[Lingtyp] Conscious choice of linguistic examples

Maia Ponsonnet maia.ponsonnet at uwa.edu.au
Tue Mar 22 08:18:12 UTC 2022


But this precisely assumes that "John" and "Mary" are unmarked first names.
Which I do not believe to be accurate anymore in the context of a student population in Australia for instance (speaking of what I know).
Presuming unmarkedness implicitly postulates a certain category of population as a norm (including color, age, probably social class...).

And it seems even more problematic to consider that "John hits Mary" is unmarked 😉.

In my opinion, it is worth risking to distract readers/students ever so slightly to avoid perpetuating stereotypes.
Plus distraction can be a good thing!

I have found that when presenting tedious grammatical phenomena about a minority language, semantically rich examples can be used as our "window" onto speakers' personalities, lives, cultures, inclinations etc. It is also a way to make speakers visible as individuals, and show respect, as pointed out by Felicity.

In teaching contexts, such rich examples often trigger background questions that allow to give flesh to somewhat disincarnated theories. This sort of distraction is a good pedagogical tool to maintain interest and attention. As a reader, I find this applies to the scientific literature as well.

Cheers and kind regards, Maïa

Dr Maïa Ponsonnet
Adjunct Researcher, Discipline of Linguistics

Building M257

The University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Hwy, Perth, WA (6009), Australia

From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of Sebastian Nordhoff <sebastian.nordhoff at glottotopia.de>
Sent: Tuesday, 22 March 2022 8:17 AM
To: lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: [Lingtyp] Conscious choice of linguistic examples

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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