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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Suffering Salmon

Click the fish bucket to read my latest column:

-CB

12 comments:

Furbottle said...

This is not a comment on the substance of your salmon article per se. After reading through it though, I did wonder, when you label government scientists as "completely disinterested", is this meant as a poke in the eye to said scientists, or as a big fuzzy hug of appreciation?

The reason I ask is it kind of sounds as though you want it to mean the former, but a "completely disinterested" scientist is actually an enviable creature indeed - an investigator who is impartial, and free of bias. That is what "disinterested" means. Though I am sure very few succeed, scientists generally aspire to a "completely disinterested" approach and the elimination of bias.

A "completely uninterested" scientist, on the other hand, would be another matter entirely. That poor bugger would be indifferent, apathetic, lacking in curiosity; hardly a good set of job qualifications for any scientist.

Though in loose talk you may hear people say "disinterested" when they clearly mean "uninterested", this tends to be proscribed in writing in order to avoid confusion.

I hope my disinterested criticism doesn't lead you to believe I was uninterested in the subtance of your piece. To the contrary, I rather enjoyed it. And by "enjoyed", I of course mean, "was depressed by". This is actually a sense in which I commonly "enjoy" your articles. (As often as not, you might even say.) This is fine as far as it goes, but maybe for a change of pace you could write the next one about fairies and elves and all the cotton candy you can eat?

-Grammar Bunny-

benjibopper said...

I believe though that one definition of 'disinterested' is simply, 'not interested.'

You wouldn't want me to write about fairies. They would probably carry chainsaws and use them indiscriminately.

Furbottle said...

From the Oxford Dictionary of the English language:

"According to traditional guidelines, disinterested should never be used to mean 'not interested' (i.e. it is not a synonym for uninterested) but only to mean 'impartial', as in the judgements of disinterested outsiders are likely to be more useful. Ironically, the earliest recorded sense of disinterested is for the disputed sense." (Emphases in original)

Also, roughly 80 per cent of all citations of disinterested on the British National Corpus are for the 'impartial' sense.

Make of that what you will, but for my money, that means 'disinterested' is simply not 'not interested'. Regardless, in the disinterested interest of clarity in print, 'uninterested' ought to signify lack of interest, and 'disinterested' ought only to signify what it ought to signify.

G.B.

benjibopper said...

Interesting.

From dictionary.com:

Many object to the use of disinterested to mean “not interested, indifferent.” They insist that disinterested can mean only “impartial”: A disinterested observer is the best judge of behavior. However, both senses are well established in all varieties of English, and the sense intended is almost always clear from the context.

Language constantly evolving as it does, and the two words already having flipped, and yin and yang being eternally at play, perhaps a change has a come with respect to 'disinterested.'

Furbottle said...

More interesting is what a stringy, gangling spun-out thread has come to dangle from my initial tiny pinprick point of little consequence.

You sound to be arguing for a semantic shift. On my view, useful distinctions in language tend to persist rather than be elided without reason, and I simply see no evidence to support the idea that a shift is occurring.

Not uninterestingly, the usage note at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disinterested, from which your paste appears to have been cut, provides actual diachronic numerical data that seem to agree with a null hypothesis of no semantic shift:

"In our 2001 survey, 88 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the sentence It is difficult to imagine an approach better designed to prevent disinterested students from developing any intellectual maturity. This is not a significantly different proportion from the 89 percent who disapproved of a similar usage in 1988."

Now, I don't know for sure who comprised the dictionary.com Usage Panel in these particulars, or whether the personnel changed significantly in the 13 years between 1988 to 2001 (one would both hope and expect so), but here – in the only numerical representation of opinion on the webpage – a stable majority of voters (reflecting and reinforcing the descriptive, synchronic usage data I mentioned earlier from the British National Corpus) are simply not interested in the "simply ‘not interested’" sense of disinterested.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, one could always argue that the probably insignificant 1% decline in opposition to ‘not interested’ over 13 years (about -0.08% per annum) represents an actual trend. However, given a decline that was essentially linear, it would take roughly five centuries before the decision were even split. If the decline doubled in speed every 13 years, I’m guessing it would still take us somewhere into the 2070s, by which time I expect we’d both be dead enough to be pretty much completely uninterested, disinterested, or even misunderinterested in the results. Of course, it’s obvious that two data points are not enough to establish any sort of trend, and neither am I arguing that a trend once established, would proceed in such a mathematically simplistic way. I’m just illustrating in advance the absurdity of exegesis from that 1% difference, given the descriptive and prescriptive data at hand and a perfectly good null hypothesis that semantic shift is not in fact occurring at all.

