January 22, 2022

"[S]ince around 1980, English speakers have been more given to writing about feelings than writing from a more scientific perspective."

"From around 1850 on, [researchers] found, the frequency of words such as 'technology,' 'result,' 'assuming,' 'pressure,' 'math,' 'medicine,' 'percent,' 'unit' and 'fact' has gone down while the frequency of words such as 'spirit,' 'imagine,' 'hunch,' 'smell,' 'soul,' 'believe,' 'feel,' 'fear' and 'sense' has gone up. The authors associate their observations with what Daniel Kahneman has labeled the intuition-reliant 'thinking fast' as opposed to the more deliberative 'thinking slow.' In a parallel development, the authors show that the use of plural pronouns such as 'we' and 'they' has dropped somewhat since 1980 while the use of singular pronouns has gone up. They see this as evidence that more of us are about ourselves and how we feel as individuals — the subjective — than having the more collective orientation that earlier English seemed to reflect."

Writes John McWhorter, in "Don’t, Like, Overanalyze Language" (NYT), discussing a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that purported to detect a "surge of post-truth political argumentation" and a "historical rearrangement of the balance between collectivism and individualism and — inextricably linked — between the rational and the emotional.” 

McWhorter thinks the authors of the study are overdoing it, because, he says, often "the process by which language changes is that something starts out being about objective observation and drifts into being, as it were, all about me." He focuses on the question: "Why would this have happened to such an unusual extent since 1980?"  

And he guesses that it's a matter of increasing informality, which naturally entails being "more open about the self, less withholding about the personal, more inclined to the intimate." In that light, it's hard to believe the researchers think they've shown a move from individualism to collectivism. 

Something McWhorter doesn't talk about is that some people adopt a rationalistic tone for rhetorical purposes. They're not actually more rational, just trying persuade other people by posing as reasonable and unemotional. Ironically, that's an emotional move, and it can work if we respect the speaker's sincerity and good will, but it can stimulate wariness and irritation if we mistrust the speaker. And it's entirely rational to mistrust all speakers in the American political discourse that's developed in the last 40 years. In that light, it's not surprising that speakers have been abandoning the less effective rhetorical strategy.

60 comments:

Lurker21 said...

I have the feeling that when "Science" becomes mere opinions, opinions and feelings will replace science.

robother said...

The elephant in this room: more women in the public sphere, the electorate but also publishing, teaching and the professions. The rhetorical dichotomy Althouse describes roughly maps onto the sexual divide.

chuck said...

Poets were ahead of the curve.

Paul Zrimsek said...

The subject of overanalyzing language is one to which McWhorter brings first-hand experience.

Fernandinande said...

They're wrong about all the words below, which they claimed went down: they all went up; check it out with ngram, starting in 1800.

the frequency of words such as
'technology,' -- goes up steadily and quickly.
'result,' -- goes up steadily but less quickly
'assuming,' -- goes up until 1980
'pressure,' -- goes up until 1940 (one dip)
'math,' -- flat until 1940, then goes up quickly
'medicine,' -- almost flat, but goes up
'percent,' -- goes up quickly until 1940
'unit' -- mostly goes up until 1940
'fact' -- goes up until 1920, then flat until 1960, then down

Fernandinande said...

'spirit,' -- goes down steadily since 1840
'imagine,' -- goes down from 1800 to 1980, then slightly up.
'hunch,' -- flat until 1900, then up (**)
'smell,' -- mostly flat
'soul,' -- down from 1920
'believe,' -- down from 1840
'feel,' -- mostly flat until 1960, then up.
'fear' -- up slowly until 1920, then down
'sense' -- flat

They were wrong about every word they listed except 'hunch'.

Fernandinande said...

Correction:
'fear' -- steadily down since 1820

Ann Althouse said...

"The elephant in this room: more women in the public sphere, the electorate but also publishing, teaching and the professions. The rhetorical dichotomy Althouse describes roughly maps onto the sexual divide."

