July 16, 2004

(Auto)biography of a blog thread

As I said before, I am excited about the power of blogging. In the space of eight days -- the blink of an eye, judging by journal turn-around times -- Mark's initial skepticism about Steven Pinker's defense of people who say could care less has evolved into a strong argument (in three parts), pointing not only to a superior alternative analysis but also showing that Pinker was less than careful in his claims about (a) the age group using this phrase and (b) the prosodic difference between this phrase and the allegedly correct couldn't care less.

What's most interesting is that Mark didn't have to do very intricate and time-consuming research to make his case, and that by comparison Pinker seems to have done none at all. This made me simultaneously pleased that I had brought the subject up in the first place and ashamed that I had not been skeptical enough of Pinker's claims myself.

An aside, in my own defense: my original point was not to defend Pinker but to pummel Richard Lederer, as I later clarified. But I have to admit that I didn't seriously question Pinker's claims -- certainly not in the way that Mark did, and certainly not enough to bother testing them.

When I originally decided to start posting my criticisms of Lederer, I was motivated by a very simple feeling that I'm sure many linguists are familiar with. For me, this feeling starts with the fact that, aside from my innermost secrets, there is nothing in the world that I personally know more about than linguistics. So, when somebody makes a linguistic claim that I know to be wrong, I feel compelled to correct them. (This much I suppose I share with your typical prescriptivist.) The more outlandish the claim and/or the bigger the person's audience -- both true of Lederer -- the more I feel this compulsion.

I think that one of the causes of this compulsive behavior is the fact that I hold many beliefs and opinions for which I have largely insufficient evidence, yet they influence a lot of what I do (from how I vote to what music I listen to). Being the one area in which I am most confident in my beliefs and opinions, linguistics is where I am most likely to passionately defend what I think is right. But, as Mark has once again reminded me with his could-care-less approach, that confidence is and always should be based on careful (and skeptical) analysis.

(Note: that last link was chosen more or less randomly. Pretty much any of Mark's posts on Language Log would serve as an example of what I mean.)

[Update: In case you hadn't noticed, Mark added yet another post about the could care less issue, just three hours after this one.]

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 16, 2004 03:18 PM