All this reminds me, by the way of a conversation I once was privy to in what was at the time a Dairy Queen in Sackville:


PETER JACKSON: You’d argue a crow white!

DAVID BENJAMIN: Only if you said it was black.

benjibopper said...

dictionary.com's not particularly scientific survey notwithstanding, the use of disinterested in this way seems quite common in conversation and even in print. That, to my eyes, seems to be a shift.

Furbottle said...

1. “[D]ictionary.com's not particularly scientific survey notwithstanding...”

Dude, I am not the one who brought Dictionary.com into this. (Unusual tactic, disputing the sciencey-ness of numerical data from your own citation in support of your argument.) I could ask what you mean by scientific, and how you determined that the Dictionary.com data does not live up to that standard, but I will instead concede the point that, yes, of course the data is not ‘scientific’, strictly defined, (is it then disscientific?) because it was not obtained by controlled experiment. Further, as I mentioned (I suspect in retrospect none-too-clearly) in my previous comment, the data is prescriptive (as opposed to the supporting BNC data, which is descriptive) which – if there was any question - clearly abrogates any notions of it being ‘scientific’.

But, does this in any way invalidate the data? Of course not. Firstly, diachronic observational data can be statistically invaluable; what distinguishes them from experimental data are mainly the kinds of inferences one is able to draw. Further, since language is human behaviour, observational data are very often simply all we have to go on. It may not be ‘particularly scientific’, but I fail to see how that is a problem , as we need not design scientific experiments in order to find evidence of language change.

Secondly, regarding the prescriptive nature of the data specifically, my understanding of the Diction ary.com Usage Panel is that... that is its purpose. Not descriptive; not meant to be. A panel of 200 (that’s a good-sized sample) of prominent novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, literary critics, columnists, commentators, linguists, and cognitive scientists are asked to answer in specific examples how they think Standard English should work. Think of it as an English Language Supreme Court. The lack of your interpretation gaining any significant ground over a thirteen-year span among all these language smarty-pantses would seem not to favour your hypothesis.

2. "the use of disinterested in this way seems quite common in conversation and even in print. That, to my eyes, seems to be a shift."

Put another way, the misuse of ‘disinterested’ – and a plethora of other words – is quite common in both conversation and print. ‘Non-standard’, ‘error’, or even ‘malapropism’ would be more suitable words than ‘shift’.

benjibopper said...

Not if it happens repeatedly in the same way.

If I say 'I hate a sandwich' when I mean 'I ate a sandwich' that might be malapropism but if a large number of people start misusing the same word in the same way, it's meaning can actually change.

The fact that my article was likely read by thousands and only one person bothered to point out the misuse of disinterested, might indicate that people accept the meaning I intended (possibly based on the context in which I used it). More importantly, the fact that disinterested is now commonly used interchangably with uninterested, and that people accept that usage and understand it, indicates a possible shift.

Furbottle said...

Not if it happens repeatedly in the same way.

Wrong. People repeatedly use “effect“ when they mean “affect“, “averse“ when they mean “adverse“, “exacerbate“ when they mean “exasperate“, “literally“ when they mean ““figuratively“, “complimentary“ when they mean “complementary“, “mitigate“ when they mean ““aggravate“, “insure“ when they mean “ensure“, “continuous“ when they mean “continual“, “flaunt“ when they mean “flout“… ad libitum, ad nauseam. I accept that these confusions between similar-yet-different words are common, and that they are patterned, and that they are repeated; and repeated; and repeated. You’ll get no argument there. They are also all wrong.