Women tend to perceive men in the rationalistic pose as overbearing, arrogant, condescending, etc. You just can't get the same power out of acting like... let's say William F. Buckley on "Firing Line" in the '60s.

Fernandinande said...

the authors show that the use of plural pronouns such as 'we' and 'they' has dropped somewhat since 1980

Wrong about both:
we -- dropped from 1800 to 1980, then went up slightly starting in 1980.
they -- like 'we' except flatter

Original Mike said...

"The authors associate their observations with what Daniel Kahneman has labeled the intuition-reliant 'thinking fast' as opposed to the more deliberative 'thinking slow.' "

'thinking slow' = 'getting it right'

Ann Althouse said...

@Fernandinande

Thanks. Amazing...

Ann Althouse said...

@ Paul Zrimsek

Thanks for linking to that. In retrospect, I'm really proud of that post and even more so the post that it links to where I trash the Gettysburg Address using the method McWhorter used against Sarah Palin. I'd forgotten about that!

Original Mike said...

"Women tend to perceive men in the rationalistic pose as overbearing, arrogant, condescending, etc."

They use 'thinking fast' when they come to that conclusion.

rhhardin said...

Feelings over structure. Foolishness is the female fault corresponding to male skepticism.

Structure deals with dynamics and safety from instability, so winds up a little scientific. Nevertheless men find it interesting. Here, at last, everything will be nailed out once and for all, they think. Women are not interested. Whatever looks good to them at the moment is best.

Nagging is their favorite default mode.

rhhardin said...

New Yorker cartoon, wife to husband at dinner table: "Now, don't try to reason with me."

Also the title of a book by Wayne Booth on the idiocies of the 70s and beyond. Former dean of U of Chicago, his job he described as being fund raising and riot control.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

So I'm guessing 'linguist' is short hand for; "I say stupid shit for a living."? At least that's the impression I get from McWhorter and Chomsky.

rhhardin said...

There are two major mistakes that you look for in a system design, called safety and liveness. Tests are built around uncovering them.

Safety means nothing bad ever happens.

Liveness means something good always eventually happens.

JK Brown said...

Internet pioneer Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay in 2004 on writing in the wake of the English department tyranny. The "term paper" might be amenable in academia but it is horrible outside of law in IRL. And it can all be laid at the door of moving rhetoric teachers, teaching a skill, into the English department where research is the key to advancement. I have to agree. I found 'Freshman Rhetoric' by John Rothwell Slater (1919) and would have loved learning writing as he presents it. Instead, students are taught to hate writing because they are forced to do literary criticism for which they are wholly unsuited.



"The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens."

'The Age of the Essay' http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html

What's emanating from your penumbra said...

This kind of analysis reminds me a lot of economics. There are some things that are observable and can be described, but so much of it just seems like telling a story.

Ann Althouse said...

The topic is rhetoric, the method is counting the frequency of various words, and then guessing about reasons. Is that good science? It’s polemics about polemics.

narciso said...

mcwhorter is showing the shift from the objective, to the subjective, so we pretend that real things like murder and robbery are not real things, but ephemeral projections about racism and climate change are,

Fred Drinkwater said...

Per fernandinande, isn't the article's thesis based on the opposite of evidence?
Or, given recent history, "he said, without evidence"?

Back when I started at UC Berkeley, I took Rhetoric instead of the English series. All about written argumentation techniques, no English lit analysis (unless that was what you wanted to argue about). Circa 1974.
And even that long ago, 50% of the incoming class was ineligible to take English 1A. They had to start first year with English P(rep). At the flagship California university.
Also, and perhaps not coincidentally, about 50% of the incoming Letters&Sciences college had tentatively elected Psychology as their major.

Yancey Ward said...

