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06 April 2004 @ 13:30
Rheme and reason  

Mark Hurst writes, at Good Experience (thanks to Language Log for the link), about a new "Google-related activity" which he terms googlephrasing:

It's easy. Search Google for a long, slightly obscure sentence fragment, enclosed in quotes, and then revel in the Web-zeitgeist.

Hurst suggests googlephrasing such fragments as:

Hurst writes further:

Googlephrasing "is the best movie I've ever seen in my life" brings back a range of movies - all recent, but at wildly different levels of quality [emphasis added].

"Aha!" I thought, "I know why the results were all recent films!" If you search for "is the best movie I've ever seen in my life," then the title of the movie is going to be the subject of the sentence, which means that it is probably already part of the discourse—which might, for example, be a movie review or just a description of the writer's recent moviegoing activities. If we want to know what movies people really consider the best they've ever seen (and not just their hyperolic reactions to the movies they've seen most recently), we should search for "The best movie I've ever seen is," where the movie itself is prominently placed at the end of the sentence (the typical rheme position), and is more likely to be new information (and thus, paradoxically, more likely to be an older movie).

(For readers unfamiliar with the terminology, here's a discussion of theme and rheme by Ismail S. Talib. If you prefer instant edification, just consult your linguistic intuitions: in the context of a review of, say, Lost in Translation, would the sentence "The best movie I've ever seen is Lost in Translation" sound better or worse than "Lost in Translation is the best movie I've ever seen"?)

So naturally I put the theory to the test:

  • Center Stage...
  • Lord of the Rings...
  • 10 Things I Hate About You...
  • Miracle...
  • 8 Mile...
  • One Fine Day...
  • Anastasia...
  • Girl, Interrupted...
  • West Side Story...
  • Moulin Rouge...
  • Yago...
  • Simon Birch...

...is the best movie I've ever seen.

The best movie I've ever seen is...

  • ...The Dark Crystal.
  • ...While You were Sleeping.
  • ...Tommy Boy.
  • ...American History X.
  • ...Wild Hearts Can't be Broken.
  • ...Endless Summer.
  • ...Lord of the Rings.
  • ...Titanic.
  • ...Pitkä kuuma kesä (Long Hot Summer).
  • ...Star Wars.
  • ...A Clockwork Orange.
  • ...So Close.

Hmm... kind of inconclusive, although it does tell us that Lord of the Rings is a major contender. Short of going all out and doing a more comprehensive survey armed with IMDb (for looking up release dates) and the appropriate statistical tests (for seeing whether they mean anything), I'm not sure what to make of this. It's definitely not as clear-cut as one might hope, but I think I can identify a couple of things that would interfere with the basic theme-rheme contrast. First, there are quite a few reviews of older movies out there (especially as these films are re-released on DVD), and in the context of a review, the film will be a theme, not a rheme. (The West Side Story result is a review, by the way.) Second, when you ask people to name their favourite movies, the ones they've seen more recently may be more salient in their minds, so there might still be a bias toward recent films even in rheme position.

Anyway, I hereby propose to pile two more Google-derived neologisms onto the word-hoard: googletheming and googlerheming. Undertaken in combination, these two activities offer a sort of discourse-structural parallax—if you will, a view of the "Web-Zeitgeist" through 3-D glasses.

Nuværende humør: curiouscurious
Nuværende musik: Lowest of the Low, "Shakespeare My Butt"
(Anonym) on 26. Oktober, 2012 18:09 (UTC)
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(Anonym) on 26. Oktober, 2012 19:01 (UTC)
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