Thursday, January 07, 2010

Doing both at once

The Language Log recently fielded a query about the difference between two English sentences:

(1) He was playing a violin when the visitor arrived.
(2) He was playing the violin when the visitor arrived.
Geoffrey K. Pullum replied sensibly that, while “[b]oth (1) and (2) are simply saying that he was engaged in violin-playing when the visitor arrived,” there is nevertheless a discernible difference between them:If you view violin as a count noun denoting individual objects 4-stringed objects with f-holes, then if he was playing a particular one of those objects, sentence (1) is appropriate. But you can also view violin as referring to a sort of abstract object, the species of musical instrument known by that name around the world. In that case the claim is that he was participating in a sort of worldwide fraternity of violinists by engaging in the relevant activity. No particular violin is relevant. And that makes the second sentence acceptable.This seems exactly right, even though it reminds me of Brenda’s quip in Goodbye, Columbus. When a young man goes on pretentiously about “the film,” Brenda snaps, “Which film?” In both cases, the definite article denotes a class or category, what in literary criticism would be called a genre: it is prefixed to a noncount noun, which refers to a tradition of human activity or what Pullum calls a “worldwide fraternity.” (More in a moment on why I prefer the former phrase.)

But then Pullum makes a claim that strikes me as inexact at best, false at worst. While I can only play one particular violin or watch one particular film at any one time, I stand in what he calls a “player-of [or watcher-of] relation to the whole species” whenever I play or watch. Consequently, “whenever one happens, the other one always happens as well,” he concludes, emphasizing every word.

But is that true?

Here are two similar sentences:(1) We are studying a novel this week in Myers’s class.
(2) We are studying the novel this week in Myers’s class.
Pullum would be on safe ground, in my opinion, if he were to argue that no one in my class could possibly do (2) without also doing (1). The study of the tradition of the novel is forever dependent upon the study of discrete and individual novels. But is the reverse the case? Is someone who reads a novel to kill a stretch of time—before falling asleep at night, say, or on the beach during vacation—necessarily engaging with the tradition?

Accepting Pullum’s language makes me even more skeptical. Is a middle-school student, enrolled in orchestra as an elective, who never practices and leaves his instrument at school—I have just described myself at a younger age—really “participating in a sort of worldwide fraternity of violinists” when he saws at the strings lackadaisically in class?

I don’t think so. On my view, an activity like playing the violin or studying the novel is a fusion of what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle termed repertoires and abilities. Mastery depends upon both: the ability to play a violin or study a novel is nothing without a repertoire of pieces to play or novels to read. But what is more, the ability is latent within the repertoire, much as hidden features of a video game are unlocked by beating a level of difficulty.

However, neither playing a violin nor studying a novel depends upon the ambition of mastery. I can be content to play badly—I was content to play badly—or I can finish the work in a course on the novel without accepting the premise upon which the study of the novel is founded.

What must be added to his account in order to justify Pullum’s claim that “whenever one happens, the other one always happens as well,” is deep caring. If and only if I value the activity can I possibly belong to its worldwide fraternity whenever I perform the activity. Wanting to acquire the ability is not enough. I must also want the repertoire. I must want to come into possession of it, to feel at home in it. Then and only then can it be true that I am doing (2) whenever I do (1).

The word for this fusion of ability and repertoire is tradition. Whether I belong to a worldwide fraternity is irrelevant, as long as I alone am capable of enjoying the tradition.


Anonymous said...

I think that, with the violin example, you are saying "a" violin to denote that it is one of many such similar instruments, whereas "the violin" is used to denote the colloquial for referring to a muscial instrument as "the (violin, piano, etc.).

With the novel example, you are saying two very different things. "A" novel refers to a specific one out of many, all of which are different. If one is studying "the" novel, one may be either studying novels in general, or it could be taken in context to mean a specific novel (the title of which has been previously mentioned in the text or conversation).

D. G. Myers said...

No, I disagree entirely. Consider the middle-school student in orchestra:

“Mr Myers, what is that you are playing?”

“The violin, sir.”

“You may be playing a violin, Mr Myers, but you are not playing the violin.”

R/T said...

You hit upon an interesting concept when you seek to make distinctions with differences between articles. I want to take some time to think more about what you are saying here, and I want to respond more later, but for the moment, since you have already mentioned Roth's novel (which I am currently rereading), I leave you with these questions upon which to ponder (and upon which to comment if you wish):
(1) What is the difference between a diaphragm and the diaphragm? (2) What is the difference between an art book and the art book? (3) What is the difference between a religious culture and the religious culture?

Lee said...

Just to complicate matters, what is the difference between 'I play violin?' and 'I play the violin?'

The sort of questions that come up when I translate ...

shade said...

You are mixing apples and oranges and describing the way you would like the language to be used, not the way it is used. (Your band teacher was making a joke, not using the language idiomatically.) If you ask any parent of a beginning band member what instrument their child plays, they will say "the saxophone," (or just "saxophone") -- not "a saxophone." "Worldwide fraternity" is just Pullum's facetious way of referring to the collection of everybody in the world that plays violin (note, no article at all).

Your distinction between studying "a novel" and "the novel" is different. Here, as you point out, "the novel" does mean "novels taken as a whole" or "the tradition of the novel." But a person who "plays the violin" is not playing "violins taken as a whole" or "the tradition of the violin." He plays one violin at a time, though perhaps not the same one every time.