JK Brown- thank you for that! I have never understood why English composition in college was focussed on classic literature, and in particular, whatever literature the class was reading. While I often greatly loved the stuff we were reading and dicussing in the class, I didn't feel like writing about it. It made writing, for me, an unenjoyable experience- something I didn't overcome until much later when I got to write about the things I enjoyed writing about.

narciso said...

emotion is the retort of the demagogue, facts that of the statesman, however you can think have think tanks pretend 'facts' see jim crow 2.0, actual violent crimes are dismissed as abstractions, when context is removed,

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Women tend to perceive men in the rationalistic pose as overbearing, arrogant, condescending, etc.

If you were to look at the facts and the data, you would realize that is just your perception, sweetie.

SDaly said...

"Women tend to perceive men in the rationalistic pose as overbearing, arrogant, condescending, etc."

I don't see how that in any way undermines robother's points, you are just re-framing, "When women enter the public sphere, men have to talk down to women or else the women will get upset."

Sebastian said...

"the authors show that the use of plural pronouns such as 'we' and 'they' has dropped somewhat since 1980 while the use of singular pronouns has gone up."

Even if true, and I doubt the data, "they" is making a comeback, used for third-person singular.

"They see this as evidence that more of us are about ourselves and how we feel as individuals — the subjective — than having the more collective orientation that earlier English seemed to reflect."

Even if true, and I doubt the data, "collectivism" is also making a comeback: we go by categories now.

"surge of post-truth political argumentation"

Not sure if previous generations were more committed to "truth," or how you would measure that, but a new kind of post-truth political argumentation has metastasized with Kendi et al.

"Ironically, that's an emotional move, and it can work"

Which is very rational, which is therefore emotional, which is . . .

"speakers have been abandoning the less effective rhetorical strategy"

Yes, but can we say that most speakers on issues of current concern even have a definite rhetorical "strategy"? Does Biden? Althouse has shown Trump has a method--but would you call it a "rhetorical strategy," one that aims to persuade? Does rhetoric die when everyone only speaks to their own presumed side?

narciso said...

I guess chayevsky's network, prefigured the way the visual, emotional, overrides the factual visual balance, the catalyst for the spring and summer of 2020, was the traffic stop in minneapolis, at every instance, the context behind it, was stripped out of the picture, similar things happened with kenosha and at least one other flash point, now these flashes served a larger agenda, conversely the mass deaths in nursing homes from coast to coasts due to deliberate policy choices, are chalked up to circumstance

narciso said...

https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/dr-robert-epstein-ramps-up-exposure-of-google-election-bias/

when the times speaks of truth, I check my wallet,

Rabel said...

I think the reason their numbers seem off is that they grouped the words first and then noted changes in the usage of each grouping, not the individual words.

McWhorter's use of "words such as" is a poor choice of words.

Robother explained the reason for the change in the second comment.

Mike (MJB Wolf) said...

Now do formal writing, like peer reviewed journals and see how far from science and truth they have veered. How do you peer review feelings?

Richard Dillman said...

I spent 42 years teaching in large English departments, and I have observed the increasing influence of rhetoric and composition studies in
previously traditional English departments. So called research on rhetoric and composition began moving into English departments around 1980, importing theories of teaching writing formerly found in schools of education . Very little of the modern field of rhetoric is based on classical or neo-classical rhetoric: say, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillian, Blair, Campbell or Whately. Much of it’s content is
nonempirical, highy subjective, opinionated studies arguing for the superiority of certain teaching methods. Most modern English departments now offer a rhetoric and/or composition major, and many now offer Ph.D.’s In rhetoric and composition studies. I guess that close to 40% of English doctorates are in rhetoric and composition. Moreover, I estimate that close to half of the MLA job listings in English are in rhetoric and composition, with additional required expertise in serving minority populations. Today English departments are often politically divided between literature and composition faculty, and very few professors require students to write about literature anymore, although writing about literature, even essays, was very common before 1980. Most required composition courses for the past 30 years or so have been taught by faculty schooled in modern, subjective composition theory, and this has had a major impact on the type of writing produced in America today. I don’t know if these trends pertain to British writing, however. Many English departments in fact prohibit or limit writing about literature in required writing courses. Faculty still using this approach are fighting a kind of rear guard action. Subjective required journal writing has been a staple of writing courses for over 30 years, often replacing formal essay writing. I think creative writing programs have also contributed to the growth of subjective writing with their current emphasis on memoir and life writing. However, this
is a very complex subject that can’t be fully addressed here. The topic is tricky and unfortunately invites over-generalization. I may be
overstating the the power of required college writing courses; so I apologize in advance for that. And I can’t comment on the theories
of writing instruction popular in journalism programs, often called mass communications today.

