More egotism

When you’re confronted with a variant that’s unfamiliar to you, especially if it puzzles you, you’re likely to reason that if you said it or wrote it, it would be an inadvertent error of some kind, so that when other people say or write it, it’s just a slip of the tongue or pen. This is what I’ve called grammatical egotism, and it’s entirely natural — but the reasoning is perniciously invalid. You might be looking at an inadvertent error, but you might just be looking at a variety of the language (possibly a non-standard variety) different from your own.

(Read about the phenomenon here, in a posting I’m not likely to improve on, with a follow-up here.)

I’m returning to the topic because of a comment from Ron Butters on ADS-L (August 14) about an instance of “reversed substitute” —

[reversed] substitute OLD for NEW

instead of the older (and still standard) argument structure

[standard] substitute NEW for OLD

(with “encroached substitute” —

[encroached] substitute OLD with/by NEW

as an intermediate stage — discussion of the three variants here):

… it does not seem at all clear that the “substitution reversal” in the passage [Fox News reports that workers at the Ground Zero site have been getting drunk on their lunch hour, “taking lunchtime at the local pub, substituting food for shots and suds!”] represents a belief on the part of people at Fox News that “substitute” functions syntactically like “replace.” The reversal is very much in the manner of a slip of the tongue, and (as I noted earlier) there is no reason to believe that hearers would not pretty much subconsciously interpret the utterance in the sense that was intended, rather than the nonsensical reading that gives JL nightmares. Maybe the alternative is worth some consideration, though I imagine that Arnold has given it some thought.

Yes, it’s possible that any particular instance of reversed substitute is an inadvertent error, just as it’s possible that any particular instance of “double negation” is an inadvertent error: if I didn’t see no one comes from me, and I’m not mimicking or quoting the non-standard usage, then it’s probably an inadvertent blend of I didn’t see anyone and I saw no one — and if I notice it, I’ll correct it.

But it seems clear that almost all examples of reversed substitute are like almost all occurrences of double negation; people are saying or writing exactly what they intend to. In fact, I’ve yet to come across someone self-“correcting” a reversed substitute to the standard NEW for OLD variant (though self-corrections of slips are common). And when I’ve been able to ask people about a reversed substitute, they don’t see the issue, though they might note that people sometimes use another variant.

On top of that, reversed substitute is now reasonably common and apparently spreading.

It doesn’t even seem to be the case that reversed substitute originated in inadvertent errors, which then spread.

Such things do happen, but less often than you might think. Usually, it turns out that the innovation has something going for it that would motivate its (unconscious) invention. As in this case: encroached substitute, which has a fairly long history, puts OLD before NEW in the argument structure, thus providing a syntactic structure that mirrors the favored information structure (and it makes the OLD argument the direct, rather than the oblique, object, so that it’s more tightly associated with the verb syntactically, and perhaps pragmatically as well) — and reversed substitute reproduces these features.

(Reversed substitute seems to have originated in British sports reporting, where the OLD-before-NEW order was especially effective. I know, you say, why not just use replace OLD with/by NEW? That was certainly possible, and in was used, but it seems that the vocabulary of bringing new players into positions favored substitution as the relevant category label, so substitute was the verb to use. People don’t reason these things out explicitly, or argue the merits of the alternatives, but forge ahead, trying to balance their communicative goals as best they can. They’re too busy saying things to reflect on why they say what they do.)

In all of this, what you do not want to do is say is that if some instances of a phenomenon are inadvertent errors (or non-native-speaker errors or whatever), then they all are. That would be false Occamism. The very same bits of behavior can arise from several different sources (just as the very same symptoms can accompany several different medical conditions), after all.

One Response to “More egotism”

  1. Reversed blame « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (B’) would be a blame counterpart to “reversed substitute” (on which, see here and here). […]

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