Monday, September 22, 2008

Since When Is 55% “Most”?

The headline reads Guardian Angels Are Here, Say Most Americans but the report says, “More than half of all Americans believe they have been helped by a guardian angel in the course of their lives, according to a new poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion. In a poll of 1700 respondents, 55% answered affirmatively to the statement, ‘I was protected from harm by a guardian angel.’”

In fact, this is not an isolated case. There are many examples in otherwise respectable media outlets that identify amounts little more than razor-thin majorities as “most”.

Another of my pet peeves (cheaper than pet rocks, and much easier to grow) is the substitution of “momentarily” for “in a moment”, as is, “I’ll be with you momentarily”. I’d been seeing this one so often that I’d begun thinking that I’d missed something that anyone who hadn’t dropped out of elementary school should have known. Recently, I read George Carlin’s Brain Droppings, where he made the same complaint. At least Mr. Carlin made it to high school, so he should know.


Michael Reimer said...

Ah, the erosion of English. It's a long list, isn't it? My personal favourite is the misuse of the possessive 's for pluralization. Seen on signs all over the anglophone world, as in: "best burger's in town".

I think there's some question, though, about whether the abstractions of grammar rules and lexicons exist for descriptive or prescriptive purposes. I.e. if 'most' people are misusing the rules then are they wrong or are the rules wrong? Those of us who are intimate with the rules tend to find the latter idea a bit offensive. But I think it's basically what happens in the end.

Case in point: 'irregardless', the erroneous conflation of 'regardless' and 'irrespective', is in most dictionaries now. Although they list it as nonstandard, I see it used un-ironically more and more often. I suspect it will be unnonstandard in a few decades.

Here's what happens if you get too hung up on this:

Janne Morén said...

I'm with Michael here - this is how language changes. We may feel the changes to be disconcerting simply because we are intimately familiar with the previous usages. Most people, however, find the changes to be perfectly concerting and nothing to get upset about - if they weren't fine with it they wouldn't be adopting the changes.

I guess which way to come down on this issue depends largely on whether you feel grammar to be descriptive or prescriptive. I tend to fall in the former camp, if for no other reason than that I frequently mangle my language and need any excuse I can lay my hands on. I do draw the line at the use of "lense" for camera lenses.

Jun Okumura said...

You guys could care less, couldn't you?... could you?... wha

The prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy is as old as humankind, and likely reflects broader progressive/conservative and generational differences in outlook. There’s what I think a specific and, from my point of view, interesting point here: There’s a meaningful difference between the changes in “momentarily” and “most”.

With “momentarily”, the meaning is usually clear from the context and is in any case one or the other. When you say, “I’ll be with you momentarily”, you mean, “I’ll be with you soon,” not “I’ll be with you, but only for a short while.” To put it another way, the original meaning has not been lost. It’s jarring to my ears, and to the more discerning George Carlin’s. I also think that it began as a case of misuse. But linguistically, nothing has been lost.

However, with “most”, the meaning of the word itself has shifted, to cover a (qualitatively) broader range of majorities. You could make the case that the original sense of an overwhelming majority has been diluted, a loss in precision, a loss to the language. But you could also make the case that this dilution is a consequence of human nature itself. For that broader coverage has always been available from children and pitchmen, who claim, “most (all?) of my friends have [insert toy name]” or “most Americans own [insert product name]”. The new, substitution of “most” for “a majority of” has not completely swamped our feel for the original either, as a simple thought experiment will show you. Imagine that there are twenty people in your workplace besides yourself and you know that eleven of them smoke. Would you say that “most of my colleagues smoke”? Of course not. But in terms of percentages, that is no different from what the TIME correspondent is doing—both cover 55% of the total. I think that it says something about contemporary journalism that a usage that increasingly passes as normal there is usually a form of self-interested exaggeration in daily life.

Sorry, Janne. I haven’t been able to get back to your blog post. One of these days.

Janne Morén said...

I suspect that "most" is an example of a neologism plugging a small linguistic void. "most" is effectively working as a noun, indicating the set of the vast majority of some items.

The problem is, there really is no equivalent general noun-like construction for a simple majority of items. "more" is not noun-like in its usage ("the more" has a different, specific meaning as part of a comparative expression), and "majority" is formal in tone and mostly restricted to humans. To refer to that set you need to employ some awkward circumlocutions. Extending the cover of "most" from a vast majority to a simple one is an easily grasped, straightforward way to fill this gap.

ps. Don't worry about that blog post; there'll be other opportunities.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne, I think that you mean that there is no single adjective to denote a simple majority. You’re right, that must be why the superlative of many (many-more-most) is able to expand its reach to cover some of that “linguistic void”. (The all-too-human need to exaggerate is the driver.) Interestingly, it’s the same in Japanese. I suspect that it’s a universal phenomenon that reveals how the human mind works, something that could be profitably explored by cognitive scientists.