Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


Suitable and common

A recently publicized dispute in Oak Park, Mich., pits a homeowner who has planted a vegetable garden in her front yard against her neighbors and the city (which initially dug up the spot in question for sewer repairs). City code stipulates that front-yard vegetation consist of “suitable live plant material”. The city’s Technical and Planning Director maintains that “suitable means common”, and, citing the fact that front-yard vegetable gardens are uncommon in Oak Park, finds the homeowner in violation of city code. The homeowner and the city have vowed to fight the matter out in court, with the homeowner facing up to 93 days in jail if convicted.

The city’s position apparently rests on the claim that suitable and common are near-synonyms. In fact, it is a simple and instructive exercise in linguistic semantics to show that suitable and common have markedly different meanings. The point can be demonstrated in at least two ways: by considering the basic truth conditions of the adjectives, and by considering the different ways in which their meanings involve judgment or opinion.

First, the basics: suitable and common fail the most fundamental test for synonymy. It is possible for something to be suitable without being common, and vice versa. To illustrate, imagine two different kinds of front-yard vegetation: (i) a rare and exotic varietal of grass, and (ii) dandelions. The special grass requires less water than ordinary grass but is otherwise indistinguishable from it; it is non-invasive, carries no exotic plant illnesses, etc. Dandelions are just ordinary dandelions, provoking the standard prescriptivist lawn-care anxiety and ire. Now assume, for the sake of argument, that just one home in Oak Park has the special grass, but that 35% of the city’s homes have dandelions in their front yards. In this scenario, we would say that the special grass is suitable but not common; conversely, we would say that dandelions are common (assuming that 35% saturation meets the relevant threshold; if not, adjust it upward as you see fit) but not suitable. Clearly, then, suitable and common have different truth conditions: they make different claims about what the world must be like in order for a sentence containing them to be true.

Beyond this basic truth-conditional difference, the meaning of suitable depends on personal judgment and opinion in a way that the meaning of common does not. To be sure, some opinion is required in the ordinary (or, in linguistic terminology, “positive”) use of common: as alluded to above, speakers may disagree on just how widespread something must be in order to count as common. But this is a very different sort of disagreement from that involved in the use of suitable. To see this, we must look at these adjectives’ behavior in the comparative degree. Though speakers’ opinions may vary about what counts as common, statements of relative commonness should be stable across speakers. Imagine as above that 35% of front yards have dandelions; now imagine that John believes that something counts as common if it is found in a third of the city’s front yards, but Mary believes that it must be found in at least half of the city’s front yards to count as common. In this scenario, John will judge dandelions to be common in Oak Park, and Mary will not. But they will both agree that dandelions are more common than the special grass. Unlike plain commonness, relative commonness does not require the speaker to have a particular subjective threshold in mind; rather, it involves an objective comparison. The same cannot be said for suitable. Even in the comparative degree, judgments will vary across speakers: since suitability is fundamentally a matter of personal judgment and opinion, people can disagree about whether one thing is more suitable for a particular purpose than another. Informally speaking, common is subjective, but more common is objective; by contrast, suitable is subjective, and more suitable is also subjective.

All of this is not to say that there isn’t a grain of truth in the city’s argument. In a law-abiding society, things that are unsuitable will be uncommon. And, on one reading of the sentence, things that are suitable will be common. Crucially, though, this means that one will commonly encounter things that are suitable; as I have attempted to illustrate above, it does not necessarily mean that all suitable things will be common. Unfortunately, specious linguistic arguments like those offered by the city of Oak Park, though not suitable, are all too common.

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Scaling up

In a recent series of articles, Christine MacDonald of the Detroit News has reported on the distressed finances of the Detroit Public Library system, taking a dim view of spending on salaries and perks for senior staff, contracts issued to relatives of administrators, failed fundraising campaigns, large raises for union workers, catering, business cards, and other items at a time when library leaders are contemplating extensive layoffs and branch closures in order to erase a budget deficit of approximately $11 million. Special scorn, however, has been reserved for the recently completed renovation of a wing of the library’s main branch: MacDonald has repeatedly indulged in a morbidly gleeful inventorying of the wing’s furniture, including 20 new chairs and eight new trash cans that cost about $1,100 apiece.

MacDonald’s reporting is fixed squarely within the frame of waste: library leaders, entrusted with public money in a time of economic distress, have spent recklessly on items of little or no value to the public. To be sure, MacDonald’s articles have detailed incidents of nepotism and general financial mismanagement. Viewed in this frame, however, any expenditure at all comes to be seen as a waste. The main branch renovation stands out from the other items MacDonald describes as the only one that can be considered a public asset, something of value to, and accessible to, everyone who comes into contact with the library. As something with a genuine upside, it fits least naturally into the frame of waste.

It is perhaps for this reason that MacDonald expends extra rhetorical energy framing the renovation as a waste of money. Of particular interest is her use of the scalar focus particle even:

Detroit Public Library officials say finances have grown so bad they could close most neighborhood branches, but in a few weeks plan to unveil a revamped wing of a main library that even administrators say spares few expenses.
(Critics: $2.3M Detroit library project a symbol of waste amid budget crisis, Detroit News, Apr. 22, 2011)

The library didn’t buy the 20 chairs from Gingell. But even administrators say the purchase was a mistake.
(Library users deserve $1K chairs, firm rep says, Detroit News, Apr. 26, 2011)

Unions and even some commissioners contend the library wasted money on a $2.3 million renovation of the Main Library’s South Wing that includes 20 European-designed chairs that cost $1,100 apiece, eight stainless steel trash cans that cost $1,110 each and two fireplaces that ran $5,000 a pop.
(Library pays $6,500 for business cards for all, Detroit News, May 5, 2011)

Even associates with focus; in all three cases above, it is prefixed to a focused noun phrase (administrators in the first two examples, some commissioners in the third). While linguists differ on the particulars of the analysis of even, there is general agreement that it invokes a set of alternatives ordered along a scale. Roughly speaking, even says that the proposition expressed is less likely than other relevant alternatives. At the same time, it asserts the truth of this unlikely proposition, leaving us to infer that all of the more likely alternatives are true as well.

To take an example from above, relevant alternatives to the proposition Administrators say the purchase was a mistake might include Library staff say the purchase was a mistake, Library patrons say the purchase was a mistake, City officials say the purchase was a mistake, Local taxpayers say the purchase was a mistake, and so on. The key implication is that administrators are relatively unlikely to view the purchase as a mistake. Perhaps this is because they were the ones who made the purchase; perhaps it is because they are wasteful by nature. Even leaves us to imagine our own reasons for why administrators would be unlikely to look unfavorably upon the purchase; but its use requires that we accept that basic premise and invent a reason, whatever it may be.

With our reason in mind and the unlikelihood premise accepted, we are led to infer that everyone else (and thus we) must believe the purchase to be a mistake, too. Even the administrators admit as much! The logic of scalar inference introduced by even is subtle but powerful. In this case, it serves to mask the fact that, once we step away from MacDonald’s rhetorical frame, the wastefulness of the main branch renovation is not self-evident. Viewed through other frames, such as those of investment or revival, the renovation takes on a different cast altogether. From the financial dysfunction of the Detroit Public Library administration, a truly lovely new public asset has emerged. That’s something that even the Detroit News should be able to appreciate.