Thursday, May 08, 2008

The linguistics of politics


Let’s pick apart the semantics of “tax rise.” First, because it is an unaccusative verb, the subject — tax — undergoes the action of the verb. Second, because the verb is intransitive, while the subject undergoes the action, it has no direct obect. So what is actually going on — I, the citizen, am paying more taxes — is completely erased from the semantics.

Now, let’s contrast that with American English “tax raise,” or if you prefer the verbal form, “to raise taxes.” “Raise” is a transitive verb. Even though the phrase usually doesn’t appear with an overt direct object, “raise” is not an ergative verb, that is, the subject performs the action whether used transitively or intransitively, and the direct object is always implied, if not stated. “To raise taxes,” or “tax raise” semantically has an agent who performs the action — the politician — and a direct object who undergoes it — the citizen who will pay more taxes. So unlike “tax rise,” what is actually going on is never erased linguistically.


Anonymous said...

Americans say a pay raise where we would say pay rise. I suspect it's an error, like their tendency to say "lay" instead of "lie" - as in "the lay of the land".

Anonymous said...



Speaking of errors, you misspelled "correct because they say it is, and they have more nuclear weapons". "Rise" sounds persnickety and effeminate.

Anyhow, I don't think anybody who pays taxes fails to grasp the significance of either one. "Raise taxes" and "tax rise" are both colloquial English for "we're taking your money, ha ha ha".

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, Americans would probably say "an enhancement in compensation package".