Showing posts with label language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language. Show all posts

Saturday, October 15, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court: “Private” = “Public”

What does “private” mean in the U.S. Constitution? The word appears there only once, in the Fifth Amendment’s Taking Clause: “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” You might think that “private” means something like “not owned by the government.” The Supreme Court, however, evidently thinks it means something else.

My most recent paper, “Property” in the Constitution: The View from the Third Amendment, 20 William & Mary Bill of Rights J. __ (2012) (forthcoming; invited), discusses that and other linguistic perversions, all towards demonstrating that courts would do better to adopt the plain, present, public meaning of the text. Here, edited for your browsing pleasure, I describe the Supreme Court’s twisted interpretation of “private” in the Takings Clause.

In U.S. v. 50 Acres of Land, 469 U.S. 24 (1984), the Supreme Court held that the Takings Clause’s protection of “private Property” covers property owned by state and local governments. The Court admitted that “the language of the Amendment only refers to compensation for ‘private property,’ and one might argue that the Framers intended to provide greater protection for the interests of private parties than for public condemnees.” Id. at 31. The Court nonetheless went on to hold that “private” includes “public”:

When the United States condemns a local public facility, the loss to the public entity, to the persons served by it, and to the local taxpayers may be no less acute than the loss in a taking of private property. Therefore, it is most reasonable to construe the reference to ‘private property’ in the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment as encompassing the property of state and local governments when it is condemned by the United States. ibid.

We might well doubt the Court’s logic in equating inter-governmental transfers with takings of private property, as well as the truth of the claim that a taxpayer feels the loss of local public property as keenly as the loss of a home. We might likewise doubt the 50 Acres court’s invocation of U.S. v. Carmack,329 U.S. 230 (1946), a case the Court had decided nearly 40 years earlier. In fact, the Court in Carmack merely took note that the federal government had conceded its obligation to pay for taking locally-owned public property. Because the parties did not contest the claim, Carmack could hardly have decided it. The Court in 50 Acres of Land thus had only itself to credit or blame for giving “private” an extraordinarily broad meaning.

In retrospect, following the controversial holding of Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), we can see a sort of perverse logic at work in how the Supreme Court reads the Takings Clause. Whereas the Court in 50 Acres held that the protections afforded to “private Property” extend to public property, the Court in Kelo held that “for public use” extends to takings for private use done “pursuant to a ‘carefully considered’ development plan.” Id. at 478 (quoting 268 Conn. 1, 54, 843 A.2d 500, 536 (2004)).

Just as the Supreme Court thinks that “private” includes “public,” in other words, it also thinks that “public” includes “private.”


Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Robot Weds Couple in Japan"

Want to know my reaction to the headline above? Just read this old post (starting with the second paragraph).


Friday, January 01, 2010

Linguo-Economic Blogging

Two recent posts at my brother Neal’s blog “Literal-Minded” caught my attention because of their connection to economics.

First, Neal links an article on whether “no problem” is an acceptable substitute for “you’re welcome.” Personally, I have no problem with “no problem.” In fact, I think it’s often preferable to the somewhat stuffy “you’re welcome.” But it’s notable that the no-problem opponents’ chief complaint relates to the use of “no problem” in commercial contexts:

Many especially dislike hearing “no problem” in commercial transactions and from folks in customer service jobs, since, as the customer is always right, nothing a customer could ask for could ever be “a problem.” “I assume my business is not a problem,” huffed one complainer on the message boards at the Visual Thesaurus. Others on the Internet have taken the same tack: “Why would it be a problem? It’s her job, isn’t it?” and “It better damn well NOT be a problem, because I just gave you my money.”
When a commercial transaction has just concluded, I have to agree that “no problem” is inappropriate -- but not for the reasons stated. “You’re welcome” would sound just as bad to me as “no problem” because, as I’ve observed before, the appropriate response to “thank you” in this context is “thank you.” Trade is a mutually beneficial transaction, in which both parties do something that benefits the other. In the context of a straight-up favor, on the other hand, the benefits travel in one direction only.

Second, Neal has a column at Visual Thesaurus on a subtle shift in the usage of “choice” by educators. Apparently it has become common practice to use the language of choice when describing behavior -- usually bad behavior -- by students. “Doug chose not to do his homework today,” for instance. Neal describes a movement from “free-choice choose” to “take-responsibility-for-your-own-behavior choose”:
Schoolchildren are told not to behave, but to make good choices, take responsibility for the choices they make, and accept the consequences that come with them. It's not that I didn't hear similar messages when I was in school: My senior English teacher had a poster that read, "There are neither rewards nor punishments; only consequences." But the way I hear that message in schools now, it's usually phrased with choose or choice. On a high school teacher's desk recently, I saw a sign reading, "Let the choices you make today be the choices you can live with tomorrow."
Like Neal, I find this use of "choice" irksome, but I've been struggling to put a finger on why. After all, they're right: kids do make choices, and choices have consequences. Some choices lead to better consequences than others. What's wrong with saying that?

