Archive for Language and the media

"I don't think there isn't a darn thing I can do"

RichG sent in a link to Matt Pierce and David Montero, "Warrants in Las Vegas mass shooting reveal name of additional 'person of interest", LA Times 1/30/2018 [emphasis added]:

Authorities were looking into an additional "person of interest" following the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and wounded hundreds of others, according to search warrants unsealed by a Nevada judge Tuesday.

Though Stephen Paddock has been identified as the lone gunman in the Oct. 1 massacre, and authorities had been looking at his girlfriend, Marilou Danley, the court mistakenly failed to redact another name from the warrants: Douglas Haig.

That is the name of a Mesa, Ariz., ammunition dealer who runs a website called Specialized Military Ammunition, which touts itself as "your source for premium, MILSPEC, tracer and incendiary ammunition in popular military calibers," including ammunition that "ignites diesel and kerosene." (Officials have said that Paddock shot at aerial fuel tanks during the attack, although they did not ignite.) […]

The Las Vegas Review-Journal was the only publication to receive the mistaken document, which identified Haig as a "person of interest." It's the first public acknowledgment by law enforcement that a third person had been investigated in relation to the crime.

District Court Judge Elissa Cadish apologized for the error and issued a gag order on any publication of the original document that included the name.

"I ordered them redacted and thought they were redacted not only to protect the investigation, but because of concerns about possible danger to this individual," Cadish said. "Unfortunately, I think the reality is now that it's up online and I don't think there isn't a darn thing I can do to take it off."

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"Voiceprint" springs eternal

John R. Quain, "Alexa, What Happened to My Car?", NYT 1/25/2018 [emphasis added]:

And even though voice bots like Alexa and Google’s Assistant can be taught to recognize different voices — well enough to cater to each family member’s favored Pandora stations, for example — they do not offer any sort of biometric security, such as voice print analysis. As a result, Alexa’s voice-recognition capabilities are not discerning enough for security purposes, according to Amazon.

There are two things about this passage that caught my attention.

First, a minor point: the NYT here chooses to write "voice print" as two separate words. This is a change from their previous practice — already in May of 1962 (and many times since),  the grey lady was writing "voiceprint" solid in stories like this one:

A researcher from Bell Telephone Laboratories described yesterday tests that he said, showed that "voiceprints" may prove to be almost as effective, for identification, as fingerprints.

And second, a more important point:  here's a journalist who still thinks that "voice print analysis", however spelled, offers "biometric security".

[Warning: what follows is a long post about lexicographic, technological,  journalistic, and literary history, guaranteeing that at least three quarters of the content will bore or mystify most readers.)

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"Experience is different"

Zoe Williams, "With the NHS, reality has finally caught up with Theresa May", The Guardian 1/8/2018 [emphasis added]:

“If you look across the NHS, experience is different,” the prime minister flailed, as if the fact there wasn’t a stroke victim waiting for four hours in an ambulance outside every hospital was proof of her competence. “Experience is different,” she repeated, taking a moment’s refuge in a new evasive tic, of turning everything into a passive voice where nothing is the consequence of anybody’s actions. We’re just a nation of people having a set of experiences which are all different, and everybody’s working very hard because we all want things to be good.

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Giant Panda Xiang Xiang or Japanese diplomat Sugiyama?

A couple of weeks ago, a strange language misunderstanding occurred during the Regular Press Conference of the PRC foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, on December 19, 2017.

During the press conference, a Japanese journalist raised a question in English. He asked:  "Giant panda Xiang Xiang who has traveled to Japan made its formal debut in a Tokyo zoo today. What is your comment  on this?  What influence will this have on China-Japan relations?"

Maybe it was because of his strong Japanese accent or the noise at the time, Hua Chunying was not able to follow him, especially at the beginning of the question.  She misunderstood to whom he was referring and thought it was "Shan Shan" (杉山 — pronouncing that name à la chinoise), a Japanese official. Therefore, she answered with standard diplomatic language. Not until a Chinese journalist pointed out her misinterpretation did Hua manage to move on and make it right.

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A virus that fixes your grammar

In today's Dilbert strip, Dilbert is confused by why the company mission statement looks so different, and Alice diagnoses what's happened: the Elbonian virus that has been corrupting the company's computer systems has fixed all the grammar and punctuation errors it formerly contained.

That'll be the day. Right now, computational linguists with an unlimited budget (and unlimited help from Elbonian programmers) would be unable to develop a trustworthy program that could proactively fix grammar and punctuation errors in written English prose. We simply don't know enough. The "grammar checking" programs built into word processors like Microsoft Word are dire, even risible, catching only a limited list of shibboleths and being wrong about many of them. Flagging split infinitives, passives, and random colloquialisms as if they were all errors is not much help to you, especially when many sequences are flagged falsely. Following all of Word's suggestions for changes would creat gibberish. Free-standing tools like Grammarly are similarly hopeless. They merely read and note possible "errors", leaving you to make corrections. They couldn't possibly be modified into programs that would proactively correct your prose. Take the editing error in this passage, which Rodney Huddleston recently noticed in a quality newspaper, The Australian:

There has been no glimmer of light from the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords were signed, just the usual intransigence that even the wider Arab world may be tiring of. Yet the West, the EU, nor the UN, have never made the PA pay a price for its intransigence.

