Variation and second language transcription

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I was trying to keep up with the news on Iran's "secret new nuclear enrichment facility" a couple of weeks ago, as I'm sure many of our readers were also doing. In reading one update in the NYT, I came upon this quotation:

[Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's nuclear program, said in an interview with ISNA news agency on Sunday, said] that Iran had taken defensive measures against possible military threats against the facility into consideration. "We are always faced with threats," he said. "We don't think that those threats would necessarily take place but we have prepared ourselves for the worse."

Shouldn't that be "for the worst"?, I found myself asking as I read this. But then I remembered the fact that [t] and [d] are highly likely to be deleted (= unpronounced) in this kind of position (word- and utterance-finally and after another consonant) in many if not most (most if not all?) spoken varieties of English, even when the distinction between e.g. worse and worst is at stake — a somewhat subtle distinction in most contexts anyway, including this one. This deletion has also been found to be even more likely among (some groups of) second language speakers, which we can reasonably assume the translator (and/or the transcriber) to be. [ I've not been able to find the original quote, but given that the ISNA is primarily a Persian-language news agency (with an available English-language version), I assume that this English quotation was not original to Salehi but rather that it is a translation of the Persian original. ]

Quick Google searches for {"prepare for the worst"} and {"prepare for the worse"} reveal both that the variant with worst is almost 10 times more common than the variant with worse (~25M ghits vs. ~2.6M ghits) and what appears to me to be a subtle but not insignificant class distinction of sorts: the worst variant seems to be found in more formal, "corporate" sites (book publishers, magazines, and the like), while the worse variant seems to be found in more informal sites (message boards, blogs, and the like). Overall, though, not too shabby a showing for the worse variant.


  1. monkeytypist said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    Was the interview conducted in Arabic? Because as an Iranian Salehi's native language is most likely to be Farsi. It's more than possible that he speaks Arabic, of course.

    [(eb) I assumed Arabic b/c of the main language of the ISNA, but of course I could be wrong. Either way, the point is that my guess is it was not English.]

    [(eb) Turns out I was wrong about the main language of the ISNA. This has been corrected in the post.]

  2. Peter Taylor said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    I had a look at the first couple of pages of ghits and there a few occurrences of variants on "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worse", a curiously unbalanced sentence.

  3. John Cowan said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    The variations of the phrase when [the] wors[t] comes to [the] wors[t] are a fine example of this. Apparently the original form is "the worst … the worst"; the most common form today is "worst … worst"; and "worse … the worst", which is what I say myself, is an after-the-fact rationalization. Ah well.

    From what I can make out, the title of the Billy Joel song is definitely "worse … worst", though transcriptions of the lyrics vary, whereas the title of the unrelated Dilated People song is completely indeterminate.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Should the speaker's utterance have been in the superlative?

    Prescriptivists regularly complain that the superlative should be reserved for the ultimate condition, which is typically singular in nature (e.g., the smartest of three brothers, but the smarter of two)

    From the standpoint of actual usage, however, it is idiomatic in English to say that we are preparing for the worst (perhaps on the assumption that preparations for the worst will also cover conditions of a lesser degree).

    But as is often the case, the logic behind this idiom may be faulty. One does not prepare for a nuclear attack in the same way one prepares for a ground assault. Making distinct preparations for both (i.e., the worse) is quite logical.

    Obviously, the speaker/translator was inattentive to idiomatic English.

    But at least one explanation might be offered in addition to pronunciation habits. I'm suggesting one based on logic. When an idiom is not available, or when it is incompletely understood, many speakers (native and non) turn to logic to generate an utterance. (Cf. the eggcorn phenomenon, which relies on a kind of folk logic.)

    It is also possible that Farsi (which, Google tells me, has both the superlative and comparative degrees) does use the comparative when doing so is logical. Some remarks from a Farsi speaker would be in order here.

  5. Boris said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    Am I the only one who thinks there's something wrong with threats "taking place"? I would say threats would be carried out or (slightly worse) coming true.

  6. Faldone said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:47 am


    I felt the same way. In fact that phrase completely distracted me from the worse/worst issue.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:48 am


    Yup, another idiom out of whack. Evidence (I think) that the translator learned English as a second language, rather than being a native speaker who picked up Farsi along the way.

    Is this typical of diplomatic translators? I used to work with a native English speaker (of European ancestry) who was in the Naval Reserves. His regular job was teaching ESL and Japanese. When he did his Naval duties, he was a translator of Asian languages in the cryptography wing. But that's a different set of conditions than diplomatic work.

  8. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    I see John Cowan has already mentioned what I was going to mention: the expression "wors[e/t] comes to wors[e/t]."

