Uncommon knowledge

Don’t hold that thought

At some point, you’ve probably heard (or even uttered) the phrase “try not to think about…” Unfortunately, a recent study suggests that this is likely to backfire. Researchers asked regular smokers to spend a week either suppressing or promoting thoughts about smoking, without changing their actual smoking habits. Those who had tried to suppress their thoughts ended up smoking more the following week. The researchers also found that smokers who tended to suppress thoughts in their everyday lives reported having tried and failed to quit smoking more times than other smokers.

Erskine, J. et al., “I Suppress, Therefore I Smoke: Effects of Thought Suppression on Smoking Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

How helplessness changes what you believe

Atheists may wonder why people believe in God, while believers may wonder about them. But perhaps their worlds are not so different after all. In an experiment with mostly secular Dutch university students, researchers found that people are quite willing to change their worldview to maintain some semblance of order. First, the students were asked to recall a situation where they lacked control and to come up with several reasons why the future is uncontrollable. Then they were asked to choose which of two theories “provides the best framework to explain the origin of life on this planet.” The students who had contemplated being without control were more inclined to endorse intelligent design — or, alternatively, a more deterministic version of evolution — over the randomness of standard evolutionary theory.

Rutjenslow, B. et al., “Deus or Darwin: Randomness and Belief in Theories about the Origin of Life,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

What narcissists are good for

At work, in the news, or on “reality” shows like “Survivor” or “The Apprentice,” narcissism and success seem to go hand-in-hand. However, according to a new study, the direct influence of narcissists is probably less important than their indirect influence. While the study finds that narcissists are perceived to be more creative — ostensibly because they do a better job of selling themselves — there is little objective evidence of their superior creativity. Yet, the narcissist manages to create more than a self-serving reputation; he can also stimulate his peers to be more creative, especially if there is another narcissist competing for attention. Of course, like cooks in a kitchen, a group can sustain only so many narcissists before it breaks down.

Goncalo, J. et al., “From a Mirage to an Oasis: Narcissism, Perceived Creativity, and Creative Performance,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (forthcoming).

Prison, engine of crime

The incarceration rate in this country quadrupled between 1975 and 2005. Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the reasons behind this surge, the assumption all along has been that prison does what legislators and judges expect it to do: reduce crime. However, a new analysis challenges this assumption. While prison tends to reduce crime by keeping dangerous people off the street and deterring future crime, most inmates get released back into the community, where they may have trouble reintegrating, leading to more crime. The question is whether the number of crimes averted by the incapacitation and deterrent effect of prison is greater than the number of additional crimes caused by inmates after their release. Indeed, the analysis finds that prison is a net creator of crime, especially violent crime.

DeFina, R. & Hannon, L., “For Incapacitation, There Is No Time Like the Present: The Lagged Effects of Prisoner Reentry on Property and Violent Crime Rates,” Social Science Research (forthcoming).

The weak link in privacy: you

With the Internet reaching into every corner of our lives, many people are understandably concerned about privacy. Or so they say. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that people are unwittingly flexible when it comes to disclosing sensitive information. For example, the researchers presented hundreds of students with computer surveys asking questions about “the types of behaviors that college students engage in.” Some of the surveys had an informal look (with the title “How BAD Are U???”) and some of the surveys had an official look (with the title “Carnegie Mellon University Executive Council Survey on Ethical Behaviors”). Students were more willing to admit bad behavior — especially for more intrusive questions — and reported less concern about their privacy in the informal-looking survey, even though one would expect the official-looking survey to offer more protection from misuse. As the authors note, “marketers may be particularly successful in obtaining private information when they make the fewest promises to protect consumers’ privacy.”

John, L. et al., “Strangers on a Plane: Context-dependent Willingness to Divulge Sensitive Information,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/12/surprising_insights_from_the_social_sciences/

The pause that annoys

When a comma makes life needlessly hard

Punctuation, quietly doing its job, rarely arouses the passions of the general public the way buzzwords and mispronunciations do. Yes, certain manly writers enjoy denouncing the wimpy semicolon, and spotting misused apostrophes is a popular pastime. But when you hear people arguing about the serial comma or the overuse of dashes, they’re probably editors.

The folks behind National Punctuation Day, coming up Sept. 24, would like to change that (and sell a few T-shirts). Their previous ploys to raise punctuation awareness have included a baking contest and a recipe for the holiday’s “official” meatloaf (in the all-too-appropriate shape of a question mark). This year’s challenge is a great leap forward in literacy: Readers are invited to compose haiku about (and involving) punctuation. Among the samples at the website:

Are you Brit or Yank? Show me your quotation marks And I’ll tell you which. I won’t be competing for a coffee mug, but NPD seems like the perfect opportunity to explore a subtle rule of punctuation that has probably cost publishers way, way more than its benefit to readers warrants.

You probably know the rule about setting off nonrestrictive elements — the descriptive bits that could be omitted without changing the essential meaning of a sentence — with commas: “The berries, which were moldy, went straight into the compost.” Well, it also applies to words in apposition, which are sometimes restrictive and sometimes not. The Chicago Manual of Style explains it this way: If you write “My older sister, Betty, taught me the alphabet,” you are implying that Betty is your only older sister. But if you write “My sister Enid lets me hold her doll” — with no commas around the name — Enid is not your only sister.

