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Linguistics Communities – “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays” – David Foster Wallace

July 10th, 2011 · No Comments · Writing

Clearly, as linguistic communities evolve over time, they discover that some ways of using language are better than others—not better a priori, but better with respect to the community’s purposes. If we assume that one such purpose might be communicating which kinds of food are safe to eat, then we can see how, for example, a misplaced modifier could violate an important norm: “People who eat that kind of mushroom often get sick” confuses the message’s recipient about whether he’ll get sick only if he eats the mushroom frequently or whether he stands a good chance of getting sick the very first time he eats it. In other words, the fungiphagic community has a vested practical interest in excluding this kind of misplaced modifier from acceptable usage; and, given the purposes the community uses language for, the fact that a certain percentage of tribesmen screw up and use misplaced modifiers to talk about food safety does not eo ipso make m.m.’s a good idea.

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