Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Indirection, evidentiality, and pragmatic garden paths

The Michigan Senate is holding hearings today on a proposed second bridge over the Detroit River. Here is the first sentence of today’s Detroit News article on the hearings:

It’s time to end years of public argument by proponents and opponents of a new bridge from Detroit to Windsor, says the chairman of a Senate committee who will open public hearings on the issue today.

Across Lake Michigan, the Wisconsin Supreme Court yesterday overturned a lower court’s ruling against the implementation of the state’s infamous new collective bargaining law. Here is the first sentence of today’s Wisconsin State Journal article on the decision:

A Dane County judge overstepped her authority when she voided Gov. Scott Walker’s measure limiting public sector collective bargaining, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a fractious 4-3 decision.

Both articles begin in medias indirect speech report. The indirectness is revealed to the reader in each case only later, via parataxis—says the chairman of a Senate committee… and the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday…—despite these clauses’ being semantically superordinate to the reported speech. That is, these articles’ very first assertions are in fact attitudes and opinions attributable to someone other than the (by presumption neutral) journalist, but the reader is given no advance indication that a third-party attitude holder is responsible for them. The result is a pragmatic garden-path effect, with the reader led temporarily to believe that the attitude or opinion stated at the outset is instead part of the accepted factual background for the article. This journalistic trope, snappy and attention-grabbing as it may be, lends powerful and undue credence to the attitude holder whose speech is indirectly reported in this way.

This problem arises in English-language reporting in part because English has no purely morphological means for indicating indirect speech. The verbs with finite inflection in the indirect speech reports above—‘s and overstepped—look just the same as they do outside of indirect speech reports. Not all languages share this property, however: German, for example, has a distinct inflectional form (the Konjunktiv I) that is used for verbs in indirect speech reports. Consider the following examples, the first a subhead from an article in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung containing an indirect speech report, the second an excerpt from the same article containing the corresponding direct quotation:

„Koalitionsgedankenspielchen” seien unnütz wie ein Kropf, sagt CDU-Generalsekretär Gröhe.

„Koalitionsgedankenspielchen sind derzeit so unnütz wie ein Kropf”, sagte Gröhe der „Frankfurter Rundschau”.

The quote translates roughly as “‘Coalition mind games’ are as useless as a goiter” (though possibly this expression has an idiomatic meaning that is obscure to me and Google Translate). The indirect speech report in the subhead contains the finite verb form seien; what was actually uttered, as seen in the direct quotation, was the form sind. Crucially, the use of the Konjunktiv I form seien in the subhead indicates immediately to the reader that the clause it occurs in is reported speech, and thus that the content expressed is not a neutral background fact but a third-party attitude or opinion. The Konjunktiv I serves as an evidential marker, a grammatical indicator that what is expressed is attributable not to the speaker (i.e., the journalist) but to someone else. German news reports that begin with indirect speech reports thus do not induce the pragmatic garden-path effect described above, with its attendant coloring of the supposedly neutral reporting.

Lacking a comparable grammatical means for expressing evidentiality, English requires its writers to pay greater attention to pragmatic ambiguities in the pursuit of reportorial neutrality. Indirect speech reports that paratactically precede their speech-reporting predicates are best avoided, some might say.

(Update, June 16: The German expression unnütz wie ein Kropf, along with several similar variants, was discussed on Language Log back in 2004; h/t Jan Anderssen.)

Presupposition and embedded auxiliary inversion

FBI general counsel Valerie E. Caproni, as quoted in today’s New York Times piece on the bureau’s self-accorded new surveillance powers:

“Every one of these has been carefully looked at and considered against the backdrop of why do the employees need to be able to do it, what are the possible risks and what are the controls,” she said, portraying the modifications to the rules as “more like fine-tuning than major changes.”

Of interest here is the part-colloquial, part-corporatese use of auxiliary inversion in the embedded interrogative complement of the backdrop of: instead of the expected why the employees need to be able to do it, what the possible risks are and what the controls are, we get variants that contain subject–auxiliary inversion of the sort normally confined to matrix interrogatives.

Apart from lending Caproni’s speech a PowerPoint-y undertone, the embedded auxiliary inversion has a marked hedging effect, especially in the first conjunct. Why presupposes the truth of the clause from which it is extracted, a characteristic that contributes to the rhetorical effectiveness of questions like Why do you hate America? In an ordinary prepositional-phrase complement of a noun, without subject–aux inversion, an embedded interrogative with why conveys this presupposition quite forcefully: the noun phrase the backdrop of why the employees need to be able to do it forecloses any possibility that the employees might not need to be able to do it. By contrast, Caproni’s inverted variant has the (perhaps unintended) effect of reading like a direct question. While it may nudge the listener toward accommodating the presupposition that the employees need to be able to do it, it also challenges the reasoning that led to that particular shared assumption. Caproni’s rhetorical purpose is undermined by her syntax: instead of putting the need for broader surveillance powers squarely into the realm of the presupposed, her embedded subject–aux inversion pulls it back toward the contested ground of at-issue content.

(For an authoritative overview of the present state of linguistic thought on presupposition, see the recent entry by David Beaver and Bart Geurts in the always excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Metaframing marriage

From last week’s New York Times coverage of Michael Bloomberg’s speech on same-sex marriage:

The mayor also rejected one of the concerns raised by opponents of same-sex marriage: that it would infringe on religious freedom. He said that the measure envisioned by the governor and gay marriage advocates would not require any religious institution to perform or sanction a same-sex wedding. While emphasizing his “enormous respect for religious leaders on both sides of this issue,” the mayor framed same-sex marriage as a question of civil law, not faith.

To begin, it is a sad commentary on the state of the public discussion of same-sex marriage that Bloomberg needs to raise this point at all. Public policy regarding same-sex marriage can only possibly be about civil marriage: the legislature in Albany can no more require a religious organization to perform same-sex marriages than the Archdiocese of New York can ban the sale of contraceptives. This is an elementary point, yet public discourse about same-sex marriage marriage is almost always about marriage, full stop. The failure to insist on the very fundamental distinction between civil and religious marriage, whether as a result of carelessness or deliberate conflation, constitutes a major rhetorical victory for opponents of same-sex marriage.

It is thus disappointing to see the New York Times treat this distinction, and Bloomberg’s insistence on it, as an instance of framing in the final sentence above. To be sure, all political speech involves framing, and Bloomberg’s remarks are no exception. The use of the verb frame, however, implies strongly that Bloomberg’s views are simply one legitimate possibility among many, with no greater claim to validity than their opposite, when instead they proceed from the incontrovertible (if, for some, rhetorically inconvenient) fact that public policy regarding same-sex marriage is always and only about civil marriage, and cannot possibly have direct consequences for religious marriage. The NYT‘s formulation is doubly disappointing since, had the Times and other media outlets done a better job of reporting—and, indeed, framing—the issue over the past several years, it might not be necessary for someone like Bloomberg to provide the basic legal and factual framework that is a prerequisite for rational discussion of the issue.

(Update: the paragraph in question seems to have been cut from the online edition of the article after initially appearing on Thursday, May 26.)