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9/13-9/20: LD Tournament Results and a Linguistic Defense of Subset Affirmatives
This weekend, LD debaters competed at two circuit tournaments: the Greenhill Fall Classic and the Greenhill Round Robin.
Congratulations to Harker’s Ansh Sheth for championing the 2023 Greenhill Fall Classic. In finals, Ansh defeated Strake Jesuit’s Justin Wen on a 3-0 decision (Lugo, Myers, Ogundare). Additional congratulations to Ansh for being the top speaker.
Congratulations to Harvard Westlake’s William Liu for championing the 2023 Greenhill Round Robin. In finals, William defeated Harker’s Ansh Sheth on a 2-1 decision (Theis*, Sims, Randall). Additional congratulations to Ansh for being the top speaker.
Full pairings and results can be found here.
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A Linguistic Defense of Subset Affirmatives in Circuit LD
by Iris Chen and Samantha McLoughlin
The goal of this article is to posit a grammatical argument in favor of plans in circuit Lincoln-Douglas debate. While the arguments posited in favor of the resolution’s genericity vary based on the exact topic wording, they tend to be quite persuasive. However, this article will argue that even if such generic interpretations are correct in other linguistic contexts, they are incorrect in the specific linguistic community of circuit debate. Because the context of debate defines and influences our shared linguistic interpretations, plans are grammatically legitimate.
Premise 1: Grammar is contextually generated.
What does it mean for a grammatical interpretation to be “correct?” There tend to be two schools of thought: prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar is grammar that attempts to define how language ought to be used. It purports one correct form of English and maintains that everyone should be held to learning that standard. It’s most often used by teachers (both for students for whom English is a primary language and students who are English language learners) and is often demanded in professional or academic settings. Descriptive grammar, on the other hand, is grammar that attempts to document how language is currently used. It recognizes that there are different linguistic practices based on culture, class, etc., and claims no one grammar is better or worse than another. It is the grammar most often used in anthropology, psychology, and linguistics.
Especially in the context of descriptive grammar, grammar is not set in stone, but fluctuates as new collective linguistic norms emerge. But even in the context of prescriptive grammar, anyone who advocates for an appreciation of grammar as an unchanging entity is deeply misguided. Rather (as anyone who was forced to read Shakespeare or Old English in middle school knows), as society changes, our linguistic practices change with it – and vice versa. The study of descriptive grammar is not the memorization of prewritten rules, but a study of how those linguistic practices come to exist, function in everyday discourse, and how/when we should work to target problematic grammatical choices embedded in our communication. Given this, descriptive grammar tends to focus more on how grammatical choices are interpreted, and less on whether or not those grammatical choices should be made in the first place (unless those choices were inconsistent with the shared grammatical norms in a way such that they made the sentence lose its intended meaning). A grammatical construction is correct not because of some external authority, but because it accurately conveys its intent via a shared understanding between the speaker and the listener.
A tenet of a descriptive understanding of grammar is that grammar must be understood from a “bottom-up approach,” which entails looking at how grammar is used within a particular context. A common claim around the inaccessibility of grammar (especially in debate) centers around those who either are non-Native speakers or have different vernaculars than that of “standard English”. A prime example of this is African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but can also include slang terms (which are often segregated by class), vernaculars created through the blending of other languages and grammars with traditional English, and other culturally influenced communication forms. Advocating for descriptive grammar solves concerns of exclusions of these vernaculars by explicitly including them as valid grammatical forms to study and employ. Dr. Eli Hinkel describes a descriptive grammar as “a study of a language, its structure, and its rules as they are used in daily life by its speakers from all walks of life, including standard and nonstandard varieties.” She continues to say that the study of descriptive grammar “is non-judgmental, and it does not have the goal of determining what represents good or bad language, correct or incorrect structures, or grammatical or ungrammatical forms” but rather aims to “identify how the grammar of a language is actually used in various contexts and for various purposes.” Specifically, a descriptive grammar must take “into account cultural and social variables that, in many cases, determine how language is produced and understood.”
Accordingly, descriptive grammar does not exclude different vernaculars or forms of grammar, but rather attempts to also investigate how communication occurs outside of Standard English. However, the existence of multiple different valid sets of grammatical practices does not mean grammar can be whatever one wants. For example, double negatives might be a valid construction in some grammars but not others, but there is no grammar in which “Sally is not going to the store” means that she is going to the store. In order to argue that a sentence has a different grammatical meaning than what “standard English” determines, an alternative grammar must be used to interpret the statement. Accepting the validity of grammatical constructions and modes of communication outside of dominant power structures does not require abandoning grammar as an analytic – rather, an understanding of grammar as descriptive can broaden our study to account for deviant vernaculars.
The concept of different linguistic rules in different contexts should ring intuitively true as well – when my student says a strategy is “broken,” I know they mean it as a positive, whereas if my professor told me the same thing, I’d interpret it as a negative. While a prescriptive approach might insist that my student is actually insulting the strategy, a descriptive approach would understand that the context in which the language was situated requires a different grammar to interpret. Another example would be the following conversation:
Iris: I’m worried nobody will show up for our Nebel lecture. Can you go check the room to see if people came?
