Archive for Errors

Neil deGrasse Tyson on linguists and Arrival

This is a guest post submitted by Nathan Sanders and colleagues. It's the text of an open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who made a comment about linguists on Twitter not long ago.


Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson,

As fellow scientists, we linguists appreciate the work you do as a spokesperson for science. However, your recent tweet about the film Arrival perpetuates a common misunderstanding about what linguistics is and what linguists do:

In the @ArrivalMovie I'd chose a Cryptographer & Astrobiologist to talk to the aliens, not a Linguist & Theoretical Physicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), 1:40 PM – 26 Feb 2017

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The Daily Mail deluding themselves

An amusing slip in the Daily Mail (online here), in an opinion piece by Dan Hodges on the decline of the Labour Party and its singularly unsuccessful leader Jeremy Corbyn. Hodges says that "anyone who thinks Labour's problems began on September 12, 2015, when Corbyn was elected, are deluding themselves."

It's unquestionably a grammatical mistake, of course. Not about pronoun choice, but about verb agreement.

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Subsective adjectives and immigration

An important rallying cry and usage distinction made by allies of undocumented workers in the current cultural battle over immigration in the United States is Elie Wiesel's assertion above: "No human being is illegal." In the quote, Wiesel gives examples of the kinds of adjectives that he feels can denote properties of people (fat, skinny, beautiful, right, and wrong). On the other hand, calling a person 'illegal', he says, is a contradiction in terms.

Here's a more elaborated statement of the idea, quoted from this website 

When one refers to an immigrant as an "illegal alien," they are using the term as a noun.  They are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal.  The term “illegal alien” implies that a person’s existence is criminal.  I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal.  We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.” 

Now because syntax is my actual job, I am honor-bound to point out that the term 'illegal alien' is a noun phrase, not a noun, and furthermore, that "using a term as a noun" does not mean "using it to refer to a person, place or thing," which I think is what the author above may be trying to say. But that quibble aside, we can see the idea. Laws criminalize actions, not people. Hence only someone's actions, not their very existence, can be illegal.

What are the linguistic underpinnings of the intuition that using the term illegal alien implies that a person's existence is illegal? I think it derives from an important distinction in types of adjectival meanings that I've learned about from the work of my Language Log colleague Barbara Partee. Different types of adjectives license different patterns of inferential reasoning.

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Study hegemon

Here's another example of Chinese writing frustration:

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Choice-type questions

No, I am not talking about multiple choice questions.  I'm talking about the kind of choice questions that language teachers introduce as one of the many ways to ask a question in Chinese.

This subject has come up in connection with the following post that went up the day before yesterday:

"Yes-no questions in mathematics and in Chinese" (2/10/17)

Yes-no questions are questions that may be answered with a "yes" or a "no" (or their equivalents in Chinese).  That's what the day before yesterday's post was about.  In the discussion, however, the matter of choice-type questions arose, centered on the use of words for "or" in Chinese:  háishì 还是, huò 或, and huòzhě 或者.  For this type of question, the respondent is expected to choose between two alternatives.

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Writing frustration

Somebody posted this in a WeChat group:

The character they were struggling to write is this:

xiāo 宵 ("night; evening; dark")

Here it combines with yuán 元 ("first; primary; chief; principal") to form the word yuánxiāo 元宵 ("Lantern Festival", but in this sentence it means a super delicious kind of sweet dumpling made of glutinous rice flour that people eat on the Lantern Festival).

The Lantern Festival is celebrated on the night of the 15th of the first month of the lunisolar Chinese calendar and marks the last day of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations.  This year it falls on February 11.

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Malapropism of the week

Jessica Taylor & Danielle Kurtzleben, "This week in Trump's 'Alternative Facts'", NPR 1/29/2017

Less than 24 hours after White House press secretary had spouted numerous falsehoods about inauguration crowd size and more, Kellyanne Conway went on NBC's "Meet the Press" to defend him. In the process, the counselor to President Donald Trump coined a phrase that's now deigned to follow Trump throughout his presidency — "alternative facts."

I imagine that they meant "destined", not "deigned".

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The SISSILY countries

Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. We're going to need an acronym, in case we forget which are the seven countries on the blacklist. And Language Log is here for you: we have prepared one. Somalia-Iran-Sudan-Syria-Iraq-Libya-Yemen: SISSILY. We can refer to them as the SISSILY countries. And to convince you of the threat they pose, I have prepared a table of the statistics for all of the terrorist murders that the evil citizens of those countries have perpetrated so far. The table is below. I warn you, the data are rather shocking.

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Apologetic rat

The following ghastly photographs of a rat that was caught stealing from a convenience store in Heyuan, Guangdong province have gone viral on Chinese social media.

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WARNING:  viewer discretion advised.

The photographs following the page break may be upsetting to some readers.

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Particle amnesia

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

I know you've written a lot about character amnesia in the greater Sinosphere. But I think I witnessed the related, but significantly different, phenomenon of (grammatical) particle amnesia (or perhaps, "drift") during a recent trip to Hawaii.

As you know, Hawaii has a large nikkei* population. This is especially true in and around Honolulu, where I was for the Japanese Studies Association conference last week. In addition to an extraordinary number of Japanese tourists, Oahu is home to nisei,** sansei,*** and many people of mixed heritage. Japanese signs abound, and Japanese is spoken in many hotels, restaurants, and stores.

[*an American of Japanese descent.]
[**second generation; ***third generation]

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Hugh Jackilometresan

On Twitter, John Lewis shared a prime example of the perils of global search-and-replace: what happens when "km" gets expanded to "kilometres" in an edition of Trivial Pursuit.

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Massive attack of mispronunciation

The People's Daily has published on its microblog (weibo) a long list of "easily mispronounced words".  As circulated on Sohu, the list was preceded by this subtitle:  kànle jiǎnzhí bù gǎn shuōhuàle 看了简直不敢说话了 ("after you see it you simply won't dare to open your mouth").

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Mystery modal window error message

Almost every day, when looking through the headlines on Google News, I see one or two stories where what's meant to be a snippet from the first paragraph of the story contains not a single word from the story but instead says this:

This is a modal window. This modal can be closed by pressing the Escape key or activating the close button. Close Modal Dialog. This is a modal window.

modalwin

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