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A Drinking Game for Any Cocktail Party: When Anyone Says 'Apparently'

Filed under: Looked Into   Tagged: , , , ,

Jonathan Taylor writes:

Someone's probably written about this already, but, my sometimes ingenious search skills haven't managed to draw it out.

Tyler Cowen linked to a post by James Somers from about a year ago, about the skillful deployment of the phrase "It turns out...." He says it can have the magical effect of convincing even alert readers, in the absence of evidence, of a proposal "in large part because they come to associate it with that feeling of the author's own dispassionate surprise."

This reminded me of an observation—not exactly related and not nearly so incisive—that I've long made about the use of the word "apparently," by people relating information recently gleaned from the news: "Apparently, GE not only paid no taxes last year, the Treasury actually owed it billions of dollars." (See Felix Salmon for a great overview on the follow-up to that Times story.)

In fact, this usage is touched on in Google's dictionary definition: "Used by speakers or writers to avoid committing themselves to the truth of what they are saying." It's my guess that people use this particularly often in relation to things they read in the New York Times, because it does require some implicit acceptance of the authority of the source. I think even the same people might not say the same thing about something they heard on NPR, but would more likely say, "I heard on NPR that...." Hearing a voice telling you on the radio maybe makes it too clear that the information is second-hand to you, whereas the disembodied authority of one's most trusted written word is more easily assimilated to one's own "knowlege."

However, "apparently" also suggests an openness to acquiring completely new information; I doubt devotees of the Wall Street Journal editorial page introduce their games of telephone with any such qualifier; after all, that information is previously held and immutable belief, not new data.

In any case, use of apparently, overall, is apparently on the decline. If my theory is correct, perhaps the Times paywall will erode it even further.

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