Complex reversal: confuse

From the weekly report (10/5/12) of the Bowman International School in Palo Alto, this note from a student in room 5:

The sand tiger shark lives near the shore. Sometimes they [sand tiger sharks] confuse surfers for seals and attack them.

This is certainly non-standard, but there are two distinct possible sources of the problem:

the choice of verb: confuse rather than, say, take or mistake (mistake surfers for seals); or

the choice of preposition: for rather than with (confuse surfers with seals)

What remains constant in all the examples so far is the assignment of participant roles (which I’ll refer to as RIGHT and WRONG, indicating correct and incorrect identification, respectively) to non-subject syntactic arguments (direct object and oblique object); all fit the template for “misidentification verbs”:

V  DirObj:RIGHT  P  OblObj:WRONG

That is, the sharks are confronted with surfers (RIGHT), but perceive them as seals (WRONG), whether the event is packaged syntactically as (A) mistake surfers for seals, (B) confuse surfers with seals, or (C) confuse surfers for seals.

C-type examples (with a V of type A and the P of type B) are by no means rare, and there’s more to come.

Type C examples came up on ADS-L back in August 2007, when Larry Horn caught the following in the NYT Book Review of Books (“Family Blessings”, on Mary Gordon’s memoir, by Darcey Steinke):

[referring to one of Gordon’s aunts] Lilian is the only good aunt; known as a “featherhead,” a beautician who dyes her hair and uses chrome cocktail shakers and cigarette holders. When Kennedy is assassinated she confuses him for Jack Lemmon. “I was wondering whey everyone was so upset,” she says. (p. 10)

Larry briefly considered the possibility that this example was an inadvertent error, an error in language production in which the patterns of A and B are inadvertently blended. But the number of type C examples — roughly 2500 raw hits just for {“confuses it for”}, some in edited prose — is too great to make that idea plausible. Larry’s collection included:

If the hat is black, the Simpsonizer probably confuses it for your hair.

Holy Mother Church has divined the “ends,” the “final be-cause,” from Aristotle’s physis, and confuses it for Aristotle’s instrumental reasoning…

the chocolate is mixed by waterfall (though it is less appealing after one of the parents confuses it for raw sewage)

The Japanese girl believes that what it is that she wants is sex, confuses it for love…

What we’re seeing here, then, is the extension of the A pattern (with the P for) to at least one verb (confuse) originally from the B pattern. For the record, the opposite innovation — extending the B pattern (with the P with) to at least one verb (mistake) originally from the A pattern — is reasonably well attested, but not nearly as impressively as confuse for:

Be Provocative — But Don’t Mistake it with Bad Behavior (link)

Budweiser Budvar – the original Budvar, be careful not to mistake it with the American “Bud”! (link)

You may mistake it with a techinque called shield cancelling. (link)

These new patterns fall in with other cases of alternation between Ps in various constructions: different from/to/than, at risk for/of (here), new lease of/on life (here), plus a great many Ps selected by Vs, for example in V to/toward(s), for cater, pander, and cotton (here).

Now, back to misidentification verbs in general: those of type A (take, mistake), standardly taking for, and those of type B (confuse, mix up), standardly taking with. From my files, some typical (RIGHT, WRONG) pairs for type A:

(landmine, frisbee), (ribaldry, humor), (the acolyte, the high priest), (him, Rafael Nidal), (hemlock, parsley), (notoriety, fame), (kindness, weakness)

and for type B:

(dissent, disloyalty), (accidentals, essentials), (correlation, cause and effect), (jingoism, patriotism), (activity, productivity), (assertiveness, aggression)

Further relevant facts: type B verbs allow coordinate objects with a misidentification interpretation (don’t confuse dissent and disloyalty), while type A verbs don’t easily do so (??don’t mistake dissent and disloyalty); and coordinate objects with a misidentification interpretation, like coordinate objects in general, can occur in either order (don’t confuse disloyalty and dissent).

I speculate that the symmetry of coordinate objects promotes the possibility of a symmetric interpretation for the objects of type B verbs. And, in fact, these verbs sometimes occur with RIGHT and WRONG reversed: confuse cause and effect with correlation alongside confuse correlation with cause and effect. In a famous quotation (on See It Now, 3/9/54, reporting on Sen. Joseph McCarthy), Edward R. Murrow cautioned, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”, but he is variously quoted as having said “We must not confuse dissent for disloyalty” (with for) and “We must not confuse disloyalty with dissent” (with RIGHT and WRONG reversed), as well as the coordinate “We must not confuse dissent and disloyalty” and “We must not confuse disloyalty and dissent”.

A further speculatiom is that for was imported from the mistake pattern (A) to mark the status of the two objects of confuse more clearly.

In any case, the developments for confuse involve choosing a P and, more generally, choosing an argument structure (as in the case of blame, with its alternation between blame SOURCE / CAUSE for RESULTANT / CAUSED SITUATION and blame RESULTANT / CAUSED SITUATION on SOURCE / CAUSE — see here). And then a connection to reversals: simple semantic reversals (for example, benefactor/beneficiary, ancestor/descendant, here) and argument-structure reversals (for substitute and blame, for example, here),

One Response to “Complex reversal: confuse”

  1. the ridger Says:

    I’ve actually seen this so often it no longer confuses me (hee hee). Seriously, the first time I ran across it I was startled, but now I hardly notice it.

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