See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The Out-Group Illusion

This final post in the Language Log terminology trilogy will introduce you to another linguistic illusion to watch for on language blogs: the out-group illusion.

One of the myriad ways we can jump to linguistic conclusions, the out-group illusion refers to a belief that a certain language quirk or habit occurs only among a specific group of speakers that does not include you or anyone you would deign to speak to. As Arnold Zwicky puts it,

Things you view as novel, or simply bad, are characteristic of groups
you don’t see yourself as belonging to.

Take as an example the posts on this blog that deal with the US/UK language divide. My post on obliged vs. obligated has received more hits to date than any other piece of writing on this site. I even got a link on LEO, my first destination for German-English word look-ups on the Internet.

Who’s to say, however, that my explanation of British English speakers’ behavior, based on a few hours of web research, wasn’t tainted by my status as a U.S.-born observer? There could be plenty of native Californians for whom “obligated” grates like the Wu Tang Clan at two in the morning (turn it down, you crazy kids!). Perhaps there are Kansans I’ve never met (and that would be all of them) who favor obliged in everyday usage.

If you encounter anyone who fits into one of these categories, do let me know. You’d be free to write me up for an out-group infraction–and I’d be obligated to write about it here.


  • smazh said:  
    (On 3 June 2008 at 1:07 PM)

    Hi, I came across your prior obliged vs obligated post because I automatically corrrected a colleague who used “obligated” instead of “obliged”. Later I set to thinking as I couldn’t determine if I had been right. Your post was illuminating. As for “out-groups”, I use “oblige”, “obliged” and “obligation” but rarely “obligated”. I’m from Singapore, by the way.

  • Casey said:  
    (On 3 June 2008 at 4:39 PM)

    Hi smazh, thanks for your comment! I know a lot of people have found that obliged-obligated post, and it’s nice to hear from a (linguistic) informant.

    I lived with a Singaporean in college and was very impressed by her English style. Is there a standard Singaporean English which is taught in the schools? And do you favor British spellings? Are American ones considered wrong?

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    (On 16 January 2016 at 9:44 PM)

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