Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Can "argue that" mean "argue against"?

As a fairly heavy user of the em dash, I was please to see Erin Brenner 's defense of it at Visual Thesaurus (responding to a rather heavy-handed Slate article that called for abolishing the punctuation mark entirely).

But Brenner herself used one construction I think is odd, and relatively new (decades old, that is, rather than centuries). Yes, that may be the Recency Illusion at work. But I suspect her usage is more acceptable to younger speakers of English. The construction in question:

I won't argue that writers sometimes overuse the em dash.

What Brenner means is (in my dialect), "I won't dispute that writers sometimes overuse the em dash." It's the Slate writer who "argues that writers [do] sometimes overuse the em dash"; Brenner is countering that argument. And for me, "to argue that" means only "to state the case for" something -- not to argue against it. The OED seems to agree, since there's no definition or example of "argue that" meaning "dispute that" or "argue against the notion that."

Judging from a quick look at Google News, it looks as if "argue that" for "dispute that" generally appears in the negative form -- "I certainly would not argue that providing the opportunity for someone to take time off if they're not feeling well is a good idea," for instance. So maybe the people who use it assume that the not is enough to reverse the sense of "argue that." Not for me! "She argues that the em dash is overused" means "she makes a case for its being overused"; but "she doesn't argue that the em dash is overused" means she doesn't make a case for its being overused  -- not that she doesn't dispute the claim of overuse.

The usage isn't all that common in edited prose, apparently, and I can't find any stylebook advice or commentary on the issue; anyone else?


John Cowan said...

I certainly am fine with won't/can't argue that, since failing to argue for something is not the same as arguing against it. But argue that in a positive-polarity context can't mean 'argue against, dispute that' for me any more than it can for you. I'd guess this more likely a slip than a settled but minority usage like positive-polarity anymore.

Jeff Binder said...

I would think what's happening is that Brenner is treating the verb phrase "won't argue" as atomic, since it's somewhat idiomatic. The "that", then, would be the same as in the sentence "I'm happy that you came."

I've never heard this usage before, and if I had to guess I'd say it's an anomaly. It's definitely in error in my (East-/Mid-American) dialect, although if the sentence appears in the right context and I'm reading quickly I could see myself getting the intended meaning out of it.

Kay L. Davies said...

Okay, taking a deep breath here because the comment form opens in a new page.
To me, the sentence in boldface means, "I won't say writers sometimes overuse the em dash."
On the other hand, if someone DOES say ,"Writers sometimes overuse the em dash," she could reply, "I won't argue that." In this case, she is saying, "I agree, they sometimes do."
Having only recently discovered how to make an em dash on my iMac, I'm overusing it like crazy, and enjoying it, too, but I'll get over it.
Can you find an old (circa 1960-70) AP Style Book? Or an old Strunk and White "Elements of Style"?
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

~Heidi~ said...

I think the sentence should read thus:

I won't argue -- writers sometimes overuse the em dash.

Just for fun.

Carolyn Roosevelt said...

I agree, 'argue that' is positive; here's another way to put the negation in there, if that's what you want to do. "I won't argue that writers never overuse the em-dash."

It's funny that 'dispute' is the closest way to say "...argue against the claim that..."

The Ridger, FCD said...

I think she means "I won't argue about" not "against". I've heard and used that construction - maybe it's regional? It's ambiguous in print; in speech the intonation is different:

I WON'T argue that (about) vs I won't arGUE that (for).

I don't actually use "argue" much, though

Ø said...

Monty Python reminds us about the difference between an argument--a connected series of statements leading to a definite conclusion--and plain contradiction.

Anonymous said...

The sentence sounds fine to my (60 year old, Midwestern U.S.) ears. I think that argue may have assumed some of dispute's meaning.

Bryan White said...

No, I think you're absolutely right, but I wouldn't just dismiss the problem as a modern quirk. To me, it just sounds like sloppy writing as well as sloppy thinking. If someone says, "I won't argue that...", then this should be followed by a statement of the position they won't bother to defend. This is the only thing that makes sense.

It's an easy mistake to make. You hear it all the time. Someone will say something like, "I won't argue that people spend too much time on their cell phones" when they really mean, "I won't argue that people don't spent too much time on their cell phones." Again though, it's sloppiness, and it chips away at properly conveying meaning, which is, after all, the main function of language in the first place. One could discern what the person means, by tone and placing the statement in context. If the sentence is followed by a statement of the virtues of cell phones, then one would infer that the speaker's meaning is actually the second sentence although they used the first, but the speaker is causing the listener needless confusion because of their own laziness of expression. The meaning is blurred, and the communication is sloppy.

The problem is similar to the infamous double negative, which seems like it's here to stay despite the best efforts to get rid of it. It may be "more acceptable to younger speakers", but it's still wrong.

