Submissive Sentences


By Jessica Love

February 9, 2012


The earnest folks behind the website Real Psychic Powers insist that anyone can develop the ability to communicate telepathically. This possibility intrigues me, appealing as it does to both my egalitarian sense that all people are capable of great things and my pragmatic sense that, were every other person on the planet telepathic, my life would become considerably easier. I would not, at long last, have to squeeze my thoughts into words in order to make them understandable to others.

Given the seemingly infinite number of ways to express anything we wish, communication can be utterly exhausting. Prefer a scoop of Cherry Garcia over the Chunky Monkey? I’ll take the Cherry Garcia, please, we can say, or Not the Chunky Monkey. Alternatively, we can say, I’ll go with the Cherry Garcia, or Cherry Garcia for me, thanks, or The cherry one or Not banana because the smell makes me nauseated, or simply Cherry.

For purely practical purposes, psycholinguists are most interested in those choices that, at least on the surface, are most arbitrary. The difference between saying I’ll take the Cherry Garcia and I’ll go with the Cherry Garcia is clearly more arbitrary than the difference between I’ll take the Cherry Garcia and Not banana because the smell makes me nauseated. In the former case, researchers can plausibly assume that a person could have made either remark (and thus interpret what was said as a choice between two possibilities), but in the latter, this assumption is obviously unfounded.

One of the most studied “arbitrary” choices is between the two forms of the dative alternation. In one form—the double-object form—the indirect and direct objects are placed consecutively, as in, The employee handed the young boy the ice cream (where the young boy is the indirect object, or recipient of the action, and the ice cream is the direct object, which is acted upon). In the other form—the preposition form—the indirect object is the object of a preposition (often to), as in, The employee handed the ice cream to the young boy. From a purely logical point of view, both forms are equally true. Still, I put the word arbitrary in quotes because some researchers are of the opinion that no choice is entirely arbitrary, and no two nonidentical phrases can ever carry identical meanings.

For one thing, the placement of the indirect object—first (in the double-object form) or second (in the preposition form)—seems to depend on how much it has been talked about already. All else being equal, information that has been already been discussed is likelier to appear early in a sentence. If we’ve already been talking for several minutes about ice cream, then I’d be more likely to say The employee handed the ice cream to the young boy than The employee handed the young boy the ice cream. This is because words in the final position of a sentence (as well as, incidentally, words in the subject position) tend to be better remembered than words in the middle of a sentence. Thus, the first version puts emphasis on the young boy, which is news to the audience, and the second puts emphasis on the ice cream, already old hat.

Additionally, people also have a preference to push the longer of the two different noun phrases to the final position in the sentence. For an extreme example, consider the following: The employee handed Ted a waffle cone that was topped with three scoops of Cherry Garcia and a single scoop of Chunky Monkey ice cream. It sounds fine, but the alternative, The employee handed a waffle cone that was topped with three scoops of Cherry Garcia and a single scoop of Chunky Monkey ice cream to Ted, borders on the ridiculous, as if Ted were simply tacked on as an afterthought.

To what extent then do we choose one form over another? Are we truly free to sound ridiculous? Of course we are. But in subtle, probabilistic ways, a message shapes its mode. As speakers and writers, we’re still in control, but only because we also oversee the message.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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