And I don't think it matters that some choices are clearly better than others. When people say, "I had no choice," that's often hyperbole. What they really mean is that some of their options sucked, so they went with the obviously best option. Nothing in the concept of choice requires all options to have similar value.

I think what bothers me about the new usage of "choice" is this: They're using the idea of choice to obscure the difference between natural consequences and deliberately imposed consequences. When you choose not to exercise, a natural consequence is that you'll get fat and have less energy. A deliberately imposed consequence is that your parent will dock your allowance, or your teacher will make you sit in the corner. Neal gets at this distinction when he says, “Only a few students are so cynical as to suggest that a choice between one alternative with a punishment attached and another without one is not really a choice.” I don’t agree that it’s not really a choice -- you really do have the option of taking the unpleasant alternative -- but I agree that an important distinction is being glossed over.

The failure to recognize the natural-vs-imposed distinction is potentially dangerous. It allows, for instance, a drug warrior to claim that the drug war respects freedom of choice. "You choose to take drugs, and you pay the price: going to jail." But just because you still have a choice doesn't mean your freedom of choice has been respected.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

What I Learned at the FBI

On Thursday I attended a seminar at the FBI for film and TV writers. There was lots of useful information, but what I found most interesting was the FBI agents' use of language. Specifically, I noticed that they regularly used the word 'forfeit' as a transitive verb meaning 'to acquire by asset forfeiture.' As in: "The FBI forfeited $2.6 million in this operation."

Of course, this is a perfect reversal of meaning. The standard meaning of 'forfeit' is to lose or to abandon, not to acquire.

I don't know that this says anything particular about FBI psychology, except that asset forfeiture has become so routine that they needed a shorter word -- "acquire by asset forfeiture" being rather cumbersome. I suppose that agents just naturally extracted the only verb embedded in the phrase 'asset forfeiture.' Words like 'seize' and 'confiscate' either didn't occur to them, or else seemed too narrow because they don't necessarily imply keeping the seized assets.

Still, it was jarring to hear this casual use of a word to mean something so diametrically opposite its original meaning. At first I was genuinely confused; when I heard an agent say the FBI had forfeited a bunch of money in some operation, I momentarily thought the FBI had actually returned the money to someone. But what are the odds of that?


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Improper Signage

Okay, I fully support Jim Roos's fight to protect both property rights and freedom of speech. That said, I have a problem with this sign:

Mr. Roos appears to have fallen prey to a graphical form of over-negation. A red circle with diagonal slash means "stop or oppose the thing inside the circle." Does Roos really want us to stop ending eminent domain abuse?

(Via Cato-at-Liberty.)


Sunday, July 10, 2005

L&S: Tacit Knowledge and Language

Steve has been discussing the notion of spontaneous order – mostly markets, but also language, common law, etc. When he got to Hayek’s notion of tacit knowledge, that is, knowledge that you have but that you cannot articulate, he used the example of a child who can speak a grammatical sentence without being able to state the rules of English grammar. This reminded me of my brother Neal’s contribution to the Two Things list:

The Two Things about Linguistics:
1. You already know more about the grammar of your native language than could ever be taught in a class. (synchronic linguistics)
2. Language change is inevitable, and neither bad nor good. (diachronic linguistics)
The first point is about tacit knowledge. In hearing Steve’s example about the speech of children, a critic might say that adults can articulate the rules of English grammar. But that is false; even accomplished native speakers cannot state everything there is to know. One thing I’ve found surprising about Neal’s work in linguistics (which I assume is fairly typical of the discipline) is how much of it involves trying to reconstruct mostly unrecognized, but nonetheless operative, rules of syntax. He does so by studying the actual utterances of speakers and writers who are speaking English without necessarily even thinking about it, and then trying to find underlying principles that describes all or most of them.

(Incidentally, I have taken issue with Neal’s item #2, on diachronic linguistics, here.)


Monday, May 09, 2005

Beanie-Weenie Beat-Down

DGM thought she was telling an innocent story about elementary school…

The cafeteria was serving Beanie Weenie, one of those meals apparently so delicious that the day before someone always said, "Hey, don't forget tomorrow's Beanie Weenie Day!" I had practically chowed it all down as soon as the hairnetted lunch lady slopped it onto my plate. Mmmmmmm. Beanie Weenie.
…Little did she know she was adding fuel to a long-standing debate between me and my brother. Read here, here, and here.