Some people like to complain that all this is nitpicking, but consider the old "can/may" problem. People use the words as though they're interchangeable, and they get away with it, and people generally understand what they mean, but the words aren't interchangeable. To treat them as if they are, blurs the line between their distinct meanings, and slowly breaks down the precision of language.

Jean said...

I was going to say, what is an "em dash"? But Heidi answered that question for me. You're absolutely right about "argue that".

languagehat said...

I agree with you, and I hope it's just an isolated slip rather than a sign of shifting usage. But that, of course, is just my old-fogey clinging to the form of English I grew up with.

People use the words as though they're interchangeable, and they get away with it, and people generally understand what they mean, but the words aren't interchangeable. To treat them as if they are, blurs the line between their distinct meanings, and slowly breaks down the precision of language.

And yet somehow the "precision of language" has survived millions and millions of similar changes. People who grow up with "argue that" = "dispute that" will find it silly that we complained about it. Language changes, friend, and there's no stopping it; all you can do is hang on and try not to get thrown.

T. Roger Thomas said...

I certainly agree with you when you writer that "to argue that' means only 'to state the case for' something".

Bryan White said...

@languagehat: I agree that any living language is dynamic, fluid, and evolving. Yesterday's "gay" means something completely different today, and so on. I'm not trying to be pedantic and suggest that language needs to be rigid and inflexible. Sorry if I came off that way. I agree that it needs flexibility, vitality, and room to grow.

At the same time though, I think language deserves a degree of respect and grammar shouldn't be seen as merely a refuge for stuffy nitpickers. The rules can be flexible, yes, but they're also there to help us express ourselves to one another. What may seem like a split-hair can sometimes be a crucial point and people that say they ain't got to know nothing about no grammar might skate by, but they'll probably find their ability to express themselves in life to be a bit limited. It's like they've deliberately taken on a disability.

Take the present example here. When you get right down to the core of the matter, I think the problem is that many people confuse the difference between arguing for something and arguing about something. It's a subtle difference, but it's a subtlety that makes all the difference.

In this confusion, the meaning of "arguing" as a reasoned, perhaps even noble, stand on an issue gets lost in favor of "arguing" as meaning pointless, petty bickering. We're at least three generations deep into this confusion, and I'd be willing to bet that there are children today, and even grown adults, who know the word only in its negative sense. "Arguing" to them is a sign of bad manners and an ill-temper. The connotation teaches them that it's wrong to put up a fight, period. As such, there are evils in the world that might go unaddressed because it's "bad to argue." It's better to go with the flow, to tolerate and compromise. Arguers are trouble-makers and angry people. I'm exaggerating a little, I suppose, but there can be shifts in perception like that, and the shifts begin with language. Ask George Orwell.

DeanQ said...

Orwell was describing something different from the natural evolution of senses of meaning that arises from usage. Words do not have "real" or "correct" or "inherent meanings. If they did, we wouldn't have different languages since everything would have only one name. Language is not something devised by man to serve his purposes - it's a force of nature that follows its own rules, and one of them is "things change" - another is "usage is king."

Patrick Neylan said...

This depresses me. Of course "argue that" means you are proposing something. To use it any other way suggests such a profound misunderstanding of the work argue that it's a wonder the user can express himself in writing at all.

One of your examples supports this view: "I certainly would not argue that providing the opportunity for someone to take time off if they're not feeling well is a good idea."

I would argue that this sentence is so poorly written that it's almost impossible to understand, regardless of how you interpret "argue that".

John L said...

I would guess that, in general (though not necessarily in this instance), argue invites the inference that the subject of argue is opposing some proposition, as well as (or perhaps instead of) supporting some (other) proposition.

In that case, if the proposition that is being argued for is not known or not relevant, the proposition that is being argued against is available to appear as an object complement for argue, without specifying it with against. It's the type of thing that happens all the time with complex verbs like argue.

Ø said...

Patrick, I will not defend Erin Brenner's confusing use of 'argue', but I do question your "it's a wonder ..." statement.

It's clear that Brenner, a professional editor no less, slipped up, no doubt aided by the fact that in other contexts 'argue' can be a near-synonym for 'disagree'.

Do you call it a profound misunderstanding if someone uses the word 'argument' as a synonym for 'dispute'?

VanityofVanities said...

"Language changes, friend, and there's no stopping it; all you can do is hang on and try not to get thrown."

Definitely agree. Language is dynamic, and as time passes by, and people change so is language. I'm not good in grammar, but for me comprehending a word is more important. And I guess, many laymen like me, will understand this phrase coming from Brenner. :)

Thanks for sharing,
Cathy@digitizing service

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