mikee said...

The point of rhetoric is to convince a reader or listener. This change in language is simply the speakers and writers using words as rhetorical tools, changing old usages to those that work better today. If your audience won't listen to logical facts demonstrating a hypothesis, use an emotional appeal. Nobody publishes scientific articles and philospohpical opinions in Latin to allow worldwide understanding today, either.

gilbar said...

the authors show that the use of plural pronouns such as 'we' and 'they' has dropped somewhat since 1980 while the use of singular pronouns has gone up. They see this as evidence that more of us are about ourselves and how we feel as individuals — the subjective — than having the more collective orientation that earlier English seemed to reflect." ...
..."Why would this have happened to such an unusual extent since 1980?"


hmmmm, WHY would inhabitants of The Me Generation think More About Themselves than Others?
It Sure Is A Though Call!

rehajm said...

If you were to look at the facts and the data, you would realize that is just your perception, sweetie.

I see you and I appreciate you. Pure. Bliss.

farmgirl said...

narcisco- the good Dr Robert Epstein is a perfect blend of both? Factually sound Emotion…

I have a “feeling” that John McWhorter is very careful in his speech- he’s a Professor and he’s a public speaker. He has to make sure all words carry the weight of his thought, reined in by Fact. There’s a lot at stake, not least his reputation.

He should be challenged in his specification of usage of pronouns, though. As a society, there isn’t much encouragement in speaking on behalf of others. Unless tribal and certified by “the chosen”- to be recited as such. When one uses “I” it’s a personal testimony- the facts of one- God forbid a bend of the knee to Relativity!

Would it be considered Selfiespeak? Yikes.

For years, I confess, the best part of an Althouse post was to think of my 1st impression and express in one sentence. I never commented then. The next best thing was to read the comments see how my flash thought weighed against the give and take of others… it’s the coolest of classrooms w/so much to learn!!

Now I dare to raise my hand.

Quaestor said...

Women tend to perceive men in the rationalistic pose as overbearing, arrogant, condescending, etc.

Rationality = Toxic masculinity.

We get.

We've always got it.

Bender said...

McWhorter thinks the authors of the study are overdoing it, because, he says, often "the process by which language changes is blah, blah, blah...

McWhorter is overdoing it. It is much more simple than all that. Namely, the authors of the study are engaging in some made-up BS study about some totally useless subject for the MONEY IN THEIR POCKETS, either by grant funding or in order to meet some silly obligation to publish to justify their jobs. Like happens constantly and too much in academia.

Ann Althouse said...

"If you were to look at the facts and the data, you would realize that is just your perception, sweetie."

Ha ha. I thought you were talking to rh.

Ann Althouse said...

Back when I was still teaching, grading exams, I was bothered by the constant use of "I feel" in answering questions applying legal doctrine to factual problems. How they feel never had anything to do with the answer. Their feelings were irrelevant, and they were only losing time — and wasting their limited word count — by adding this extra phrase that added nothing to their answer. I didn't hold it against them, but I advised them not to do it. It's a modern-day tic. At least say "I think." But really there was no reason to put themselves into the answer at all.

bentoak said...

McWhorter's essay made me think of the beginning of Walden when Thoreau defends speaking in the first person by saying that the first person is always speaking no matter what kind of writing it is. First person does seem more the norm now. The illustration of an 'I' on a pedestal was perfect too.

chuck said...

