I spend a lot of time in my day job quantifying things, and apparently this falls under one of the many things I do that other people think is cool, because, as with Global Positioning System work and wearing wrap-around sunglasses, I often find people doing it in inappropriate contexts. Today I find yet another in a long line of people desperately trying to score language and grammar. This time, it’s in the New York Times, and involves trying to figure out which works of literature the speeches of various politicians are most similar to. The method of comparison uses axes of “complexity” and “positivity” to classify both books and speeches. I could delve into why these things are hard to quantify in language, and why it might not work, but we don’t really need to get into all that. Besides, Language Log is better at that than I’ll every be. But there’s no need to get all clever about it; there are two much simpler ways to examine this whole thing.
First, let’s look at the results. Are Ted Cruz’s speeches similar, in any meaningful or useful way, to Beowulf? Has anyone ever listened to Bernie Sanders speak and thought it sounded like James Joyce’s Ulysses? No. The answer is no. So the final results don’t help much.
But heck, let’s also look at the axes of the graph. Is Peter Pan really characterized by it’s relentlessly negative language? Is the language in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat really simple? Again, maybe in some sense, but from a purely practical sense, is that a useful sense? No. So apparently the scoring system doesn’t really work, either.
So there we go. Back to counting personal pronouns.