Saturday, October 25, 2008

Definitely A Winner

(screen shot from SF Chronicle)

The San Francisco Chronicle delved into linguistics Thursday:

Arien O'Connell was vindicated Wednesday morning - sort of.

The fifth-grade teacher from New York City ran the fastest time in Sunday's Nike Women's Marathon, but she was told by race officials that she didn't win because she wasn't among the "elite" runners who were given a 20-minute head start.

O'Connell was unhappy - and as corporate sports giant Nike quickly learned, she wasn't the only one.

Faced with a blast of criticism from all over the country, Nike issued a statement Wednesday saying that it "recognizes Arien O'Connell as a winner.

Did you catch that? It says a winner - not the winner.

Even though she ran 11 minutes faster than the "elite" woman who was given first place, O'Connell's career-best finish will exist in an odd parallel universe where, no matter how fast you run, you can't win the race unless you're among a special few."
[my emphases]

In typical introductory linguistics courses, we would teach students that the English indefinite article "a" is used to introduce a new referent into discourse. But of course, it's uses are far more varied, as this case demonstrates. In this case, Nike chose to use the indefinite article "a" in a partitive function implying that O'Connell was one member of a set of winners (and causing readers to infer that the set of winners has more than one member, otherwise they would have used "the" ... someday I'll brush up on Grice to be able to explain this reasoning more clearly).

Now, my take on the events in question is somewhat cynical: almost all individual-based sporting events are rigged in one way or another to favor the top pros. The practice of seeding in Grand Slam tennis tournaments is a good example (Agassi once said he thought seeding ought to be abolished, and I agree).

Arien O'Connell ran a great race and deserves to be recognized for that. But what counts as "the winner" is Nike's call, not ours. I don't have a problem with Nike's statement. One fair question, though, is whether they referred to the other winner as "a winner" too?

1 comment:

Chris said...

Ahhhhh, shit le merde (as my former adviser would say). I screwed up the classic "it" apostrophe problem in the following:

"But of course, it's uses are far more varied, as this case demonstrates."

I used an apostrophe with "it" for genitive possession, instead of contraction.

Dammit! I used to be a writing teacher! I used to give students red pen marks because of this little bastard convention. And now I made the same mistake they did.

Okay... okay ... any student who got a lower grade because I marked them down due to misuse of "it's", let me know, and I'll call the appropriate registrar and change your grade (for that one paper)... (pssst, keep dreaming).

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