Archive for Language and the media

Grammar scandal at WSJ

Misspelling prosecutor as prosector is one thing; we all make letter-omission slips occasionally. But misspelling your version as you're version in a headline in a quality newspaper? It's a whole different magnitude of editorial sin. Yet at the time of writing, The Wall Street Journal's European edition has a headline up online saying "Prosector to Oscar Pistorius: 'You're Version's a Lie'"!

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Famous last words

Guest post by Karen Stollznow


In recent weeks we've been following the tragedy and mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board. Less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing all communication was cut off. The plane diverted unexpectedly across the Indian Ocean and disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens. There has been much controversy surrounding the transcript of the last incoming transmission between the air traffic controller and the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.

We tend to have a morbid fascination with people's last words. We assign profound meaning and philosophical insights to the final words uttered by those who face their fate ahead of us. There are numerous books and websites that chronicle the linguistic legacies of famous people such as Douglas Fairbank's ironic, "I've never felt better," to Woodrow Wilson's courageous, "I am ready," and the betrayal expressed in Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" Planecrashinfo.com maintains a database of last words from cockpit recordings, transcripts, and air traffic control tapes. These are disturbing announcements of impeding doom, including: "Actually, these conditions don't look very good at all, do they?" through to an assortment of cuss words, and moving farewells like, "Amy, I love you."

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A zeugmatic crash blossom to torment Mets fans

As if New York Mets fans don't have to suffer enough, what with the five straight losing seasons and the embarrassing bullpen meltdown in yesterday's home opener, this headline (tweeted by Mark Fishkin) appeared in today's Wall Street Journal:

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I saw one thousand commenting and nobody listening

Sometimes I look at the informed and insightful comments below Mark Liberman's technical posts here on Language Log, and I find myself thinking: These people are smart, and their wisdom enhances the value of our site. Maybe I should return to opening up comments on my posts too. But then something awful happens to convince me never to click the Allow Comments button again, unless at gunpoint. Something awful like the comments below Tom Chivers' article about me in the The Daily Telegraph, a quality UK newspaper of broadly Conservative persuasion (see their Sunday magazine Seven, 16 March 2014, 16–17; the article is regrettably headlined "Are grammar Nazis ruining the English language?" online, but the print version has "Do these words drive you crazy"—neither captures anything about the content).

I unwisely scrolled down too far and saw a few of the comments. There were already way more than 1,300 of them. It was like glimpsing a drunken brawl in the alley behind the worst bar in the worst city you ever visited. Discussion seemed to be dominated by an army of nutballs who often hadn't read the article. They seemed to want (i) a platform from which to assert some pre-formed opinion about grammar, or (ii) a chance to insult someone who had been the subject of an article, or (iii) an opportunity to publicly beat up another commenter. I didn't read many of the comments, but I saw that one charged me with spawning a cult, and claimed that I am the leader of an organization comparable to the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung who aided Hitler's rise to power:

Pullum is not so much the problem; he's just an ivory tower academic whose opinions are largely irrelevant to the average person. The problem is the cult following he has spawned. I don't know if he condones the thuggish tactics his Brownshirts regularly employ against the infidels, but it is certainly disturbing.

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It's hard out there for a doc

Today's MedPage juxtaposition:

Despite the accumulation of evidence to the contrary, I don't think that they do this on purpose.

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(Mis-) Interpreting medical tests

Jon Hamilton, "Alzheimer's Blood Test Raises Ethical Questions", NPR Morning Edition 3/9/2014:

An experimental blood test can identify people in their 70s who are likely to develop Alzheimer's disease within two or three years. The test is accurate more than 90 percent of the time, scientists reported Sunday in Nature Medicine.

The finding could lead to a quick and easy way for seniors to assess their risk of Alzheimer's, says Dr. Howard Federoff, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University. And that would be a "game changer," he says, if researchers find a treatment that can slow down or stop the disease.  

But because there is still no way to halt Alzheimer's, Federoff says, people considering the test would have to decide whether they are prepared to get results that "could be life-altering." 