If I say ‘I hate a sandwich' when I mean 'I ate a sandwich' that might be malapropism

Not really. Malapropisms are lexical selection errors and they don’t typically occur for such common concrete monosyllables. They do tend to occur with more abstract conceptual (and more polysyllabic) lexical items. What you’re describing is more likely a simple phonological insertion, a form of sequencing error, though without more of a context I couldn’t guess the specifics. [Not strictly relevant, but I wanted to clear that up.]

but if a large number of people start misusing the same word in the same way, it's meaning can actually change. […”it’s” when they mean “its“…]

The central part of that statement is if. If there are a large number of people misusing a given word, say “disinterested“, such that general opinion – including general expert opinion – changes accordingly, I concede your point. My own point remains that there is no evidence of this in the data we’ve looked at, either in general behaviour (only about 20% of the uses of “disinterested“ in the aforementioned corpus data – which incorporate mistakes and Non-standard English usage by design – agree with your interpretation), or in expert opinion (only 12~13% agree with such an interpretation). Further, that majority did not shift visibly over a period of 13 years. This being the case, who comprises this “large number of people“ of which you speak?

The fact that my article was likely read by thousands and only one person bothered to point out the misuse of disinterested, might indicate that people accept the meaning I intended (possibly based on the context in which I used it).

I’m curious: what percentage of comments from your thousands of loyal Coast readers regularly concern the English of your articles? Including me, what is the percentage for this article? Noticeably higher than usual? Noticeably lower? About the same? I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’ve even bothered to comment on the English of any Coast article myself (with good reason – that would keep your average word nerd busy 24/7), and I actually read nearly all your articles. The only reason I commented on the English in this one is because the apparent blasting of scientists for being ‘disinterested’ tickled me humerus.

Your hypothesis, by the way, is a variation on the classic argumentum ex silentio; do be careful what inferences you draw from mere silence. On the other hand, if you begin to receive unsolicited bags of mail from fellow journalists commending you on your fine use of ‘disinterested’, let me know and I’ll surrender the point.

More importantly, the fact that disinterested is now commonly used interchangably with uninterested,

That fact ain’t no fact at all! Rather it is the quod erat demonstrandum of the discussion, and it remains to be seen. Please see… everything I have written on this subject so far.

and that people accept that usage and understand it, indicates a possible shift..

Not round here, they don’t. But, boy howdy, that’s your story and you’re stickin’ to it!

benjibopper said...

Going back to your original post, you wrote:

"Though in loose talk you may hear people say "disinterested" when they clearly mean "uninterested","

Yes I do hear that, all the time. And I've never heard or seen anyone object until now.

According to at least one dictionary, that usage is wrong.

According to at least one other dictionary, "both senses are well established in all varieties of English."

According to my own experiences in conversation and in writing, the latter dictionary is correct that "both senses are well established in all varieties of English." In my experience people commonly use, and understand, disinterested and uninterested in the same way.

You don't accept that, but in my experience most people do.

Furbottle said...

Yes I do hear that, all the time. And I've never heard or seen anyone object until now.

The point that I have tried, and apparently failed, to make was that in print there is a higher standard of Standard English, and there the usage is generally proscribed. Nothing we've looked at so far has swayed me otherwise, including (I'm sorry to say) your 'experience'.

According to at least one other dictionary, "both senses are well established in all varieties of English."

The point I have tried, and apparently failed, to make is that Dictionary.com's assertion is not supported by its own data.

In my experience people commonly use, and understand, disinterested and uninterested in the same way.

This is not in dispute. (See the first paragraph of my previous comment.)

-Bunny-

benjibopper said...

I take your point, and to some extent I agree.

But, the written word has also changed, or that is to say its standards have changed. Lowered even. While I try to be clear in my writing (especially if it's being published), I also try to use a fairly conversational tone - hence occasional imperfect grammar I suppose. But I think this style can be quite readable and entertaining, as well as informative. And that is in line with The Coast's philosophy. Occasional proofreading slips aside I think they do a pretty good job of it.

I'm sorry if I confused anyone with my use of disinterested, but truthfully I think, as dictionary.com alluded to, you could probably tell the meaning from the context, if not from having heard disinterested used that way many a time in conversation.