The short version: Neal has long insisted that ‘frings’ (an appetizer consisting of french fries mixed with onion rings) is a bogus word, inasmuch as no other word in the English language is both morphologically and syntactically plural, without any identifiable singular element (i.e., you can’t find just one ‘fring’ – it’s always a fry or a ring). He later modified his claim in order to rule out some examples I provided, such as ‘troops’, ‘rapids’, and ‘falls’, by requiring that the singular element’s meaning be unclear in principle (whereas the meaning of ‘troop’, ‘rapid’, and ‘fall’ would be obvious if we used these words).

Neal eventually conceded the debate, but only grudgingly, on the basis of his own questionable example (‘stoplight peppers’) instead of my excellent ones. But now I see the opportunity to convert my TKO into a KO. You see, while DGM refers to the delicacy in question as ‘beanie-weenie’, in Neal’s and my home – and I suspect in many parts of the country – the dish is called ‘beanie-weenies.’ It’s morphologically plural (‘beanie-weenies’ has a standard plural ending), it’s syntactically plural (you would say, “My beanie-weenies are getting cold”), and there’s no such thing as a lone ‘beanie-weenie’ (it’s always a bean or a weenie). Take that, Neal!

Okay, I see one way that Neal might squirm out of this. He might contend that ‘beanie’ is an adjective modifying the plural noun ‘weenies’. The singular element would be a single weenie with beans or bean-essence all over it. But I disagree. If you’ve eaten beanie-weenies, you know that beans usually dominate the dish; if the adjectival explanation were correct, the dish would be called ‘weenie-beanies’. Also, the dish consists not just of beans and weenies, but also sauce and (sometimes) spices. If someone extracted a single weenie from the mix, we all know it would just be a weenie, not a beanie-weenie.


Monday, January 31, 2005

Spontaneous Orders and Internal Critiques

Can a self-described linguistic descriptivist still criticize violations of standard English grammar, without being a hypocrite? Geoff Pullum cogently argues that the answer is “yes.” The key is understanding the distinction between endogenous and exogenous, or between indigenous and externally imposed, linguistic norms. Those are my words, not Pullum’s; here’s how he puts it:

Barbara Scholz and I have taken to using the term correctness conditions for whatever are the actual conditions on your expressions that make them the expressions of your language — and likewise for anyone else's language. … Which conditions are the relevant ones for you is an empirical question. Descriptive linguists try to lay out a statement of what the conditions are for particular languages. And it is very important to note that the linguist can go wrong. A linguist can make a mistake in formulating correctness conditions. How would anyone know? Through a back and forth comparison between what the condition statements entail and what patterns are regularly observed in the use of the language by qualified speakers under conditions when they can be taken to be using their language without many errors (e.g., when they are sober, not too tired, not suffering from brain damage, have had a chance to review and edit what they said or wrote, etc.).

Sometimes, though, one can formulate the relevant correctness condition exactly right, and then observe a sentence in the Philadelphia Inquirer that does not comply with it. This is because people do make mistakes in their own language, and some mistakes even get past newspaper copy editors.
In short, Pullum argues that there’s a healthy but subtle middle ground between the two insane extremes of “everything is correct” and “nothing is relevant.”

Here’s my question: What are the implications of Pullum’s point – which strikes me as clearly correct with regard to language – for spontaneous orders other than language, such as markets, etiquette, morality, and common law? Can we find organic principles of such orders that we can use to understand what is “right” or “wrong” in these contexts? Certainly that is what judges and legal scholars attempt to do when analyzing case law. Moral philosophers, on the other hand, often try to build moral systems “from the ground up,” rather than taking for granted any or all of our moral norms that have resulted from cultural evolution.

What kinds of criticisms are valid in the context of spontaneous orders, if we accept Pullum’s argument? One interpretation is narrow: as scientists who wish to understand the social world, we are bound to accept internal principles of the systems we wish to explain as a positive matter. But as a normative matter, we are free to make external critiques as long as we’re honest about what we’re doing. Thus, a linguist might recognize a particular rule of English grammar as “valid” (inasmuch as it describes the language as it is), but then criticize that rule of grammar because it fails to satisfy some external criterion such as logical clarity.

