Saturday, January 14, 2012

verbal pretzeling

[NB: this post has undergone quite a few revisions. Such are the perils of perfectionism.]

Here's an example of the sort of sentence you might find on the new GRE:

Jared sees no demerits in the arguments against the position of those who oppose the detractors of the ban on smoking in restaurants.

Question: is Jared likely against smoking in restaurants?

I'll be honest with you: I find this sort of sentence very hard to decipher without breaking it down and analyzing it (see below). The new GRE is rife with such sentences, which usually contain a few blanks into which you have to insert the correct vocab words. It's hard to know the right words until you un-pretzel the sentences and divine their general sense. Admittedly, most of the new GRE's sentences don't exhibit quite this degree of pretzeling, but they come damn close.

Some people, whom I envy, have the ability to follow the twisting roller-coaster path of these negations without getting confused. I squirm whenever I hear something on the news along the lines of, "Senator X has come out firmly against the lifting of the temporary suspension of the moratorium on Y." (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)

Anyway, let's break the above sentence down to see whether we can answer the question.

ORIGINAL: Jared sees no demerits in the arguments against the position of those who oppose the detractors of the ban on smoking in restaurants.

First, the beginning:

1. Jared sees no demerits in the arguments = Jared finds no flaw in the arguments

Now, let's move to the back and work our way forward.

2. the detractors of the ban on smoking in restaurants = people who are pro-smoking in restos

3. those who oppose the detractors = people who are anti-smoking in restos

4. the position of those who oppose = the anti-smoking position

5. the arguments against the position = pro-smoking arguments

So, stitching (1) and (5) together:

Jared finds no flaw in the pro-smoking arguments.

To answer the question, then:

No: Jared is not likely to be against smoking in restaurants.



John from Daejeon said...

Wow! That sounds like something only people with "forked" tongues, running for public office, or entrenched in academics would spout instead of the plain old English that most of us common folk speak and understand. It’s sort of like that Fuzzy Math/Logic and Partial Truths that are found everywhere on Wall Street and in D.C. that we also can't seem to quite wrap our simpleminded noggins around.

I just wonder if that sentence has ever been uttered in an "actual" English conversation without having not been written down first. It also makes me question just how long the author of this sentence actually worked on concocting it in some subterranean basement there at GRE headquarters or maybe they take freelance submissions like some greeting card companies do.

Kevin Kim said...

Well, the evil author of this particular sentence is yours truly. While it didn't take that long to concoct the original version, I did have to tweak it several times.

You're right, of course: it's not a reflection of realistic English, but it was never meant to be such. The GRE, in its new incarnation, is designed to make life a bit more difficult in an effort to separate the men from the boys so as to preserve a more or less standard bell curve: the previous version of the test had become too easy, which had resulted in a skewed curve.

I didn't want to give the impression that every sentence in the new GRE looked like this, but it's no lie that there are quite a few such sentences in the test, especially in the Sentence Completion section.

ETS has its own stable of evil geniuses who come up with these test problems, and all problems are run past committees to determine readability, a process that includes the use of test-taking guinea pigs to see how people perform. This latter process is, in fact, one way in which ETS determines the difficulty level of a given problem: the test-takers' performance statistics allow the test designers to assign each problem a weighted value. (Clusters of newly minted problems can be foisted upon actual test-takers in the form of "experimental" sections on the GRE.) That, in turn, is what makes every single test unique in how it's scored. It's a weird, alchemical process. I find it fascinating, despite my ambivalence toward standardized tests.

Charles said...

K-E translation often requires the dismantling of a complicated sentence from back to front. It sucks no less in translation, but at least you generally get a feeling of accomplishment out of it.