A SpinSpotter tool — a plugin for the Firefox browser — has been announced in a credulous article by Jon Fine in Business Week. It will (its inventors claim) scan the text of web pages that you view, and identify passages of untrustworthy spinspeak. Our experts at Language Log's research laboratory have run it through our secret multi-million-dollar bullshit detector, and we got a strong positive. Having written several times before on Language Log about people who publish claims about language, and mention the passive voice, when they are completely unable to tell an active clause from a passive clause, I was delighted to see one more instance. Look at this description, from Jon Fine's description of SpinSpotter, detailing the "tenets" (i.e., diagnostics) that enable SpinSpotter to spot spin:
The tenets are: reporter's voice (adjectives used by a journalist that go beyond the supporting evidence in the article); passive voice (example: a story says "bombs land" without stating which party is responsible for them); a biased source (a quoted source's partisanship is not clearly identified); disregarded context (a political rally's attendance is reported to be "massive," but would it have been so huge had the surviving members of the Beatles not played?); and lack of balance (a news story on a controversial topic gives much more credence to one side's claims).
Bombs land is of course an active clause. Passive clauses always have a participial form of the verb, in almost all cases (setting aside "concealed passives" like "This needs looking at") a past participle. The past particple of land has the form landed. So quite independently of the absurdity of an algorithm running on raw text being able to spot things as subtle as strength of supporting evidence or balance on controversial topics, the inventors of this crucially linguistic tool (or the people who wrote their press release) don't know even the most elementary things about English grammar. Caveat downloader.
Hat tip to Fernando Pereira. And as a commenter remarks below, don't miss the delightful piece of more detailed demolition at Headsup, together with Mark Liberman's investigations elsewhere on Language Log. Jon Fine really has been sold a pup here. How do these print journalists get away with being so naive and trusting, in a world that they surely know is swimming with hustlers and press agents? Don't answer; that's a rhetorical question, a sort of written substitute for eye rolling and head tossing.