Archive for Language and the media

Newspaper alleges passive voice correctly!

Today I came upon something truly rare: a newspaper article about a passive-voice apology that (i) is correct about the apology containing a passive clause, but (ii) stresses that the oft-misdiagnosed passive should not be the thing we focus on and attempt to discourage, and (iii) cites actual linguists in support of the latter view! What's going on? Is Language Log beginning to break through? Are journalists waking up to the fact that there actually is a definition of the notion 'passive voice' (though hardly anybody seems to know what it is)? The article is by Tristin Hopper of the National Post in Canada (August 8, 2014); you can read it here. Kudos to Tristin.

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Officer-involved passives

Radley Balko's Washington Post article "The curious grammar of police shootings" begins by reminding us about "mistakes were made" (an utterance so famous that it has its own Wikipedia page), and proceeds to quote a description of a shooting that is not by a policeman ("The suspect produced a semi-automatic handgun and fired numerous times striking the victim in the torso"). He comments with approval: "Note the active voice. We have a clear subject, verb, and direct object."

So far so good: the suspect is clearly identified as the agent. But that reference to the "active voice" clearly implies an upcoming allegation that the police use the passive voice when talking about their shootings. And the article signally fails to establish this. One quoted police report says: "The suspect then ran towards the officers still armed with the sword and an officer-involved-shooting occurred." Another says: "When the suspect continued to advance on the officer while refusing to comply with his repeated commands, an officer-involved shooting (OIS) occurred." I grant you that this phrase "officer-involved shooting" (it even has its own abbreviation!) is a weird piece of slippery and evasive bureaucratic jargon. But the examples given are just as much in the active voice as the earlier one where the suspect does the shooting.

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Patchwriting

Christopher Ketcham ("The Troubling Case of Chris Hedges: Pulitzer winner. Lefty hero. Plagiarist.", TNR 6/12/2014) documents several cases of sentences and even paragraphs copied verbatim, as well as other cases of "patchwriting":

Robert Drechsel, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that the use of material from Klein, Postman, and Hemingway “could be characterized as something that has come to be called ‘patchwriting.’ English and writing professors Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard have defined it as ‘restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.’ Whether it happens intentionally, carelessly, or as an oversight, it’s a very serious matter.”

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Not taking shit from the president?

In Politico's Playbook, Mike Allen notes that the slogan "Don't Do Stupid Shit" has worked its way into numerous journalistic descriptions of the "Obama Doctrine." "Playbook rarely prints a four-letter word — our nephews are loyal readers," Allen writes. "But we are, in this case, because that is the precise phrase President Obama and his aides are using in their off-the-record chats with journalists."

The New York Times, on the other hand, has only printed the slogan in expurgated fashion — this despite the fact that late Times editor Abe Rosenthal created a presidential exemption from the ban on printing "shit" in the Nixon era. As Rosenthal reportedly said after including "shit" in quotes of Watergate tape transcripts, "We'll only take shit from the President."

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Checking some predictions

Tom Friedman is merely the latest commentator to turn a claim about conceptual change into a claim about word frequency. Thus Amanda Stoltzfus, "The Way And The How Of Teaching Domestic Economy In The County Public School", Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Session of the Texas State Farmers' Institute, 1914:

This is the day of the farmer. The vocation of farming is being dignified and respected by everybody. The Bankers' Association has recognized the importance of this industry to the rest of the country and is striving to help put agriculture upon a sound basis through a special agricultural committee. The term "hayseed" has been dropped from our vocabulary since a worldwide interest in country life has been awakened by the farm life commission. The word "farmer" is" becoming a synonym for intelligence, because today the man who succeeds on the land must work along scientific lines—more and more intensively, and less extensively. The world is realizing that the study of agriculture includes a bigger combination of sciences than any other study unless it be domestic economy; and that it requires more brains to be a farmer than it does to be anything else unless it be the farmer's wife, who presides over the farm home without which the farmer might as well go out of business.

Google Books doesn't have a "Texas" corpus, alas, but checking the general run of English-language books suggests that Ms. Stoltzfus got the pre-1914 direction of change pretty much backwards:

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Linguification of the month

Thomas Friedman, who has run out of cab drivers to talk with, is turning to lexicography — "Four Words Going Bye-Bye", 5/20/2014:

The more I read the news, the more it looks to me that four words are becoming obsolete and destined to be dropped from our vocabulary. And those words are “privacy,” “local,” “average” and “later.” A lot of what drives today’s news derives from the fact that privacy is over, local is over, average is over and later is over.

Back in July of 2006, Geoff Pullum coined the word linguify: "To linguify a claim about things in the world is to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate."

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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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