[Lingtyp] Conscious choice of linguistic examples

Sebastian Nordhoff sebastian.nordhoff at glottotopia.de
Tue Mar 22 07:17:53 UTC 2022

Dear all,
consider the following illustrations of an adversative construction

(1) My hat is red but my shirt is blue.
(2) My hat is ochre but my shirt is teal.

If your point is simply to illustrate the use of "but" in English, (1) 
is preferable to (2). Readers are not distracted by the use of uncommon 
colour terms, which have no impact whatsoever on the construction under 

When discussing grammatical phenomena, a common device to avoid 
distraction is to not vary participants in the article/book. This is why 
you get "John" and "Mary" all over the place. Upon seeing a sentence 
with "John" and "Mary", readers know immediately that the linguistic 
phenomenon to be discussed will focus on the words of the sentence which 
are not "John" and "Mary". This makes processing on the reader's side 
easier as compared to examples with a wide variety of names.

This strategy is used in other disciplines as well. In cryptography, it 
is always Alice who wants to send a message to Bob, and Eve tries to 
intercept it. It would confuse readers if all of a sudden a different 
set of characters emerged and people would have to backtrack whether 
Marie-Pierre was the sender or the receiver.

There is thus some didactic value in having 

The same didactic value holds for non-names, eg verbs or adjectives. 
"See" is the prototypical perception verb. One could use "smell", but 
readers should be faster in getting the stimulus-experiencer frame for 
"see". If your point is to talk about experiencers, start the discussion 
with "see" or "hear", not with "smell".

To come back to transitive verbs, "hit" and "kill" are pretty much the 
"John and Mary" of the verbal domain. Readers will know that these verbs 
stand in for "affected patient" and "animate patient" and can 
extrapolate from there. You could of course use "tickle", but it will 
take longer for readers to process that the point you are making is 
"affected patient" and "animate patient".

This is the didactic motivation.

On the other hand, there are motivations of naturalness. Not all 
linguists think that the study of made-up examples of the type "John 
gives Mary the book" is a worthwhile exercise.

Then, you get motivations of diversity and representation, which 
conflict with a fixed set of characters with traditional Western names 
and their roles. The characters' roles are furthermore stereotyped (that 
is the idea for Alice, Bob, and Eve to begin with), but of course 
breaking (or not perpetuating) stereotypes is also a motivation writers 
can have.

So you get the competing motivations of didactics, naturalness, and 

Depending on the type of paper you write, one or the other of these 
motivations will prevail. But it is clear that this is a choice of the 
author whether "John hits Mary" or "Fatima tickled Li" are more suitable 
in the argument to be made. In line what has been said in this thread 
before, authors should realise that the choice of participants and verbs 
is in their power. This is not so much about policing (come on, no one 
will fine you!), but about realising which motivations can have an 
impact on your examples.

Best wishes

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