Archive for Errors

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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The grammar of "Abide with me"

On Tuesday at my mother's funeral we sang "Abide With Me". It's a popular hymn for funerals, possibly because people like the line "Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?"; but as we sang the fifth verse (you can see the lyrics here) I couldn't help noticing a syntactic point.

No, don't be shocked that syntax could be on my mind on such an occasion. A linguist's brain does not cease making linguistic observations on entering a crematorium chapel. As I recently explained in a piece over at Lingua Franca, linguistics is not a task that one takes up only as necessary; it is more like a kind of affliction, making the afflicted person incapable of not noticing points of interest in linguistic material. Here is the stanza that I could not help noticing:

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

Perhaps you can immediately see what struck me about the first sentence (the first three lines)?

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Correction of the day

St. Patrick's Day, that is… From Michael Grynbaum and Nikita Stewart, "Amid Mayoral Missteps, Irish Eyes Are Rolling in New York City", NYT 3/16/2014:

Correction: March 17, 2014
An earlier version of this article misquoted a comment from Malachy McCourt on St. Patrick. Mr. McCourt said, “My attitude is, St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland and they all came here and they became conservatives.” He did not say St. Patrick banished the slaves from Ireland.

In fact, slavery was legal in Ireland (as in the rest of the British Empire) until 1833, a millennium and a half after St. Patrick's time. Though as a slave himself for six years, he might have favored abolition, if the concept had ever come to his mind.


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Bad shits

I received the following photograph of a sign taken by Son Ha Dinh in Damak, Nepal:

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Wantan soup for überman hubby

Here is a handwritten note left by a man for his wife:

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Transcriptional and hybrid words in Mandarin

Like all languages, Mandarin and other Sinitic tongues have borrowed and coined words throughout their history.  But it would seem that the pace and nature of the current changes in Chinese usage are of such extraordinary amplitude that an unprecedented transformation is occurring, one that may be marked not merely by differences in quantity and quality, but of order and kind.

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Sushi in Sochi

David Craig sent in this picture which showed up on the Facebook Armchair Linguists page, originally posted by Olexa Stomachenko; no one seems to know what it means:

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Everything he was in he raised the quality

According to Metro, the UK free newspaper that I pick up each morning from a stack just inside the door as I get on a double-decker bus, Steve Coogan said this about the excellent film actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sadly was found dead with a hypodermic in his arm yesterday:

Everything he was in he raised the quality of his film just by his presence.

Quite so. Or at least, sort of so. If I defocus my syntactic eyes a lot, I can sort of get a glimpse of what Coogan meant.

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Year of the Whores

At the advent of the lunar New Year, I usually try to come up with something clever to celebrate the occasion. (See here, here, and here.) Perhaps because I was preoccupied with other things, I hadn't yet thought of anything suitable for the Year of the Horse. Fortunately, at the last minute, BBC came to the rescue and gifted me with this spectacular subtitle blunder:

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The English passive: an apology

Listen, I need to apologise to thirty or forty of you (I don't really know how many). I'm really sorry. I've wronged you. Mea culpa.

You remember all those great examples you sent me of people alleging use of the passive voice and getting it wrong? Well, I have now completed a paper using many of them. It's basically about the astonishing extent of the educated public's understanding of the grammatical term "passive" and the utter lack of support for the widespread prejudice against passive constructions. It's called "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive," and you can get a 23-page single-spaced typescript in PDF format if you click on that title. It will appear this year in the journal Language and Communication; the second proofs are being prepared now. But (the bad news) my acknowledgments note (at the end, just before the references) will not contain a full list of the names of all of you who helped me. You deserved better, but don't blow up at me; let me explain.

