Epistemological populism in linguistics

Dec 13, 2010 by

In his recent Geocurrents posting about the Mercator projection, Martin Lewis talks about “epistemological populism”, the approach that “equates truth with popularity” (for example, proponents of this approach “embrace the Mercator projection for general purposes essentially because it is widely embraced”). Lewis writes:

“It is difficult to imagine its claims being made so boldly in fields other than geography. When it comes to geography, however, lower standards often apply.”

I am afraid I must disagree: linguistics is another field where “epistemological populism” is very… popular. Here’s how Geoffrey Pullum, who I agree with completely on this, summarizes the problems with the current state of language/grammar education:

“Try to imagine biological education being in a state where students are taught that whales are fish because that is judged easier for them to grasp; where teachers disapprove of tomatoes and teach that they are poisonous (and evidence about their nutritional value is dismissed as irrelevant); where educated people accuse biologists of “lowering standards” if they don’t go along with popular beliefs. This is a rough analog of where English grammar finds itself today. The state of relations between the subject as taught by the public and the subject as understood by specialists is nothing short of disastrous…”

Take, for example, Pullum’s first claim that teachers of grammar often teach that “whales are fish because that is judged easier for [students] to grasp”. Ease-of-understanding must be the reason for the telling students that sentences like I consider him immoral or They elected him president contain an object complement. According to most popular definitions, “object complements are adjectives or noun phrases that describe or refer back to the direct object” (this definition is cited from Lynn M. Berk’s English Syntax. From Word to Discourse (1999; Oxford University Press; p. 49). According to this terminology and analysis, immoral and president are object complements, with him in both sentences being the direct object.

But although this analysis may be “easy to grasp”, it is far from being logical. This definition (and the ones like it, unavoidable for “object complements”) equate “object complements” with modifiers, which too “describe or refer back to the direct object”. For example, on one interpretation of James Bond killed the spy with a gun the prepositional phrase with a gun “describes the direct object” the spy (on the other, irrelevant for us here, interpretation with a gun “describes” the verb phrase, i.e., describes how the killing was done).

Yet, despite the surface similarity, there is a big difference between true modifiers like with a gun in James Bond killed the spy with a gun and “object complements” such as drunk in James Bond found the spy drunk. Sentences with modifiers entail their counterparts without whereas sentences with “object complements” sometimes allow similar entailments and other times they don’t. For example, James Bond killed the spy with a gun entails that James Bond killed the spy (if A entails B, the truth of A necessitates the truth of B; in other words, there is no possible situation in which A is true but B is false).

In contrast, sentences with “object complements” do not always entail their counterparts without them. For example, I found the keys missing does not entail I found the keys. In fact, quite the opposite relation obtains between these sentences: the truth of I found the keys missing necessitates the falsity of I found the keys.

Another way to show that the putative direct objects in sentences with “object complements” are not really direct objects is that semantic restrictions applying to direct objects do not always apply in such sentences. For example, the verb to prove can take a direct object which is an abstract concept, hypothesis, idea — not a concrete individual. You can prove your point or prove a theorem, but you cannot prove Tom, Dick and Harry. Yet, you can prove Tom innocent! If innocent is an “object complement”, in accordance with the school-grammar analysis, then Tom must be the direct object. But it cannot be, since prove cannot take a direct object like Tom — what a conundrum!

The problem we’ve identified with the found the keys missing example above suggest a possible solution. After all, what I found when I found the keys missing is not the keys (the direct object), but the situation or state of affairs “the keys missing”. You can paraphrase the sentence with the “object complement” as having an infinitive form of the verb to be (I found the keys to be missing) or even as having a finite embedded clause (I found that the keys were missing). So most linguist today believe that the sentence I found the keys missing contails a small clause, that is a sentence-within-sentence which does not contain a verb. That is, rather than analyzing our sentence as I found [the keys] [missing], we now think that the “direct object” of the verb found is this mini-sentence [the keys missing].

This analysis also allows us to resolve the proved Tom conundrum. Properly analyzed, this sentence contains not the direct object Tom, but the direct object Tom innocent. This mini-sentence describes the state of affairs that is being proven. And a state of affairs is exactly the kind of abstract thing that one can prove.

Is this any more difficult to grasp than the school-grammar notion of “object complement”? You be the judge of that!

(Note that the above sentence contains no finite verb, something school-grammar teaching tells us is wrong, but that’s a tomatoes-being-poisonous kind of problem, something we will consider in the following posting.)

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