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Is our pundits counting?

Joe Davidson, "Foreign Service leadership being ‘decapitated’ and ‘depleted at a dizzying speed’", WaPo 11/17/2017:

Using “I” 42 times in his 23-minute speech Wednesday, he declared “NATO, believe me, is very happy with Donald Trump and what I did,” as he touted previous accomplishments.

Trump’s unmatched self-adulation might cloud his view of the hard work by foreign service staffers and their increased difficulties because of his administration’s hiring freeze.

Unlike the many op-ed contributors noting Barack Obama's alleged over-use of first person singular pronouns, Mr. Davidson at least counted, or perhaps had an intern do so. Whoever did it, they did it wrong — there are actually 47 uses of the pronoun "I" in that speech, as well as 10 instances of "my" and one of "me", for a total of 58 first person singular pronouns.

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From 'a terrible' to 'the latest'

It's the saddest thing I have seen in many months of sad news: The front page of the Metro, a free newspaper given away on the buses in Britain, said "At least 27 people were killed during a morning church service in the latest US shooting massacre."

"The latest"! They're now so routine that the Metro has switched from indefinite to definite article. It's not "a terrible shooting massacre in the US" anymore, it's just "the latest US shooting massacre." Everyone knows there will be more. This one was merely the latest. The governor's prayers are with the people of Sutherland Springs; the president sends word from Japan that it wasn't about guns, it was about mental illness. See page 4 for the Queen's investment in offshore tax havens, page 6 for the governing party Member of Parliament who puts his hand up women's skirts in elevators.

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Transcripts not always accurate…

Matt Yglesias, "Trump’s latest big interview is both funny and terrifying", Vox 10/23/2017:

Bartiromo is an extraordinarily soft interviewer who doesn’t ask Trump any difficult questions or press him on any subject. That makes the extent to which he manages to flub the interview all the more striking. He’s simply incapable of discussing any topic at any length in anything remotely resembling an informed or coherent way. He says the Federal Reserve is “important psychotically” and it’s part of one of his better answers, since one can at least tell that he meant to say “psychologically.”

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Five things

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British understatement of the week

According to HuffPost UK, although figures from the Office of National Statistics indicate that the LGB percentage of the population rose last year by a statistically significant amount, "the majority of the UK population still identifies as heterosexual or straight."

Phew! So the straights (unlike the current Conservative-led government) held on to their majority. Good. I was bracing for a wave of homophobe fury. But let's take a look at the numbers to see how close a call it was, shall we?

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The New Yorker baubles it

Yesterday, The New Yorker posted an article on its website: "The Error in Baseball and the Moral Dimension to American Life," by Stephen Marche. As originally published, the article contained this paragraph (emphasis mine):

In practice, “ordinary effort” describes, as Bill James wrote, what should have happened. What should have happened in a piece of fielding can have nothing to do with the play of the fielder. Utter offered me a case: The runner hits the ball into the outfield, the fielder baubles the ball, and the runner advances to second. Is that an error? It depends. “What we would have to look at is—is it a single or is it a double? Or is it a single and advance on an error or on the throw?” The way that the scorer determines whether that bauble is an error or not has less to do with the action of the fielder than with the action of the runner. “Was the runner going all the time? Did he never think about stopping at first? Or was he running and looking at the play and then slowed down a little bit and then took off when he saw the little bauble?” If he paused, noticed the misplay, and ran to second, “That becomes the error.”

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Belfast noun pile headline head-scratcher

This head-scratcher of a headline from the Belfast Telegraph was brought to our attention by Mike Pope: "Ed Murray: Sex abuse claim US mayor's time in Northern Ireland 'should be probed'".

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He lapsed into the passive voice

Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership:

On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then he lapsed into the passive voice, expressing, as he has before, a sense of futility that the divisions between Americans would ever be healed.

"It's been going on for a long time in our country," he said. "Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

This incompetent, floundering president, who has never previously had to run an organization and is revealing that he is no good at it, is guilty of so many things that could have been mentioned. But passive voice?

Asking whether "the divisions between Americans would ever be healed" is passive voice, but that's not Trump, that's Landler, who's the accuser here. "It's been going on for a long time in our country" is not in the passive voice. Mark Landler is one more case (I have literally lost count) of someone who writes for a major print source and pontificates about other people's grammar but doesn't know the difference between active and passive.

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