New York Times
October 3, 1998


          Listening Between the Lines

          By STEVEN PINKER


               CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- W ith the House of Representatives set
to decide next week whether to open an impeachment inquiry,
               President Clinton's fate may ultimately depend on his
theories of language. In his grand jury testimony, Mr. Clinton expounded
on the
               semantics of the present tense ("It depends on what the
meaning of the word 'is' is") and on the meaning of the words "alone,"
"cause"
          and, most notoriously, "sex." 

          Has the President read too much French literary theory? Is he
our first postmodernist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist leader,
averring that
          objectivity is impossible, meaning self-contradictory, and
reality socially constructed through language? 

          No. Mr. Clinton has long realized that language does have a
systematic though complex relation to reality. His semantic arguments, if
          ultimately unsuccessful, have shown an acute understanding of
the logic and psychology of language. 

          Words are anchored to endpoints, but the continuum between them
may be up for grabs. 

          A tape measure shows people's heights vary continuously, but
when we talk about them, we face a choice between "tall" and "short."
People
          who describe themselves as "middle-aged," "gray" and "wise"
cannot pinpoint the instant they became so. The world is analog; language
is
          digital. 

          It would be fun to have Mr. Clinton in a graduate seminar on
lexical semantics. He suggested he was not "alone" with Monica Lewinsky
          because people were in the Oval Office complex at the time. An
intriguing point, but since each of us shares the planet with five billion
others,
          none of us are ever unambiguously alone. Exactly how far away,
how inaudible or invisible or unnoticed, how thick the barrier, before we
are
          willing to say that someone is "alone"? 

          At what point in the continuum of bodily contact -- from an
accidental brush in an elevator to tantric bliss -- do we say that "sex"
has
          occurred? How many times, how closely spaced, before it is
"sexual relations" or a "sexual relationship"? When consenting adults come
          together, does one of them "cause" contact, or are the actions
of entities with free will never truly caused? 

          The present tense -- "Mary jogs," "There is a unicorn in the
garden" -- is used for states that overlap with the moment of speaking.
When an
          action stretches over time, like standing or sitting, usage is
unproblematic. 

          But when an action is more discrete, like swatting a fly or
having sex, present tense refers to a span of time in which the event is
habitual or
          repeated. If I say "John is swatting flies," he doesn't have to
land a blow at the instant the words come out of my mouth. 

          Mr. Starr's lawyers, when questioning the the President about
his deposition, accused him of pedantically restricting "there is sex" to
the act of
          coitus. 

          Mr. Clinton had a point when he replied that the present tense
can refer to a span of time over which acts tend to be repeated, and at
that
          point he and Ms. Lewinsky had broken up and were unlikely to
have sex again. The termination of a habitual state is inherently vague --
how
          much time must elapse since the last cigarette before a would-be
former smoker can say, "I don't smoke?" 

          Of course, these arguments don't impress anyone but a professor
of semantics, thanks to another key feature of language: people work
          around its limitations by tacitly agreeing on how to use it. 

          Conversation requires cooperation. Listeners assume speakers are
conveying information relevant to what they already know and what they
          want to know. That allows them to hear between the lines in
order to pin down the meanings of ambiguous words and fill in the unsaid
logical
          steps. When the shampoo bottle says "Lather, rinse, repeat," we
don't spend the rest of our lives in the shower; we infer that it means
"repeat
          once." 

          The expression "to be on speaking terms" reminds us that without
cooperation, language is impossible. The reason we cannot converse with
          our computers is not that the engineers cannot program in the
grammar and vocabulary of the English language, but that they cannot
program
          in the common sense of a human speaker. In the old "Get Smart"
television series, Maxwell Smart asks the robot Hymie to "give me a hand,"
          and Hymie proceeds to unscrew his hand and hold it out. 

          Mr. Clinton, of course, is not trying to impersonate Hymie. The
sketchiness of language gives the listener considerable leeway in pinning
an
          interpretation to an utterance. That is fine when the
interlocutors are cooperative -- and the listener's guess is the same as
the speaker's intent
          -- but not when they are adversaries and the interpretation can
send someone to jail.   


               he law requires language to do something for which it is
badly designed: leave nothing to the imagination. Lawmakers and lawyers do
               their best to co-opt language for this unnatural job, but
even their prolix definitions and legalese inevitably leave room for
alternate
               interpretations that a clever adversary will find. The
phrase "the whole truth" is meant to pre-empt such cleverness, but taken
literally
          the whole truth could include one's complete autobiography, the
history of the 20th century and so on, so speakers are always entitled to
be
          selective. At some point we have to fall back on the principle
of cooperation and judge the truthfulness of a statement by what a
cooperative
          speaker would expect his listeners to infer. 

          Mr. Clinton astutely said, "My goal in this deposition was to be
truthful, but not particularly helpful." Unfortunately, when it comes to
the truth
          that listeners want, the very nature of human language makes
this goal impossible. 

          Steven Pinker's books include ``The Language Instinct'' and
``How the Mind Works.''