The rule is not hard to apply, if you know Betty and Enid’s sibling situations. But what if you don’t? In a New Yorker article last year, John McPhee remembered facing this problem when fact-checking his 2003 book, “The Founding Fish.” In his draft, he had “Penn’s daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, and wrote home to a brother asking him to ‘buy for me a four joynted, strong fishing Rod.’ ” But McPhee didn’t know whether Margaret’s name needed commas; was she an only daughter? The punctuation “would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one,” he wrote. “The commas were not just commas; they were facts.”

But were they important facts? It’s easy enough to find out how many children William Penn had (yes, Margaret had a sister). But suppose the father in question was a more obscure figure, or a fictional character. How much time should you spend finding the answer — commas or no commas — to a question nobody’s asking?

As a former editor, I can attest that hours are wasted in researching such trivia. Did your profile subject get a phone call from “his brother Mark” or from “his brother, Mark”? Did she inherit from “her cousin, Mary,” or “her cousin Mary”? The rule even requires that you write “my husband, Dave,” and not “my husband Dave,” because the latter suggests there’s more than one husband.

There’s not a lot of debate about the value of this convention, perhaps because it’s a fairly recent fetish. The New York Times must have been enforcing it in the ’50s, because Timesman Theodore Bernstein, in his 1958 book “Watch Your Language,” treated it as dogma; he objected to a news story’s mention of both “his daughter Zinaida” and “his daughter, Zinaida,” saying “both versions cannot be correct.” But in their Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, published just a year earlier, Bergen and Cornelia Evans were more flexible: “Sometimes the relation between an appositive and the preceding noun is so close that the two form a unified idea, such as the River Tiber and my brother Dick. In this case the commas are not needed.”

Earlier usage bears out the Evanses’ observation. For instance, beginning in 1938, The New Yorker published the embellished memoirs that became the book (and play and movie) “My Sister Eileen.” No other sisters are mentioned, yet the magazine’s editors felt no need to make it “My Sister, Eileen.” As far as I know, J.R. Ackerley had only one dog, but his 1956 memoir (like the current film) is called “My Dog Tulip,” not “My Dog, Tulip.” Misleading? Inaccurate? I don’t think so.

My modest proposal, then, is that we return to the tolerant days of yore, when these familial appositive commas were optional. When it comes to mothers, fathers, and spouses, we can assume people have one each, commas or not, unless we’re told otherwise. As for children and siblings, in-laws and cousins, yachts and cats and gerbils, unless their number is somehow germane to the story, who cares?

Or to put my argument in the preferred form of this year’s Punctuation Day observance:

There’s my sister Peg! — Is that sister, comma, Peg? None of your business.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/12/when_a_comma_makes_life_needlessly_hard/

‘All’s I Know . . .’

Jan Conaway writes: “The first time I heard someone say ‘All’s I know is . . .’ was in the 1980s. As I’m sure you have noticed, this annoying expression has since become more and more prevalent, and I realize there is no hope that it will disappear. Do you know where all’s actually originated?”

The Dictionary of American Regional English, the go-to reference for local American speech patterns, explains that all’s started off as a contraction of all as, with as working like the relative pronoun that. In a speech survey of Amherst, Mass., in 1967, DARE reports, expressions like “All’s I get is” or “All’s he can do is” were in frequent use among some locals in their mid- to late-20s. A 1975 guide to Maine lingo by the columnist John Gould spelled the regional version as alst, giving the example, “Alst I know is what they tell me.”

The use of as in place of that or who was once widespread in both England and the United States. Shakespeare used it: a character in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” speaks of “those as sleep and think not on their sins.” In contemporary English, such usage has been considered  nonstandard, and even the dialects that retain this kind of as don’t use it in all cases. Sentences that introduce a subordinate clause with all (what linguists call all-clefts) are one part of the language where as meaning “that” has lingered.

Nineteenth-century writers, both British and American, frequently put all as in the mouths of rural or lower-class types, as in “All as we’ve got to do is to trusten,” from George Eliot’s “Silas Marner.” Contracting the two words into all’s or alls seems like an obvious way of representing a rapid pronunciation. One early example is from “Hearts of Oak,” an American play from 1879, in which a hardy Massachusetts fisherman says, “All’s I got to say is, Heaven bless the gal as you’d take hum for a wife.” Keeping with the nautical theme, a story published by The Los Angeles Times in 1894 has an old sailor telling a tale of a sea serpent: “Did we hit the beast? Well, that I can’t say. All’s I know there was a sudwint swish, and next minute the Betsy B. went plungin’ down. . . .”

You don’t have to be a wizened seaman to use “All’s I know” these days, but it’s still quite colloquial. It’s hard to say if there has been a marked increase in spoken usage over recent years or if we’re simply seeing it represented in print and online more often, along with other colloquialisms that pepper easygoing prose. In any case, it has become a fixed idiom, no longer connected to bygone dialects where as could serve as a relative pronoun. Much like “How’s about it?” or “Just so’s you know . . .”, the extra ’s in “All’s I know” might now simply add a breezy air of informality.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/12/magazine/12onlanguage.html