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Things we may know that aren’t so

There’s a way to claim something as a ‘fact’ when it’s not, and linguists have a word for it.

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While chopping mushrooms in her kitchen, our columnist heard a radio news story about a trend she had never noticed before.

Walt Hubris

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Have you noticed that sometimes articles in the news media invite your attention to a trend that you in fact haven’t noticed? 

And that even when informed about it, you have trouble believing the alleged trend is an actual trend, or even any kind of perceptible phenomenon at all, except perhaps in the mind of the author or talking head who is promoting it?

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Me, too. 

“Hmm,” I mused the other day as I was in the kitchen, with one ear cocked to the radio, “this one was probably taped before the holidays, so they’d have it in the can for the lull around New Year’s.” And with that I refocused on the mushrooms I was chopping. 

Some recent reading, though, has given me some new terminology for considering what’s going on in a case like this.

The concept here is known as an embedded presupposition. One of the best-known examples, often used in coaching politicians to work with the news media, is “When did you stop beating your wife?”

And you’ve probably noticed that I embedded a presupposition in my first sentence. I framed it as a question: “Have you noticed...?” But I’ve introduced as fact an idea that isn’t necessarily your idea: “Sometimes articles in the news media invite your attention to a trend that you in fact haven’t noticed.”

I’ve used noticed as what linguists call a “factive verb.” Factive is an old-fashioned adjective – even Noah Webster, in 1828, noted it was “not used.” It meant “making,” or “having the power to make,” presumably in a Captain Picard “Make it so” sense.

But the adjective lives on in the field of linguistics. Here’s the Oxford Dictionaries definition of the word in this sense: “Denoting a verb that assigns the status of an established fact to its object (normally a clausal object), e.g., know, regret, resent.” 

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You can plant a suggestion with just a phrase: “Have you noticed a trend toward...?” But a complete clause does a better job. A clausal object is typically a “that” clause: I know that you have the background for this position. I regret that you won’t be joining us. She resents that he passed her over for promotion. All these subordinate clauses are just constructs of substantives and verbs. But what factives do, as the dictionary explains, is to assign them “the status of an established fact.”

But not necessarily so. In fact, “you” may not “have the background” for the position, “you” may be joining “us” after all, and “he” may have passed “her” over for promotion only in the sense of giving one job to someone else because “he” knows that something even better suited to “her” talents is about to become available.

As the old saw has it, it’s not what people don’t know that gets them into trouble; it’s what they do know that ain’t so.

And so careful readers and listeners need to be alert to how discourse can be manipulated – if only by journalists seeking a “trend” on a slow news day.


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