Archive for Language and the media

Twice, or a hundred times, whatever …

"Figures reveal ethnic variations in prevalence of alcohol-related diseases", The Scotsman 5/9/2016 [emphasis added]:

Irish people living in Scotland are more than twice as likely to end up in hospital or die from alcohol-related diseases as white Scottish people, research has found.

The risk for women from a mixed ethnic background is almost 100 times that of white Scots, scientists concluded. […]

Compared to the white Scottish population, women of mixed ethnicity are 99% more likely to to [sic] require hospital stays or die from alcohol-related disease.

This is enough to warn us that we're dealing with a hard-to-believe level of numerical illiteracy. Apparently the writer interpreted "99% more" as meaning "almost 100 times" more — and no editor caught it, either at The Scotsman or at any of the other papers that reprinted the story.

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Correction of the year

…and maybe of all time, at least in quantitative terms. In the New York Times Magazine, 4/10/2016:

An article on March 20 about wave piloting in the Marshall Islands misstated the number of possible paths that could be navigated without instruments among the 34 islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands. It is 561, not a trillion trillion.

A trillion trillion is presumably 1024, and 561 is 5.61 x 102, so the original number was off by a factor of about 1.78 x 1022, which is more than a thousand times greater than the estimated number of grains of sand in all the beaches and deserts of planet earth.

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China's last leader

In "Xi Jinping Brought Down a Notch by an Unlikely Agent: A Typo" (NYT, Sinosphere 3/14/16), Austin Ramzy details what appears to be a fatally embarrassing typographical error.  Instead of referring to Xi Jinping as "Zhōngguó zuìgāo lǐngdǎorén 中國最高領導人 (China's supreme leader)", an article by reporter Zhāng Zhōngkǎi 張鐘凱 from Xinhua, China's state news agency, called him "Zhōngguó zuìhòu lǐngdǎorén 中國最后領導人 (China's last leader)".

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Huge media flap over a headline in China

An article by Mimi Lau and Nectar Gan in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) (3/02/16) details a cause célèbre that occurred on the front page of a major newspaper in China on February 20.  The article is titled:

Editor at liberal Chinese newspaper fired over Xi front page
Veteran journalists punished over headline combination seen as veiled criticism of president’s call for state media loyalty to the Communist Party

Here's the offending front page of the Nanfang dushi bao 南方都市报 (Southern Metropolis Daily):

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Eruption over simplified vs. traditional characters in Hong Kong

Even while our debate on whether Cantonese is a language or just a dialect is still burning, the Chinese government adds more fuel to the fire:

"Hong Kong outrage over Chinese subtitle switch" (BBC, 2/24/16)

Hong Kong officials received more than 10,000 complaints in three days after a popular TV programme began subtitling output in the Chinese characters associated with mainland China.

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ESPN vs. the English language

A screenshot from ESPN's home page has been making the rounds on Imgur and Reddit. It captures a tease to a column by Howard Bryant, and it's dubbed "Possibly the worst sentence ever."

View post on

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"It eats salty": middle voice on "Top Chef"

On a recent episode of Bravo's competitive cooking show "Top Chef" ("Spines and Vines," 12/10/15), the contestants had to make a dish with uni (sea urchin) and pair it with a wine. One contestant, Angelina Bastidas, received the following less-than-glowing appraisal of her dish from the show's host, Padma Lakshmi, and guest judge Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine.

AB: Over here it's a play on an Italian cacio e pepe. I made uni butter. And the wine that I chose today is chardonnay.
DC: The uni obviously has a lot of salt.
PL: Yeah.
DC: It's one of the characteristics, and the dish…
PL: It eats salty.
AB: Sorry about that. I apologize.
PL: Thank you.

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Decisive undecideds

From Arthur Stock, a picture of a headline in an actual paper newspaper:

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How to turn one out of five into three out of four

Towards the end of last year, there was a bit of a fuss in the UK about the role of alcohol in hospital costs. Thus Sarah Knapton, "Three in four people in A&E at weekend are there because of alcohol: 70 per cent of people are admitted to emergency units at the weekend as a result of drinking", The Telegraph 12/21/2015 — illustrated with the rather atypical picture on the right.

And there was plenty of other coverage, e.g. "Alcohol-related A&E cases rise to 70% of workload at weekends", Daily Mail 12/21/2015; Mike Doran, "Alcohol responsible for up to 70% of all A&E admissions as experts renew minimum unit price calls", The Mirror 12/21/2015; Annalee Newitz, "Drunk people account for 70% of weekend emergency room visits in UK city: Drinking binges are now a scientifically measurable phenomenon", Ars Technica 12/22/2015.

But there's just one little wrinkle: the actual rates that the study found (of alcohol involvement in weekend emergency-room visits) were more like 20%. So how did the journalists get from "one in five" to "three in four"? Well, basically in the same way that we're allowed to conclude that in 1986, the rate of space-shuttle explosions was one per week. After all, there was one week in that year (the last week of January) when there was an explosion. And in the cited study, there was one weekend hour (2:00-3:00 a.m.) when a bit over 70% of the patients were measured with a non-zero breath alcohol content.

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Pressing the House of Commons swiftly

There is a designated staff member whose job at The Economist is to make the magazine (my favorite magazine) look ridiculous by moving adverbs to unacceptably silly positions in the sentence. She is still at work. This is from the December 12 issue, p. 58, in an article about preparations for a referendum next year on whether Britain should abandon its membership in the European Union:

Most pollsters reckon a later vote is likely to boost the leave campaign. Avoidance of delay was a big reason why the government this week pressed the House of Commons swiftly to overturn a House of Lords plan to extend the referendum franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds.

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Correction of the year?

From the article "Trump brushes off widespread backlash" by Paul Koring, The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition), Dec. 9, 2015, p. A13:

And the inevitable correction (The Globe and Mail, Dec. 11, 2015, p. A2):

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You ain't no Muslim

You ain't no Muslim, bruv! The phrase already gets more than 650,000 hits on Google in the UK, and the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv gets about 1,670,000. It is becoming a mantra, a talismanic incantation for conjuring up goodwill in a world where more and more attempts are being made to foment hatred between Muslims and everyone else.

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Future in Headlinese

Funny headline on a Yahoo news story: "Ford stops using Takata air bag inflators in future vehicles". To me that says that they used to use Takata air bags in future vehicles. How did that work?

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