Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Comparative ellipsis: more misleading

In today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Guy Boulton writes:

People who are young, healthy and have good jobs that don’t provide health benefits will pay more for health insurance under federal health care reform.

People who are older, or have health problems, will pay less. So will those who work in low-paying jobs and buy insurance on their own.

At the same time, the number of people without health insurance in Wisconsin would drop by 340,000 by 2016.

Let’s set aside Boulton’s needless and debatable inclusion of the adjective good as a modifier of jobs that carry no health care benefits, as well as his decision to employ a double negative (without and drop) in order to convey a net gain of 340,000 insured Wisconsinites. What is particularly interesting—and misleading—about Boulton’s prose is the way in which it establishes a contrast between two comparative noun phrases whose than clauses have been elided.

The basic function of a than clause is to make a standard of comparison linguistically explicit. If you say I pay more than Bob does, the clause than Bob does provides the standard of comparison (namely, the amount that Bob pays) for the comparative term more, which in turn tells you that the amount you (the subject) pay is higher than that standard. When no standard of comparison is overtly indicated in the sentence, we are free to recover one from context.

In Boulton’s first paragraph, the subject matter of the article and the prepositional phrase under federal health care reform lead the reader to infer that the standard of comparison associated with pay more for health insurance should be something like than they pay now, prior to health care reform. That is, despite the absence of an overt than clause to provide full clarity, we can safely assume that the intended comparison is between what the young and healthy will pay post-reform and what they pay pre-reform.

In the second paragraph, things get murkier. The grammatical parallelism between the first two paragraphs might be taken to indicate that the standard of comparison here is just like the one above, but with the subjects changed accordingly (in linguistic terms, a case of sloppy identity under ellipsis): i.e., the standard would be the amount that those who are older or have health problems pay prior to health care reform. On the other hand, the first paragraph has now provided us with another salient possible antecedent for the standard of comparison: the amount that the young and healthy will pay after the implementation of health care reform. On this second reading of the sentence, the comparison is between what the old and unhealthy will pay post-reform and what the young and healthy will pay post-reform. In the absence of a than clause to point the way, the reader is free to choose either interpretive path.

The second reading makes the controversial, and untrue, claim that the old and unhealthy will in general pay less for health care than the young and healthy under health care reform. The report referenced (but not linked to) in Boulton’s article is freely available online; see in particular tables 16 and 17 on p. 27, which show that, according to the authors’ projections, even those “winners” in health care reform age 50 and over will still pay more than “losers” in their 20’s, that “winners” age 60 and over will pay more than “losers” in their 20’s or 30’s, and so on, to say nothing of the fact that there are “winners” and “losers” in all age brackets. A quick perusal of the Journal-Sentinel‘s comments section (not recommended under any circumstances) reveals that this second reading of the comparative in Boulton’s second paragraph, though false, is readily available for many readers, with predictable effect on the tone and ideological bent of discussion.

Perhaps Boulton can be absolved of the sin of journalistic bias in favor of the lesser sin of journalistic laziness: the jaundiced eye he casts on health care reform is only slightly less unblinking than that of the tendentiously named Wisconsin Office of Free Market Health Care (created by Scott Walker in early 2011), the state agency that commissioned the report in question. Indeed, the broad outlines of Boulton’s article largely follow those of the Office’s press release. Though Boulton thankfully eschews the Office’s use of boldface for the details it finds most dreadful, he also drops the scare-quotes that the report’s authors had dutifully included around the terms “winners” and “losers”, in an apparent attempt to mine some deep social meaning from the jargon of academic economists. Whatever its root cause, the rhetorical slipperiness of Boulton’s elided than clauses does his readers a major disservice. We should expect more.

Facts and theories

In Salon today, Michael Lind writes:

…two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination debated whether it is a fact or a theory that humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons descend from a common ancestor.

