Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"Neither Fish Nor Fowl?"

With Large Pectoral and Pelvic Fins
(Borrowed from Wikipedia)

Yesterday's post on Stanley Fish hooked one fellow with strongly critical views:

Stanley Fowl said ... "Stanley Fish is one helluva crap linguist, unfortunately. His view of language is that we take in a sentence word-by-word. This can be demonstrated to be false by a variety of different methods: slips-of-the tongues and the fact of collocation, to name just two."

We're all familiar with slips-of-the-tongue (and Mr. Fowl will be pleased to read that I first typed "slops-of-the-tongue") -- but "collocation"? What's that?

Let's turn to the experts, Wikipedia:

Within the area of corpus linguistics, collocation is defined as a sequence of words or terms which co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.

Some scholars might prefer The Free Dictionary:

col·lo·ca·tion n. 1. The act of collocating or the state of being collocated. 2. An arrangement or juxtaposition of words or other elements, especially those that commonly co-occur, as rancid butter, bosom buddy, or dead serious.

Actually, and being quite serious now, I'd prefer an online linguistics encyclopedia but haven't found one. Nevertheless, I get the point, namely, that we don't always read word-by-word sequentially. (Parenthetically, I note that we probably read an expression such as "dead serious" as if it were a single lexical term, so collocation might not be so powerfully decisive as evidence against Fish's analysis.)

In my response yesterday to Fowl on Fish, I wrote:

Stanley Fowl, I agree with you that we don't generally read the way that Fish describes, but I find that with ambiguous constructions, I am 'surprised by syntax' and slow down to read it word-by-word.

The language then has me hovering between two possible interpretations in much the way that Fish describes.

Thus, his analysis fits my experience, e.g., with "Green-Eyed Lady."

Writing styles differ, and reading styles probably do as well. In gross terms, reading does take place sequentially -- we turn one page after another as we make sequential progress through, for example, a book.

However, Fish's emphasis upon the surprising ambiguity posed by the next word in a sequence presupposes that we read word-by-word, and we all know that we don't, generally, read that way. My own eye is always darting back and forth along a sequence -- sometimes even skipping ahead to glance at the next paragraph! Thus, I'm unlikely to be surprised in quite the same way that Fish imagines.

Yet in reading Milton, I do often find myself hovering -- in much the way that Fish describes -- between two possible interpretations. Despite Fish, this doesn't depend upon reading in a lexically sequential manner. I don't have to be surprised into hovering. But in support of Fish, I find that I do tend to read difficult texts word-by-word, and Paradise Lost is a very difficult text that often does surprise me in the manner described.

Some readers might find Paradise Lost an easier text than I experience it and thus might never experience this delightful shock of surprise. For some, perhaps, Milton's style is as easy to read as:

"a classic journalistic style ... [with] concrete nouns, active verbs, graceful sentences, solid paragraphs, [and] subtle transitions" (Pete Hamill, review of "Reporting: Writings from the New Yorker, By David Remnick," International Herald Tribune, May 19 (Seoul Edition), 2006, page 10B).
But as for me, I don't read Paradise Lost quite so easily as that.


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