Friday November 5, 2004

Quibbling About the Stars

quibbling about the starsidiom  Disputing the conclusions in a syntax or semantics paper, not by addressing the main argument of the paper, but by disagreeing with the acceptibility judgments (usually marked with asterisks, hence "stars") marked on the author's example sentences.  Considered hostile.

I'm of two minds about this.  On the one hand, I have to admit that it's a perfectly legitimate way to attack an author's conclusions.  If the premises are false, that's never good news for the conclusions based on them.  All too often, I've read (*cough* or written *cough*) papers whose arguments are based on barely acceptable or slightly deviant sentences, or on semantic readings that I can only get by reading a sentence while drunk and standing on my head.  This is not convincing.

On the other hand, quibbling about the stars can be a cheap way to avoid expending the effort required to understand an argument before pooh-poohing it.  It may be that the man who I wonder whether John cares if Mary kisses doesn't sound right to you and you're tempted to write off the rest of the paper, but it seems to me that you at least owe the author the courtesy of hearing the whole argument before bailing out.  (At least in a public forum.  Feel free to throw the paper across the room at home.)  What sounds like a marginal example may turn out not to be crucial to the conclusions of the paper, or else its acceptability may be drastically improved by a minor tweak that doesn't affect the argument.  And never forget that dialects and idiolect vary in strange and wonderful ways, so maybe it's just you.

By nature, because it's so easy, I'm an inveterate quibbler, but I try to hold it in check.  It's best to assume good faith—authors are unlikely to include a judgment that's not their own, or, if they're not native speakers, that they haven't run by a few.  If I really feel strongly about it, I'll raise the point one-on-one with the author.  After that, I leave it alone.  If it's really a bad example, everyone else reading the paper will think so too.  There's no use being an ass about it.

Extra credit reading: The Empirical Base of Linguistics by Carson T. Schütze.  "A critical overview of the literature on the use of grammaticality judgments and other linguistic intuitions and the ways they have been used in linguistic research."

[By the way, I'm sure I'm not the first person to comment on this activity, and there's probably other phrases that mean the same thing as "quibbling about the stars".  Still, I like the sound of it—it was one of the possibilities I considered for the name of this blog.  It sounds kind of sfnal, don't you think?]

[Now playing: "Mental Hopscotch" by Missing Persons]

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Comments

What, you mean that not everyone instantly gets "the man who I wonder whether John cares if Mary kisses"! Why, its as clear as light passing through a body with an index of refraction of ~1 to me. :-)

Posted by: agm at Nov 5, 2004 3:44:48 PM