Lind’s phrasing illustrates the perils of not attending to the distinction between the popular understanding of the word theory and its scientific and philosophical meaning. In the excerpt above, Lind perhaps unwittingly echoes the anti-scientific right in using theory pejoratively, as a term of abuse, even as he attempts to discuss its application to scientific reasoning. Failure to identify and insist on the distinction between the two meanings, whether through ignorance, carelessness, or deliberate conflation, only more deeply entrenches the anti-scientific rhetoric that is so prevalent in American politics.

Theories are attempts to form a coherent and systematic understanding of disparate facts. Facts are inert; theories are useful. Almost anything that you understand or believe is based on some theory or other. Imagine, as social scientists like to do, that you are in a prehistoric jungle. Your companion eats the fruit of a tree and dies. You might sensibly conclude that, if you ate the same fruit, you would also die. But that is just a theory, not a fact. The only fact at our disposal is that the companion died after eating the fruit.

To take a more interesting example, consider gravity. It is hard to imagine any serious contemporary politician disputing the theory of gravity. But gravity is just a theory. To be sure, it is an extremely good theory: it relates such disparate phenomena as the fact that you don’t float off the ground, the fact that the moon and planets follow the particular paths that they do in the night sky, the fact that our communications satellites stay in the positions we expect them to so we can talk to our friends in faraway places while we watch Andy Reid waste timeouts on another coast, and so on. But it is still just a theory; it has, as Rick Perry might put it, some gaps. It is perfectly conceivable that the theory of gravity may at some point be supplanted by a better and more comprehensive theory (indeed, this has been a major project of theoretical physics for decades), and that future generations might look back at us and say, “Can you imagine? They believed in gravity!”

Appreciating the distinction between facts and theories is central to any rational discussion of science, in politics or elsewhere. Lind asks whether the descent of the great apes from a common ancestor is a fact or a theory, but this is a category mistake. The relevant facts include the existence of the various hominids and hominid fossils, the details of their genetic code, and so on. Any hypothesis, positive or negative, about their relationship now or in the past is a theory. Indeed, the conviction that we come from somewhere, that things happened before the start of recorded history, is a theory. It may be a theory with no plausible alternative—i.e., a very elegant and compelling theory—but it is a theory all the same. If journalists and public intellectuals paid more careful attention to the very different senses of the word theory in popular and scientific usage, politicians and others might have more trouble dressing up anti-scientific rhetoric in respectable lexical clothing.

Job creators (or, derivational morphology and its discontents)

One notable linguistic consequence of this summer’s economic debate has been the rise of the term job creators, which has become a fixture of conservative talking points on the economy. While there is no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the term itself—its implicitly exclusive focus on private-sector employment, its espousal of trickle-down economics, its use as a euphemism for the wealthy and as an ideological cudgel in the debate on government revenues, etc.—perhaps its most pernicious property is the way in which it artificially narrows our attention when we talk about unemployment. Job creators, with its agentive -or suffix, seeks to answer the question of who adds jobs to the economy. Left unasked are the crucial questions of when and why jobs are added.

This obfuscation is a problem for anyone who is genuinely concerned about unemployment. Even if one concedes the point that wealthy individuals and private-sector companies are primarily responsible for job growth, policy makers must seek to understand when and why those people and companies hire new workers. As Paul Krugman has repeatedly argued, it’s not for lack of cash on hand. Yet the term job creators unhelpfully implies that any remedy must be directed toward those who do the hiring. Even commentators who question the term’s premises can be constrained in their analysis by its morphological makeup: for example, John Paul Rollert suggests this week that we are simply focusing on the wrong who.

English lacks derivational morphemes that indicate the when and why of a given situation or event. That is, when and why have no morphological counterpart to who‘s -or suffix; instead, we have awkward noun compounds like job creation conditions and hiring reasons. The morphological facts are mirrored in the syntax of English: subjects are obligatory in English sentences, but adverbial phrases indicating time and reason are optional and can be freely omitted. Informally speaking, we might say that the language makes it easier to talk about agents than about times, reasons, and conditions. This is where grammar and rhetoric part ways: while the grammar of English does nothing to prevent us from asking about the when and why of job creation, the morphologically ready-made job creators distracts our attention from them with each repetition.