Archive for Language and the media

The temperature is struggling

I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio ("pretty miserable by and large," and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4's morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like "a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic," or "heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend," but (more than once) a total baffler: "The temperature is going to be struggling." What the hell is that about?

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Editing wars at London Bridge Street

As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

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One last (?) piece of nonsense

Callum Borchers, "Count Obama’s references to ‘I’ and ‘me’ while you can, conservative media", WaPo 1/18/2017:

For eight years, tracking Obama's use of the personal pronouns "I" and "me" has been a cherished ritual in the conservative media — one small way to promote the idea that the president is self-centered and therefore out of touch with all the decent, hard-working folks out there. […]

Last week, the Daily Caller dinged Obama for referring to himself 75 times in his farewell address.

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Metaphor of the month

Joshua David Stein, "The Loud, Empty Word That Defines President-Elect Trump", The Daily Beast 1/1/2017:

Perhaps because there are so many casualties already accruing and so much damage already being done, it has gone less noted than it should that among the incoming Trump administration’s most endangered victims is the English language itself. Nouns shudder. Adjectives cower. The entire edifice of grammar quivers with fear as January 20th nears.

Of course, one could make the argument that at a time when all the groceries are up in the air, we must prioritize what to catch. Climate change and war are eggs; perhaps language is a loaf of bread.

But language, as any linguist, Lacanian or deliman knows, is the sandwich within which stuff our world. If a thing doesn’t fit inside our words, we can’t bring it to our mouths. It is fundamentally indigestible.

I'm going to guess that that there's a missing "we" in "the sandwich within which (we) stuff our world".

And are "linguist, Lacanian or deliman" three epistemological alternatives? Or are Lacanian and deliman subtypes of linguist? Compare "cow, sheep or goat" to "cow, Guernsey or Holstein"…

Morris Halle once told me about a lecture in Paris after which someone — perhaps a Lacanian — asked him suspiciously to define his philosophical orientation. Morris's answer: "Does a shoemaker need a philosophical orientation? If so, then that's mine as well." In this case, I guess I'll follow Morris in identifying myself as an adherent of the deliman school. Though someone that I respect has been trying to persuade me that Jacques Lacan was not, in Noam Chomsky's words, "an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan". So stay tuned.

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Noun pile of the week

"Corpse sex kill threat prisoner gets 45 year sentence", BBC 12/14/2016.

This is a case where even after reading the story, the structure is unclear.

Is it [[[corpse sex] [kill threat]] prisoner] ?

Or [[[corpse [sex kill]] threat]] prisoner] ?

Or has the BBC decided, in this post-truth era, to go post-syntax as well?

Philip Cummings, who sent in the link, commented that

I call these ‘noun car crashes’ particularly when I have to attempt to translate them into Irish and work out the appropriate case relationships between the various nouns.

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To more than justify the split infinitive

As long ago as 1914, an article by the grammarian George O. Curme made the point that more than can modify the verb of an infinitival complement, and since it must be adjacent to the verb, that actually forces a split infinitive: shifting the more than modifier to anywhere else creates clear ambiguity. I found a small measure of comfort in seeing that even The Economist, so often driven to deleteriously unnatural phrasing in its efforts to avoid split infinitives, acknowledges this grammatical imperative. In the November 26 issue for 2016 (online here) we read:

A string of purchases of A380s, starting in 2008, helped traffic to more than double to 51m in 2015.

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Kilometers and miles

Sometimes the obeisance to style guides by newspaper editors and journalists looks not so much craven as robotic. The Telegraph provides an example. Like many newspapers, it has a policy of reporting distances in kilometers but appending parenthesized equivalents in miles (it's a conservative newspaper, and is not going to push its mileage-oriented readers toward metric units any time soon). Often that's useful: when it reports that The behemoth Airbus A380 … is capable of carrying 544 passengers up to 15,200km (8,200 miles), the parenthetical suffix serves to assist metrically challenged Americans and older Brits in forming an idea of what 15,200 of those little bitty European kilometer things might amount to. (At least, it would have done if it were correct, but as Bruce Lin has pointed out to me, it's wildly wrong: 15,200 km = 15200/8 * 5 = 9,500 mi. They're off by 1,300 miles. They must have meant nautical miles: 15,200 km = 8207.34 NM. That could be a life-threatening error for a jetliner running low on fuel. But never mind; who's counting.) Sometimes, though, doing such conversions is rather less useful.

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Telephone or telegraph?