D. G. Myers said...


Did you read the whole of my little essay? My point is that the violin and the novel are both apples. Both entail abilities and repertoires to engage them fully.

Since I am not an ordinary language philosopher, I am not knocked flat by assertions about idiomatic usage. Besides, my orchestra teacher may have been making a joke at my expense (Hi, Mr Varsik!), but the joke works because it plays upon a recognizable idiomatic distinction.

Perhaps, instead of merely contradicting me, (“No it’s not!” “Yes it is!”), commentators might extend the distinction and Pullum’s and my claims about it to other usages of the language. (As opposed, of course, to a language.)

D. G. Myers said...


I take “I play violin” as an abbreviation of “I play the violin.”

D. G. Myers said...


The differences, it seems to me, are these. A diaphragm is just any old diaphragm; the diaphragm is the one that Mrs Patimkin found in Brenda’s drawer. The art book strikes my ear, upon first hearing, as a reference to a publishing tradition rather than a literary genre. While the life of the synagogue may be a religious culture, the language and symbolism of a vague and unspecific Protestantism—but Protestanism nevertheless—is the religious culture of the United States.

R/T said...

Let be more particular about my understanding of the distinctions:
A diaphragm is a general concept (at first resisted by Brenda when suggested by Neil), and it becomes particularized (correct word?) when Brenda emerges from the doctor's office because it (THE diaphragm) then alters relationships and outcomes.
An art book could have been any one of hundreds in the library when the boy begins browsing, but it becomes THE art book when the boy attaches importance to the Gaugin (which is also specifically sought by the older library patron); as AN art book, it was an abstract idea, but as THE art book, it becomes the center of tension, conflict, and personal growth.
With respect to religious culture--well, I need to give it more thought, but my initial thought has something to do with the protagonist's conflicted position within American Jewish culture.
More to follow.

R/T said...

Let me stake out a different kind of argument with respect to the articles a and the. My argument is founded upon my relatively simple (i.e., not terribly sophisticated) approach to the subject because of my years as an English composition instructor for classes composed mostly of college freshmen (among whom there have been more than a few foreign students). Of course, you already know all of this, but I’m offering it here as a way of explaining my more simple approach when I encounters the articles under discussion in texts.
As modifiers (i.e, functioning as adjectives), the articles a, an, and the are most easily understood by students (especially ESL students) as indefinite and definite articles/modifiers. The articles a and an are indefinite; thus, a novel simply alerts readers to a reference to an unspecified (indefinite) novel, but the novel alerts readers to a specific (definite) novel. In the latter usage, more modification is essential—in most cases—if the reader is to understand properly which novel is being cited.
With respect to literary criticism, though, I remain guided by the foregoing guidelines, and I remain unconvinced about the necessity of unnecessarily abstracting the argument (as linguists and grammarians tend to do sometimes). So, in my previously argued example, a diaphragm has one connotation within the novel, but the diaphragm has a quite different connotation, both explicitly and implicitly because of the contexts in which either a or the occur within the narrative.
Well, having said all of the foregoing, I now wonder if I have advanced the discussion in any meaningful way. Or am I still too bogged down in the mindset needed to teach freshmen the very basics of grammar and usage? I leave the answers to you and your readers.

R/T said...

FYI, I have a bit more to say about GOODBYE, COLUMBUS at Novels, Stories, and More.

Lincoln Hunter said...

Several years ago, Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan novelist living in France, wrote a book titled "Racism, As Explained To My Daughter". In this book he tells his daughter "You are not born a racist, you become one."
Well, maybe, I thought, but ...... you are not born a non-racist either, yet very few people seem to become one. Especially in America.
I find the term 'racism' to be a hurdle to addressing the problem of racial discrimination. A mere recognition of differences is not inherently racist. To think it is reinforces stupid thought.
The cover story of the March/April 2000 issue of Poets and Writers magazine was the novelist Ana Castillo. In the interview, Castillo remarks that she doesn't write in "standard white English" but in "second-language English." In her creative moments, she "rejects hierarchical thinking characteristical of Western Culture" and chooses instead "spirituality." She speaks disapprovingly of "the homogenization of Latino culture" and states that she doesn't write for a 'gringo audience."
Is this racist? Or is it an honest recognition of differences?
I believe it is the latter.
What would persons who became non-racist be like? How would they deal with the recognition of differences? How would they employ the concept of difference without offending someone? And if they were unsuccessful in this effort, would they be termed 'racist'?
What man hasn't felt at a disadvantage upon finding himself in a room full of women? Or, vice versa?
What poor person wouldn't be intimidated by the wealth and luxury of Tiffanys?
At school bus stops, the girls cluster on one side while the boys form their own group some distance away. This is normal, natural, even comical. But if whites and blacks form their own groups in a college cafeteria, this is evidence of racism. Why?
If we can be taught racism, is it possible that we can be taught to see racism where it doesn't exist in order to help us in the struggle to eliminate it where it can be found?
If so, how will we know when we have done the best that can be done?

Anonymous said...

I want not agree on it. I think polite post. Specially the title-deed attracted me to be familiar with the unscathed story.

D. G. Myers said...

Oh, man. I couldn’t agree more. Same prose recumbent not uploading to fun spleen, sir.