Another interpretation is broader: only internal critiques are valid. In the context of the rules of just conduct, Hayek takes this position in The Mirage of Social Justice (see here and here for related posts). Says Hayek:
If we are to make full use of all the experience which has been transmitted only in the form of traditional rules, all criticism and efforts at improvement of particular rules must proceed within a framework of given values which for the purpose in hand must be accepted as not requiring justification. We shall call ‘immanent criticism’ this sort of criticism that moves within a given system of rules and judges particular rules in terms of their consistency or compatibility with all other recognized rules in inducing the formation of a certain kind of order of actions.
Hayek’s argument hinges on two aspects of his thought – first, his severe doubts about the ability of human beings to fully comprehend the functionality of their social norms (an epistemological position); and second, his belief in an imperfect but usually beneficial process of cultural evolution. If one doubts either of these positions, external critique might seem more sensible.

My inclination, which I cannot fully justify here, is that both internal and external critiques can be valid and useful, but internal critiques are safer and more trustworthy, because they don’t require superhuman cognitive abilities. I have little confidence in the ability of humans to consciously devise a new language (like Esperanto) that successfully performs the functions that language has to perform. Similarly, I have little confidence in legal scholars to build a complete system of justice or moral philosophers to construct a comprehensive moral system ex nihilo. In practice, even those critiques that seem the most “external” take at least some organic principles as given; they differ from more clearly internal critiques because they take fewer of those principles for granted.


Monday, May 03, 2004

Language as Signaling Mechanism

I’ve defended a mild form of linguistic prescriptivism in the past, but a distinct argument for linguistic prescriptivism has been running around in my head for a few weeks now, and Neal’s post below helped me finally pin it down. Neal said, among other things:

Ultimately, I had to concede to my wife that criticizing someone for thinking that “beg the question” means “induce one to ask the question” is little more than saying, “Ha, ha! I’ve read books on logic and you haven’t! I know the code and you don’t!”
This reminded me of something Bill Poser said about a month ago:
Prescriptive grammar has very little to do with maintaining the clarity and precision of the language. What it really has to do with is maintaining the dominance of the upper classes and enforcing social norms. It used to be that only the wealthy had access to the kind of education that would provide knowledge of the particular type of English enshrined in the prescriptive standard, so discriminating against people who did not command this type of English helped to preserve class distinctions and to keep the lower classes in their place by making them believe that because they spoke differently they were inferior. This isn't as true as it once was, but the idea persists. Prescriptive grammar is a tool of the kleptocracy.
Whoa, that’s harsh. The general message one might glean from Neal’s and Bill’s posts together is that many rules of grammar and style have no purpose but to keep certain people down while privileging the elite. (I should recognize that Neal’s position is not as extreme as Bill’s.)

I wonder if there might be a more charitable way of saying the same thing. Perhaps the rules of grammar and style perform a useful social function by providing signals about the educational backgrounds and effort levels of communicators. Consider the analogy to university education. One popular theory about such education is that it actually imparts useful knowledge to students and increases their productivity. That is, I hope, at least true to some extent. But another theory about education – one that I find increasingly plausible – is that it simply helps us to distinguish the more and less capable students. Someone who has graduated from college with a good GPA has (at least with some colleges) demonstrated a combination of native talent, work ethic, and persistence – all virtues that future employers value. Your degree is thus a signal of your productivity, even if getting the degree did not actually make you more productive.

For a signaling mechanism like education to work efficiently, there must be some cost of acquiring the positive signal, and the cost must be greater for the low productivity person than for the high productivity person. To put it simply, it must be harder for a low-talent person than for a high-talent person to graduate or get a good GPA. The valuable output of the signaling process is information about talent levels. I suspect that rules of grammar and style may perform a similar signaling role. To learn the rules, you need reasonably good instruction, and you must apply yourself to learn them. When you speak and write, listeners and readers acquire information about your education and work ethic.

It would be silly, of course, to judge a person ignorant or stupid on the basis of a single infraction of the rules. There are too many idiosyncratic rules for every person to learn every single one. I would not assume, for instance, that someone who uses “beg the question” to mean “induce one to answer the question” is uneducated. I might, however, infer (as Neal indicates) that the speaker had probably never studied logic. That inference might be buttressed by his reference to “ad homonym attacks.” The more errors (deviations from traditional usages) a person makes, the more confidence I have in my conclusions. This is similar to how I grade essays for style. I realize that style is unavoidably subjective, so I don’t subtract a standard number of points for each stylistic problem. Instead, I mark every stylistic problem I see, and then I make a holistic judgment of how badly written the paper was, taking into account the total number of red marks I see.