Sam (checks room): There wasn’t nobody.
Depending on the dialect and context, Sam’s statement can be interpreted both positively (I didn’t see “nobody”) or negatively (I didn’t see anybody).
The previous examples and analysis prove the necessity of evaluating grammar as localized to the context in which it is communicated instead of trying to forcefully apply overarching rules. Any grammatical analysis about the words we use in debate ought to attend to the specificity of the debate community, rather than simply applying work from other contexts.
Premise 2: Even if a generic interpretation of the resolution is correct in a vacuum, the context of debate imbues a specific meaning.
Given the fact that grammar is socially located, rather than universal, the next logical question is: how does the context of debate inform our interpretation of the resolution (and of language more broadly)?
A logical first step to answering this question would be to establish that debate is, in fact, its own linguistic “context” demanding its own rules for interpretation. This fact should be obvious by the countless number of debate-specific words, phrases, and syntactical irregularities. Some examples include debate specific words (such as reasonability, kritik, counterplan, etc.), debate specific interpretations of existing words, (such as “lexical” in lexical prerequisite/priority, theory, “turn” in turn a disadvantage, etc.). While “I turned their argument” may be improper in most contexts, in debate, we accept that sentence structure as correct and coherent. “Uniqueness controls the direction of the link” may be incoherent to a stranger I’m making conversation with in a Starbucks, but within the context of the linguistic community of debate, it becomes interpretable.
A variation of this argument is already quite popular on the circuit: e.g., that circuit norms make plans predictable. While this argument has its merits and demerits, in the context of our understanding of descriptive grammar, it can be taken a step further.
Premise 3: This understanding of topicality is equally if not less arbitrary than the model proposed by T plans bad.
When responding to T-Can't Spec in the 1AR, the argument is often made that "semantics is a floor, not a ceiling." The premise behind this is that as long as the aff counter-interpretation is workable and intuitive, there is no utility in ensuring perfect semantic accuracy. The response to this from the negative is that the aff interpretation does not meet that floor. However, there will inevitably be some degree of ambiguity when trying to interpret the resolution from a semantic angle. The generic reading of any given resolution provides no way to adjudicate whether a certain aff defends "enough" of the topic to prove the resolutional statement true, makes counterplan competition and DA links extremely dubious, and almost always excludes a plethora of affirmatives that are present and well-established in the literature. The fact that the generic interpretation still fails to answer many questions about the resolution's precise meaning is a reason to look to the way the majority of debaters interpret it, which is reflected in circuit norms and pragmatic considerations.
There is no non-arbitrary argument for the categorical prioritization of semantic considerations. Consider a hypothetical scenario where every LD debater on the circuit unanimously decides to debate the military aid topic during the 2023 Valley tournament. Pragmatically, there is nothing in particular wrong with this (depending on your thoughts about the housing topic, you might even see some pragmatic benefit). Semantically, the "social contract" upon which the imperative to debate the resolution rests is satisfied as well. It seems, then, that the end objective of topicality, i.e. ensure a predictable stasis point over which debates can occur, is based less on the exact text of the resolution as provided by the committee but rather the ability of every debater to arrive at the same understanding of which arguments they need to prepare for.
Some argue the affirmative has an intrinsic burden to "debate the resolution." This is consistent with the proposed model of topicality – aside from the obvious intuitive difference between defending a subset of the topic and abandoning it completely, there is a question of what "debating the resolution" means. Arguments that place importance on the text of the resolution for reasons other than predictability often lead to counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, jurisdiction-based arguments are quite obviously nonsense; there are no past debates that remain unresolved due to a lack of judge jurisdiction. Many NIBs and plan flaw arguments are also uncompelling because they assume the plan's function cannot be reasonably informed by the advantage area.
The inherently constructed and evolving nature of grammar is a reason we should not view pragmatics/semantics first in absolute terms. Plans might not, for example, be semantically valid at many local tournaments, for the same reasons "conditionality is a voting issue" and "the net benefit outweighs the risk of a solvency deficit" are unlikely to be heard in those settings. However, due to norms and intuitions that have developed over time on the national circuit, it is more than reasonable to accept that plans should be considered semantically valid at circuit tournaments.
Iris Chen debated at Harvard Westlake for four years. Iris qualified to the Tournament of Champions twice, reached late elimination rounds at the Heritage and St. Marks Invitationals, and received invitations to the Berkeley and Presentation Round Robins. Iris’s favorite arguments in debate are impact turns, IR-based arguments and topicality. Iris taught at both sessions of VBI this summer and is currently coaching the DebateDrills Club Team.
Sam McLoughlin debated at Harvard Westlake for five years. She received 20 career bids to the TOC, qualifying 4x in a row and reaching octofinals at the tournament her sophomore year. As a debater, she won Stanford, Yale, Valley, Presentation, Peninsula, Meadows, the Cal Round Robin, and the Greenhill Round Robin, as well as the Dukes and Bailey Cup. Sam’s debate interests primarily include policy arguments, settler colonialism and feminist IR, and grammar.