How do you peer review feelings?

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" should handle it.

Original Mike said...

Not prefacing your thoughts with 'I feel' makes you seem overbearing, arrogant, and condescending.

robother said...

"Back when I was still teaching, grading exams, I was bothered by the constant use of "I feel" in answering questions...." Good advice. Some of the most valuable practice hints I remembered throughout my legal career came in this vein from Law Profs.

For example, Larry Treece counselled us against writing exams that simply argued both sides of an issue, remarking that people pay lawyers for their judgment: tell me where you come down on the question! That served me well in writing legal memos as an associate, and opinion letters to clients.

Gahrie said...

They see this as evidence that more of us are about ourselves and how we feel as individuals — the subjective — than having the more collective orientation that earlier English seemed to reflect."

As I wrote yesterday, historians will label this period of history as "The Age of Self Indulgence".

Gahrie said...

Women tend to perceive men in the rationalistic pose as overbearing, arrogant, condescending, etc. You just can't get the same power out of acting like... let's say William F. Buckley on "Firing Line" in the '60s.

Once again Althouse endorses rejecting rationality, and feels that she is correct.

Repeal the 19th.

bentoak said...

Protestant preaching has grown more informal over the last forty years, with preachers telling personal stories in sermons far more often than was typical in earlier generations. Sometimes a personal story works in a sermon, and other times not. But listening to preachers talk about themselves week after week can get tedious. The good sermon helps me see above the human to the divine.

Lucien said...

One of the best pieces of lawyering advice I ever got was to circle the word "clearly" (and its siblings) whenever it appeared in adversaries' briefs, because it was a red flag for weak spots in the argument. I also tried to avoid it in my own writing.

Richard said...

Suppose "feel" means, to the speaker, "think"? Suppose it's taken by the recipient as "think" in situations where it's obvious we're talking about facts rather than about preferences and emotions.

Ben Franklin once said the way to avoid being taken as being harsh and overbearing in making a factual statements by opening with something like "I feel", or "seems to me" instead of "this is the way it is, dammit, and you'll take as given...."

Stephen said...

It’s not what you say or even how you say it, it’s how many people like what you say. Wring your hands all you want, but it’s monetizable.

Richard Dillman said...

In the early 29th Century the English/ literature establishment, in effect, concluded that analytical or critical writing had become far too subjective and impressionistic. A popular, impessionistic form of literary criticism was often cited as a writing problem. Around 1920, prominent literary scholars and theorists articulated a more rigorous method of analysis and criticism termed “new criticism.” It was debated, accepted and institutionalized in English and literature departments. It was, in effect, an anglicized version of the more rigorous French exposition de text, requiring rigorous textual analysis without the aid of external information like the author’s biography, political or social views. Strict attention was to be paid to the strucure, form, syntax, lexicon, and figurative language, etc., without going outside the text. Language like “I feel” and “ I think” was prohibited, to be replaced by phrases like “one thinks” or “one would believe.” A popular convention was to require students (or analysts) to refer to speakers or personas instead of to authors. This method of analysis dominated the study of writing for nearly 55 years. For decades it was rigorously employed in the teaching of writing and literature in American colleges, even extending into high schools. It started dying out in the late 70’s, when it was felt to be too rigid and constricting. It was gradually replaced by several new theories
like feminist theory, new historicism, rhetorical criticism, marxist criticism and deconstruction, among others. All of these new theories favored looking outside the text for information that might enrich the analysis. All of this has led to a pandora’s box of subjective and quasi-subjective
modes of interpretation. I remember in the 70’s, for example, being taught to never to use “I” in formal writing and in analyzing poetry to avoid saying that an “ author” said or believed anything. We were required, instead, to refer to the speaker or the persona of the poem. The world of textual analysis Is much broader and considerably more subjective now than, say, 30 years ago.

Richard Dillman said...

