear witness for millions of people worldwide" who oppose Bush's missile defense plans.

He disputed that he received any gratification from the sexual assaults he pled guilty to, and also attempted to explain in more detail his culpability for two of his previous convictions.

A lot of these occur in legal contexts, which suggests that for these writers, dispute implies making a formal declaration. But the "deny" meaning also appears in relatively informal discourse where the traditional meaning of "dispute" would be inappropriate -- for example, when the proposition at issue is being conceded for rhetorical purposes:

I don't mean to dispute that your ancestors were kind and charitable, nor that they believed their reward would be in heaven and that they they'd have connected the two.

I don't mean to dispute that there are so very many more important things for people to debate, but this is something that really matters to a large contingent of people...

In fact there are analogous sentences where dispute appears with a simple NP object and pretty clearly has a "deny" interpretation:

You can't dispute your hatred for UPS. . .

I can't dispute that feeling! I've already outgrown my 24" Dell after just three months.

I do dispute disliking the character of Anakin "because he is too emo."

And for inclusion in the "oh, well in that case" file:

The grievor admitted the intent to threaten to beat the customer up. However, he disputed saying, "I'll fucking kill you." Rather he responded to the receptionist's verbal abuse with: "Step outside you fruit loop, I'll kick your ass."

And there are quite a number of hits for phrases like "dispute the Holocaust" and "dispute the moon landing" (as opposed, say, to "dispute the claims about the Holocaust" and the like, which are consistent with the meaning of the verb as "take issue with"). In other instances, dispute occurs with an inanimate subject (often "fact" or "facts") and seems to mean something like "disprove" or "call into question":

However, teachers need to be taught about the facts that dispute evolution and should be required to teach these facts to students.

Keeping in mind these facts, which dispute the legality and legitimacy of the Hague Tribunal and indicate the common understanding regarding the option of extraditing one's own citizens, we are free to conclude that there is not a single legal basis for the FRY's duty to meet such demands from the Hague.

Due to the short election period, for appeals to be considered there must be further documentation or additional facts which dispute the information used to determine the original sanction.

I haven't checked very thoroughly to see how recent this phenomenon actually is (Ben Zimmer, call your office), though there are cites for the relevant syntax going back to the 1980's at least:

. . . sources close to Manley say he disputes that he tested positive for cocaine. Washington Post, 11/20/89

It stands to reason, though, that this has been going on for a while, even if it has only become salient with the advent of the Web, as public space suddenly fills with the writing of people whose public expression was previously confined to their refrigerator doors. I mean, a verb doesn't unravel in a single afternoon.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at May 25, 2007 01:09 PM