The One Big Happy cartoon from 11/26, just up in my feed:

Crucial fact: if the question had been “Are you decisive?”, Ruthie’s answer would have been different: “I don’t know — because I don’t know what that means”. Instead, the question was linguified — it was about what Ruthie would say about her decisiveness, not directly about her decisiveness. So she answered that question.

Linguification. The term is due to Geoff Pullum, in a Language Log posting of 7/3/06, “Linguifying”, where he wrote:

To linguify a claim about things in the world is to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate.

An example, from Geoff’s posting:

It’s difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word ‘bisexual’ without finding that it is immediately followed by the word ‘chic’.

Of which Geoff says:

Instead of talking about mainstream media attitudes, [the writer] linguified the claim, constructing a new statement about obligatory word adjacency in running text.

In this case, the linguified claim is just flat false, so there’s a question about why a writer would choose it.

The OBH case is different, because there’s a genuine connection between the bald query and the linguified one: if you believe you’re decisive, then you should be willing to say that you are.

So the linguified query is a species of question hedging through various forms of indirectness: rather than ask baldly and challengingly, “Are you decisive?”, you can soften the query a bit, make it a bit more polite, for instance by asking about beliefs or opinions: “In your opinion, are you decisive?” or “Do you think / believe (that) you are decisive?”

Or you can use a softening linguification, as above.



2 Responses to “Denials”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    I’m not sure if it’s quite the same thing, but the answer to one of the most famous logic riddle families comes immediately to mind, where you confront someone who always lies or who never lies but you don’t know which. The answer is a linguified question, if I understand your discussion [spoiler for the possibly one person here who has never heard this]: “If I were to ask you if this road leads to town, what would you say?”

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