There's a controversy over whether President Xi Jinping called President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the November 8th election.  The problem is summarized in this passage from The Economist:

Chinese officials pay obsessive attention to ensuring the Communist Party’s line is reflected accurately by the country’s main media. But Mr Trump’s victory caught them in a muddle. Several outlets said Mr Xi had telephoned his compliments to Mr Trump. But Mr Trump said he had spoken to or heard from most foreign leaders—except Mr Xi. The phone call did not take place until six days after the vote. In most countries such a mistake would be insignificant, the result of sloppy reporting or ambiguous phrasing (in Mandarin, the phrase “sent a congratulatory note” can also mean “congratulate by phone”). In China it suggested that media overlords were not sure what line to take.

(emphasis added)

From The Economist, November 19th, 2016, "China" section, page 59 of British edition.

"Weighing up Telangpu:  A victory for China?  Some Chinese see much to like in Mr Trump" (11/19/16)

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Big-league metaphors: the role of sports language in American politics

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining fellow Language Logger Barbara Partee on Josh Chetwynd's KGNU radio show, "The Real Deal in Sports." Josh is the author of The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors, and he spoke to Barbara and me about how the metaphorical language of sports pervades American politics (especially in the latest presidential campaign). We mulled over how those metaphors shape our political discourse, and callers joined in with their own thoughts. You can listen to the hourlong broadcast here.

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How "whopping" is 78 percent monosyllables?

The other day, someone asked me about the claim that "a whopping 78 percent of the words that Trump uses are monosyllabic".

We've previously debunked the idea that Trump's speeches aim at a fourth-grade reading level ("More Flesch-Kincaid grade level nonsense", 10/23/2015).

And long ago, we took aim at careless assertions about how young people/media/txting/etc. are degrading the language to the point that "the top 20 words used … account for a third of all words": "Britain's scientists risk becoming hypocritical laughing stocks, research suggests", 12/16/2006; "Only 20 words for a third of what they say: A replication", 12/16/2006; "Vicky Pollard's revenge", 1/2/2007.

So here's a quick evaluation of that "78 percent" claim.

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China's "core" leader

I've been reading countless reports about how Xi Jinping was made the "core" leader of China during the recently concluded meeting (6th Plenum) of the CCP, e.g.:

"China’s Communist Party Declares Xi Jinping ‘Core’ Leader

"China's Ruling Party Endorses Xi as 'Core Leader' After Meeting" (RFA, 10/27/16)

"Down to the core:  Xi Jinping gets a new label, but no more power: In China, a year of political infighting lies ahead" (The Economist, 10/27/16)

"China’s Xi Jinping Tightens His Hold on Communist Party:  Officials at conclave designate the president as the ‘core’ of the leadership, using title conferred on Mao Zedong " (WSJ, 10/27/16)


*Notice, in the photograph accompanying this article (and many other articles), all the members of the Standing Committee, seated at the front of the hall facing us, raise their hands in exactly the same way (angle, height, position of thumb versus other fingers, etc.).  The other members of the Politburo, with their backs to us, also match the posture of the Standing Committee members, but not with such exactitude.


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Annals of Spectacularly Misleading Media

If you were scanning science-related stories in the mass media over the past 10 days or so, you saw some extraordinary news. A few examples:

"Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’".
"The hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory" ("In a surprising new study, researchers have uncovered powerful associations between sounds and meanings across thousands of unrelated languages").
"Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning" ("A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages").
"In world's languages, scientists discover shared links between sound and meaning" ("Sifting through two-thirds of the world’s languages, scientists have discovered a strange pattern: Words with the same meanings in different languages often seem to share the same sounds").
"Words with same meanings in different languages often seem to share same sounds" ("After analyzing two-thirds of the languages worldwide, scientists have noticed an odd pattern. They have found that the words with same meaning in different languages often apparently have the same sounds").
"Unrelated Languages Often Use Same Sounds for Common Objects and Ideas, Research Finds".
"Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings".

The trouble is, many of these reports are complete nonsense: no one "discovered a universal human language" or "overturned years of linguistic theory" or showed that "world languages have a common ancestor" or demonstrated that "the sounds we build words from have built-in meanings". And other stories simply trumpet as news something that has been known, argued, or assumed for millennia: "biology could play a role in the invention of human language", "words with the same meaning in different languages often have the same sounds", etc.) There may be a story out there that soberly presents the actual content and significance of the research — but if so, I haven't found it.

How did this happen? It seems to be the same old sad tale. Science writers, in search of sensational headlines and lacking adequate background to read and evaluate actual scientific papers, re-wrote wildly irresponsible press releases.  And as usual, it's not clear how complicit the scientists were, but there's little evidence that they tried very hard to tone down the hoopla.

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"Perform a sex act"

How to be circumspect and explicit at the same time, from the Washington Post, Sept. 5: "Metro Transit Police arrested a man Monday afternoon whom they say exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act." My mind isn't exactly racing: there aren't a whole lot of she-on-he sex acts that are introduced with the verb perform.

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