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An endless flawing stream of translation

From Leopold Eisenlohr, writing about his neighborhood in West Philadelphia:

So, I walk on down to the corner store to pick up a couple things and the woman behind the counter is reading (aloud, but quietly) a book that is in Chinese, in vertical columns, and clearly made to be a handsome volume. We step away from her book so she can get me something (a beer) from behind the counter and I ask her (in English), whatcha reading? and she answers: the Bible. We then continue in Chinese and I ask about the translation, is it in old style Chinese, etc, getting more and more confused since by her answers it doesn't sound like the Bible at all. When we get back she shows it to me and it's actually a Buddhist scripture, the Liánghuáng bǎo chàn 梁皇寶懺 (Jeweled Repentance of the Emperor of the Liang Dynasty)!

So what happened, I think, was that the Bible became an English equivalent for the word jīng 经, and she was using it as a general term for scripture, classic, sutra, etc. I had never heard that before — the conflation in English of bible and jing. I should include the fact that the woman's English is pretty poor.

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Hsigo, the imaginary flying monkeys of Chinese mythology

If you do a web search for "Hsigo", you will find thousands of references and hundreds of images.  I won't give specific references, because they're all complete and utter nonsense, but you can read detailed descriptions of these fake, mythical Chinese monkeys — including pseudo-learned discussions of their name — in works like the following:  Erudite Tales, Creepy Hollows Encyclopedia, Mythical Creatures Guide, Encyclo, Societas Magic, Monstropedia, etc., etc.  Hsigo are supposedly flying monkeys with bird-like wings, the tail of a dog, and a human face.

There's even a very brief Wikipedia entry for Hsigo, but I know a top Wikipedia editor who is endeavoring to liquidate that totally fictitious article as a first-step toward eliminating "Hsigo" lore from the Web and hopefully from circulation elsewhere as well.

It all started with a typo. See "'Hsigo', the viral OCR typo".  This detective article is really quite entertaining and edifying.  It ends with a reference to what our Language Log colleague, Geoffrey Nunberg, calls "the 'metadata train wreck' of Google Books".

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Too much Victor Mair

I've been reading way too much Victor Mair. In the restaurant of my hotel in London I just saw an English girl wearing a T-shirt on which it said this:


And I immediately thought, who is Ho Pe?

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A miscellany of mondegreens

Click here for a stellar collection of mondegreens from comedian Peter Kay. And prepare to have half a dozen songs ruined for you forever. A mondegreen is a speech perception error that causes you to hear the words of a song incorrectly. Peter Kay tells you what you're going to hear, and then plays passages from well-known pop songs of the last decade or two, often miming the crucial part; and thereafter you will never be able to hear those lines any other way. In fact you will forget what the real words were in the first place. Be afraid; be very afraid.

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Stupid FBI threat scam email

I recently heard of another friend-of-a-friend case in which people were taken in by one of the false email help-I'm-stranded scams, and actually sent money overseas in what they thought was a rescue for a relative who had been mugged in Spain. People really do respond to these scam emails, and they lose money, bigtime. Today I received the first Nigerian spam I have seen in which I am (purportedly) threatened by the FBI and Patriot Act government if I don't get in touch and hand over personal details that will permit the FBI to release my $3,500,000.

I wish there was more that people with basic common sense could do to spread the word about scamming detection to those who are somewhat lacking in it. The best I have been able to do is to write occasional Language Log posts pointing out the almost unbelievable degree of grammatical and orthographic incompetence in most scam emails. Sure, everyone makes the odd spelling mistake (childrens' for children's and the like), but it is simply astonishing that literate people do not notice the implausibility of customs officials or bank officers or police employees being as inarticulate as the typical scam email.

The one I just received is almost beyond belief (though see my afterthought at the end of this post). The worst thing I can think of to do to the senders is to publish the message here on Language Log, to warn the unwary, and perhaps permit those who are interested to track the culprit down. I reproduce the full content of the message source below, with nothing expurgated except for the x-ing out of my email address and local server names. I mark in red font the major errors in grammar and punctuation, plus a few nonlinguistic suspicious features.

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