Ref. to Thoreau and “Walden”. Rhetoric and composition researchers in the 60’s and 70’s used Thoreau’s practice of journal writing a a model for how writing might be taught with more personal involvement. Since Thoreau wrote rough drafts of most of his published works first in his fourteen volume journal, his practice of revising journal entries became a template for insisting that high school an college students use their required journals as a first step in their writing processes. It came to be regarded as a way to help students discover or invent the content of the early drafts of their more formal writing assignments. Of course, Thoreau’ s journal entries are quite subjective, while they are often scientifically and rhetorically fascinating. They were a rich mine of material for his later revisions. Much of “Walden,” for example, originally appeared In rough form in these journals

Jamie said...

Farmgirl: Now I dare to raise my hand.

I can't even remember when I started reading Althouse, but I want to say it was not too long after 2004 or so. And from the getgo, I was the one jumping up and down in my seat going, "Ooo! Ooo! I know!" and immediately blurting out my thought. Sigh. Would that I had your self-discipline!

Gahrie, another commenter here, happened to go to high school with me. He may remember that I was the same IRL, all those years ago.

farmgirl said...

Revision.

A rough draft would become an entirely new essay- off on a tangent toot- and I’d be sunk for time to finish anything. Impossible for me to do in High School! Luckily, our English and Literature teacher didn’t demand a rough draft.

W/a Catholic school, one runs long on a Classical education and a definite handle on self- discipline, Jamie!! Some of those Sisters scared us into good behavior! I bet they had a good laugh at dinner time.

farmgirl said...

Also, working w/animals that cannot express how they feel- I’ve developed a sensitivity to mood. When bovines have something to “say” about hunger, thirst- heats, soreness, anxiety… you name it- I have to listen w/my eyes and ears. Feeling is more than a word to explain me emotionally, it’s a verb. An actual verb.

Thinking, feeling, understanding… are wiggle-room words that possibly soften how thoughts are accepted.

Not a good trait in a law setting lol

chuck said...

It started dying out in the late 70’s

I had a class like that, about 1965. It was weird, it was like poetry contained nothing but words, G*d forbid that the author was speaking to us.

Rabel said...

I feel that Thoreau would have wanted to see a more generous use of line breaks in video text.

Gahrie said...

Gahrie, another commenter here, happened to go to high school with me. He may remember that I was the same IRL, all those years ago.

All I remember is a golden princess with the voice of an angel whom I was content to play court jester for.

Also one of only two people at the school who was smarter than me. (Kim Zwicky being the other one)

Stephen St. Onge said...

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...
So I’m guessing ‘linguist’ is short hand for; “I say stupid shit for a living.”? At least that’s the impression I get from McWhorter and Chomsky.
______________

Both are quite intelligent and sensible men, when they aren’t talking politics. But humans can’t seem to keep separate things separate, and they like to talk politics. So they keep injecting politics into non-political subjects.

Thus spaketh Stevathrustra.

Stephen St. Onge said...

Blogger JK Brown said...
Internet pioneer Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay in 2004 on writing in the wake of the English department tyranny. The “term paper” might be amenable in academia but it is horrible outside of law in IRL. And it can all be laid at the door of moving rhetoric teachers, teaching a skill, into the English department where research is the key to advancement. I have to agree. I found ‘Freshman Rhetoric’ by John Rothwell Slater (1919) and would have loved learning writing as he presents it. Instead, students are taught to hate writing because they are forced to do literary criticism for which they are wholly unsuited.
___________

        I was lucky enough to have a teacher who knew the difference. At the beginning of my first class with him, we were told to pick a topic, any topic in the world, for a short essay.  Then we were to write a brief description of the topic we proposed to write about, and turn it in.

        Next class, he presents the brief descriptions, and comments solely on how suitable they’d be for a brief essay.  One student proposed a topic on the relationship of Communist govts. and their populations.  His comment: “You’d need a book to cover this.  A three page essay on this would be idiotic.”

        Learned a lot about writing from that man.