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.


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