First and bests

Teaser on the front page of today’s NYT, pointing to a quotation from A.O. Scott’s review (inside the paper) of the movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon, saying that the movie

is by far the best 3-D sequel ever made about gigantic toys from outer space.

Three restrictors to the encomium: 3-D, sequel, and about gigantic toys from outer space. Praise, but relative praise.

Half a century ago, when I worked on the Reading Eagle (in Reading PA), our aviation editor — he had lots of beats and was mostly the County Editor, but aviation was one of them — once showed off, to the whole newsroom, a press release he’d just gotten (in the hope that he’d turn it into a story in the paper), about, very roughly:

the first non-stop west-to-east transcontinental flight by two women in a light plane

He was somewhere between amusement and rage at the specificity of the thing. As I recall, the editor just above him gave him permission to toss the thing (although several of us observed that many sports records weren’t far from this). On the other hand, the women were landing close to Reading (having started, I think, from Santa Ana); so, I think, he wrote a tiny piece anyway.

Then there was the linguist Roman Jakobson, who was famous for never giving anyone a bad letter of recommendation (for hiring, tenure, promotion, grants, whatever). Everyone he wrote for was the best. Of something. To interpret his letters, you had to read the restrictors very carefully. So I got to see things like — invented example:

He is the best Bulgarian scholar of Mycenean metrics in the past two decades.

Contrast this with, say:

He is the best theoretical historical linguist of the 20th century.

(This is invented, but not far from the original.) Roman said the most positive thing he was able to say, and he didn’t write letters for people he couldn’t in good conscience recommend, but he did make discriminations via reference classes.

Pragmatics in action.


3 Responses to “First and bests”

  1. maxvasilatos Says:

    I take this as excellent, useful advice

    • J. Levin Says:

      It is certainly the best advice ever presented this month on a linguistics blog posted to Facebook.

  2. Marc Chagall « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] am reminded of the Roman Jacobson letter-of-recommendation story I told here a few months ago (here). Roman wrote glowing letters, with best and greatest and the like deployed throughout — but […]

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