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.)

Non-distributive instrumental coordination

From this evening’s Detroit News coverage of Rick Snyder’s tax proposal, which was passed by the Michigan legislature today:

The tax reform is part of Snyder’s plan to close a $1.4 billion budget deficit. He’s doing so by cutting department budgets, eliminating business and personal tax credits, adding a new tax on pensions and cutting business taxes.

Four gerundial clauses—beginning with cutting, eliminating, adding, and (again) cutting—form a coordinated complement to the preposition by. This large by-phrase serves as an instrumental adverbial, indicating the means by which the budget deficit is to be closed. In coordinated instrumentals like this, the instrumental interpretation is typically distributed over all the conjuncts. Each coordinated gerundial clause in the excerpt above should thus name a different contribution to the closing of the deficit; and indeed, the first three all name different means of reducing government expenditures or increasing government revenues. The clear outlier here is the fourth gerundial clause, cutting business taxes: politics aside, it is a brute fact of mathematics that cutting taxes cannot be a proximate contributor to deficit reduction.

What we have in the excerpt above is thus a complex coordinated instrumental by-phrase whose instrumental semantics is not distributed over all the conjuncts. Rather, the instrumental semantics can only be understood to apply to the entire phrase; the sentence will end up true if and only if the deficit reducers in the first three conjuncts collectively outweigh the deficit aggravator in the fourth. To paraphrase: ‘Snyder is doing the following four things, which are collectively meant to close a $1.4 billion budget deficit.’

In practice, there is a strong semantic garden-path effect here. The instinct to interpret the instrumental meaning distributively over all conjuncts is deeply ingrained; we retreat to the non-distributive interpretation only after stumbling over the final conjunct. Less charitably, we might admonish the News for engaging in rhetorical sleight-of-hand, inviting its readers to infer that cutting business taxes has a near-term budgetary effect akin to that of, e.g., instituting a tax on pensions. The grammatical parallelism further serves to mask a yawning affective gap between the first three conjuncts’ impact on the immediately affected parties and the fourth conjunct’s impact on businesses; the disparity between the two instances of cutting serves this same purpose. Long coordinated phrases can be hard to keep track of, and correspondingly easy to slip things into.