But  having a prediction with no prospect for a cure is not, in my opinion, the biggest problem with tests of this kind.

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WHO: 5 percent of calories should be from sugar

Even though I've been reading that headline on my portal page for 3 days now and know what it's really supposed to be saying, I still can't read it the way they intended. The first sentence of the actual article:

The World Health Organization says your daily sugar intake should be just 5 percent of your total calories — half of what the agency previously recommended, according to new draft guidelines published Wednesday.

Even that sentence doesn't really say they'd be happy with 4 percent, or would previously have been happy with less than 10%. But at least the "just" cancels an otherwise implicit "at least". There's a lot of literature about when numbers are interpreted as "exactly" and when as "at least", and about where exactly those two kinds of interpretations come from. But unless they occur with suitable modifiers or in particular constructions, they are never freely interpreted as "at most". So unless we're supposed to believe that WHO wants everyone to get exactly 5% from sugar, that headline is just wrong, I believe.

No big deal. I just had to say it after three days of suffering in silence.

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Not So Fast with the Funny Fading Dialect Stuff

This is a guest post by Josef Fruehwald, commenting on Daniel Nester, "The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out", NYT 3/1/2014.

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How a 40% decrease in X can be a 6% increase in non-X

And also, how 35% of the population can be above the 95th percentile…. Razib Khan, "The Obesity Rate for Children Has Not Plummeted (Despite what the New York Times tells you)", Slate 2/28/2014:

Common sense tells you that if you run enough trials, by chance, you will occasionally get an unexpected outcome. When scientists deem a result “statistically significant,” they're just saying that given their default expectations (e.g. around 50/50 for a coin toss), the outcomes obtained are unlikely to have occurred by random chance. A fair coin is unlikely to land on heads nine out of 10 tosses, so such an outcome suggests the coin is probably not fair. Unlikely is not the same as impossible, and if you look long and hard you will inevitably stumble upon random events that seem novel but are just the outcome of chance.  

I bring this up because earlier this week the New York Times trumpeted: “Obesity Rate for Young Children Plummets 43% in a Decade.” A surprising discovery, and a pretty big deal, right? The article spread like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook. For once, some heartening news about the health of this nation! My immediate reaction, however, was that there must be something we don’t know about obesity to get such a massive change in such a short period of time. Then I started reading.

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Your morning dose of surrealism

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Quick, short those kidney futures…

Unfortunate juxtaposition of the week, from today's MedPage teaser:

The last batch was hard to beat, but I think this one manages it.

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Led astray by the corpus of memory: a response to Hendrik Hertzberg

The following is a guest post by Ammon Shea, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary's Reading Program and formerly a consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press.


Hendrik Hertzberg has made a series of claims recently on the New Yorker web site ("Nobody Said That Then!") about the ostensible inaccuracy of the language used in the television show Masters of Sex. His main contention is that many of the characters' utterances are improbable, asserting that certain words and phrases were not in use at the time that the show takes place (the mid-1950s). One of the problems with making bold and declarative statements about the origins of specific words is that these words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest.

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Synonymy and quotational contexts in New Jersey

The "Say What?" feature on the Doonesbury site quotes this error correction from the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper, about the misreporting of something Governor Chris Christie's chief spokesman Michael Drewniak said:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Drewniak referred to the Port Authority's executive director as a 'piece of crap.' While Drewniak did call him a 'piece of excrement,' it was David Wildstein who referred to the executive director as a 'piece of crap.'

What do we learn from this? (Remember, this is Language Log, not New Jersey Politics Log.)

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Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."

But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region:  "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe:  Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."

Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.

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Coca-Cola's multilingual "America the Beautiful"

The Super Bowl may have been a lackluster blowout this year, but the commercials provided an opportunity to inflame the passions of some viewers. Coca-Cola ran a commercial with a multilingual rendition of "America the Beautiful," with languages including English, Spanish, Keres Pueblo, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, and Hebrew.

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