If my argument sounds elitist, that’s because it is. But it is an elitism grounded in information inferred from behavior, as opposed to irrelevant factors like sex or skin color. Most Americans do have the opportunity, if they apply themselves, to learn the basics of good writing and speaking. Indeed, learning to speak and write clearly, and in line with traditional rules, is probably one of the most accessible means of crossing class boundaries. Listeners should, of course, make exceptions for immigrants and others who cannot reasonably be expected to have fully absorbed the rules of the language. But the fact that a mechanism is imperfect does not imply that it has no use at all.


Saturday, February 07, 2004

The Linguistic-Economic Interface

What is the appropriate response when someone says “Thank you”? Most Americans would answer, “You’re welcome.” And in most situations that is the expected reply. But in some circumstances, the appropriate response to “Thank you” is another “Thank you.” When? After people have concluded a commercial transaction. The salesperson says "Thank you," and I reply, "Thank you." And that makes perfect sense. When one person gives another a gift, the recipient has given up nothing, and thus deserves no thanks. But voluntary commercial exchanges are generally mutually beneficial. Both sides gain, and this symmetry makes it sensible to have both parties give the same expression of gratitude.

(Giving credit where it’s due: I heard someone make the same point a long time ago, but I honestly can’t remember who. I think it might have been Walter Williams.)


Thursday, January 29, 2004

In Defense of Linguistic Prescriptivism

I've blogged on the subject of linguistic prescriptivism versus descriptivism before, so I wasn’t motivated to do so again until I saw Neal’s response to my Two Things post:

The Two Things about linguistics:

1. You already know more about the grammar of your native language than could ever be taught in a class. (synchronic linguistics)
2. Language change is inevitable, and neither bad nor good. (diachronic linguistics)
Item 2 can be taken in a couple of different ways, one of which strikes me as obviously true, the other of which strikes me as (less obviously) false. The true interpretation is that change is not inherently good or bad; it is just an unavoidable fact. But the false interpretation, which seems pretty common among linguistic descriptivists, is that we cannot reasonably pass judgment on the changes; or more broadly, that we cannot judge some linguistic uses or constructions better than others. That conclusion is thoroughly unjustified. Language serves certain purposes (communication being chief among them), and some uses and constructions serve those purposes better than others.

Language is, of course, a spontaneous order, and its evolution lies beyond the control of any single person or organization. And that’s good, because I would not trust the judgment of any monopolistic entity empowered to control the language (as the French Academy attempts to do with French). Similarly, I favor free markets in large part because I distrust the centralized power of government. Moreover, decentralized orders like language and markets have a great capacity to respond quickly to the real needs of their users. But a general approval of decentralized orders does not imply approval of every specific outcome of such an order. For instance, one could consistently oppose the federal antitrust action against Microsoft while still rooting for some competitor in the OS market (like Apple or Linux) to undermine Microsoft’s dominant market position. One might even go so far as to boycott Microsoft products and encourage others to follow suit. Indeed, I know many libertarians who have done just that.

Similarly, one can recognize the evolutionary character of language while nonetheless resisting particular changes in language. For my part, I oppose linguistic constructions that I think erode logical clarity or valuable distinctions. For instance, the use of “I miss X” to mean both “I dislike no longer having or doing X” and “I regret” creates confusion (see Neal’s earlier post on this topic). If both meanings are valid, and someone says, “I miss not seeing Larry,” I can correctly interpret the statement only if I already know something about (a) how the speaker feels about Larry and (b) whether Larry is still present. Without such information, it’s possible that the speakers likes Larry and wishes he were here; but it’s also possible that the speaker dislikes Larry and is annoyed that he came back!

I don’t mean to claim that the original, unaltered language never has logical ambiguities. It does, and I welcome changes that help to eliminate the especially confusing ones. Simultaneously, I resist changes that create new ones. As I am only one user of the language, I have no illusions: the language will do what it will do, and I’m mostly helpless to resist it. Still, individuals do sometimes make a difference. Teachers and journalists, in particular, are in a position to have a disproportionate influence on the evolution of the language. I contend that teachers and journalists have a special obligation to think about the utility and disutility of changes in the language, rather than throwing up their hands and saying change is neither good nor bad.

One more caveat on a post that’s already too long: I also support the rejection of pointless rules of grammar that (a) do not serve any useful purpose such as avoiding logical ambiguity and (b) were made up by grammarians enamored of Greek and Latin. Neal tells me, for instance, that the prohibition on split infinitives (“to boldly go”) was not an indigenous part of the English language, but the creation of grammarians who observed that it was literally impossible to split infinitives in Latin (where an infinitive is a single word). Linguistic prescriptivism can certainly go too far, as Eugene has emphasized repeatedly on his blog. But there is nothing wrong with a modest dose of prescriptivism administered by thoughtful users of the language.