Monday, December 28, 2009


Neuroskeptic has pledged to avoid the word interesting in his blog posts because it begets intellectual laziness:

Sadly it's easier to just call something interesting than to explain why it is. Partly this is because "interesting" (or "fascinating", "thought-provoking", "intriguing", "notable" etc.) is just one word, and it's easier to write one word than a sentence. More important is the fact that you probably don't know why you're interested by something until you do some thinking about it.

Reading this, I couldn't help but be reminded of a conversation between two of my academic advisers, quite early in my graduate linguistics studies, about Chomsky's use of the word "interesting" in that he tended to use it as an insult.  We had formed a reading group one summer to discuss The Minimalist Program and discovered that Chomsky would boldly proclaim that one topic was "interesting" while another was not, seemingly by fiat, with little or no explanation. Our group consensus was that what he really meant was that a linguistic topic was "interesting" if it helped him make his argument; it was "uninteresting" if it did not (we came to the same conclusion about his notion of "narrow syntax", btw; this wiki page lists a variety of other criticisms).


uzza said...

Ho. I just threw my copy of MP in the trash. I got it as an undergrad,when my prof said it was too advanced for me to understand it. Had it for years, read it a million times, until I finally understood that there wasn't anything there to understand. The books talks a lot and never makes a statement.

Chris said...

uzza, I seem to recall a lengthy section where Chomsky is writing about deep structure and he's using this particular sentence to illustrate and we were all confused because it was a clearly ungrammatical sentence in English. Only somewhere deep in the notes does it say that it's a translation of a Swedish sentence. Weird

janes_kid said...

My encounter with frequent use of "interesting" was something similar to an insult.

About 1980 I took a position working alongside several women, college graduates, perhaps between ages 30 and 40 who would reject projects with the word "interesting". It took awhile to figure out that they were not interested.

Chris said...

janes_kid, this is a nice example of what I'd call professional irony.

--Your work is competent.
--You complete your tasks on time.

and so on. It's a speech act utilized in a situation where some professional person like a boss or professor is writing a letter of recommendation and feels compelled by professional decorum to complete the letter, but has little faith in the applicant's actual skills.

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