    Even though I'm a native speaker of idiomatic English, and occasionally use that expression, I'm not actually sure how I myself say it. In practice, I probably don't really pronounce the T, but if I ever had to write down that expression, I'd be unsure what to write and might even rephrase instead.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    The first hit I found for the balanced-yet-unidiomatic "We hope for the better, but are prepared for the worse" seemed to derive from a Russian site giving an English-language version of a quote from "Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov." Substituting better for best obviously isn't driven by word-final deletion of a stop, but perhaps misunderstanding based on that phonological phenomenon then led to reanalysis — i.e. having initially mistaken a superlative for a comparative, the translator then took the logic of the comparative and ran with it.

    Some languages, at least in certain contexts, use superlatives more promiscuously than others, forcing translators to decide when to be unliteral in order to be idiomatic. So, for example, translators of liturgical texts from Latin to English sometimes tone down "Sanctissima Trinitas" to mere "Holy Trinity" rather than "Most Holy Trinity" (I've never seen "Holiest Trinity" in this context), because the breakpoint between Sancta and Sanctissima in liturgical Latin seems not to map idiomatically into even the fairly formal/liturgical register of English.

  10. Chris said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    Looks like the quotation is no longer included in the article.

    [(eb) Ack, you're right. I wonder when it disappeared. I originally read it the day it appeared and thought I'd checked it several days later, but there you have it. I swear it was there.]

  11. CWV said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:25 am

    I was distracted by this sentence: "[he said] that Iran had taken defensive measures against possible military threats against the facility into consideration." Putting "into consideration" at the end of the sentence, rather than next to "taken," causes a miscue. Initially, it seems as though Iran has taken defensive measures. In fact, Iran has merely considered taking defensive measures.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    The ISNA website appears to be trilingual, presumably in Arabic/English/Farsi. A "helpful" feature of my webbrowser thinks both of the languages written in Arabic script are
    Arabic," but if you toggle back and forth between the non-English options they are visually distinct from each other although I'm not competent to tell which is which. However, since one is coded "A" and the other "P" (with English coded "E"), I'm assuming that P = Persian/Farsi. When you first go to the website it seems to default to P.

  13. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    Yep, Persian is the default language of the ISNA site, as one would expect. Reading from right to left, the language choices are Persian/Farsi (فارسي), English, and Arabic (عربي). There seems to be a lot of Persian-only content on the site — the Salehi interview may be part of that (haven't found it yet).

  14. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    OK, found it. Here's the interview with Salehi (in Persian only):

    The relevant quote appears to be:

    ما هميشه با تهديدهاي دائم روبرو هستيم و روزي نميگذرد که با تهديد روبرو نباشيم و اقدامات انجام شده در اين خصوص، احتياط آميز است، يعني سازمان انرژي اتمي بايد درخصوص اين تهديدها جدي عمل کند؛ هر چند ما تهديد را به مفهوم اين که رخ خواهد داد، در نظر نمي گيريم، اما بايد براي بدترين شرايط آماده باشيم .

    Google Translate renders that as:

    We always are facing a permanent threats and threats that face the day Nmygzrd Nbashym and measures taken in this regard, caution is peaceful, namely the Atomic Energy Organization should regard this serious threat to act, although we sense that the threat will occur said, lies not in, but we must prepare for the worst conditions.

    So it's that last bit, "اما بايد براي بدترين شرايط آماده باشيم" ("but we must prepare for the worst") that's at issue — "بدترين" (bad-tarin) translates as "worst."

  15. jfruh said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    I was also thrown by the "threats" thing. This was part of my problem with the "SNP signals debate legal threat" headline I sent in ( — how can you "signal" a "threat"? Isn't a threat itself a (threatening) signal that you're about to do something? Similarly, once a threat has been realized, it ceases to be a threat.

  16. Eric Baković said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    Thanks, Ben! (Wipes egg from face.)

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    There must be a mole in the CIA. The Iranians weren't supposed to know about the covert Nmygzrd Nbashym threat we were preparing to unleash.

  18. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    Nmygzrd Nbashym… must be related to Joe Btfsplk and Mr. Mxyzptlk.

    Looks like Google's still working out its Persian-to-English MT, which they just launched last June — see Mark's post at the time. In the comments to the post, Troy S. noted that the translator was having trouble parsing the negative prefix næ-, and that looks like the problem here. I think that part translates into something like "the threats we have not yet met." Troy?

  19. Troy S. said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    The whole cited passage is "We are always faced with constant threats ; not a day goes by in which we are not faced with a threat. And the steps that have been taken in this matter are precautionary, which means the IAEA must act seriously in this matter. Although we do not expect this threat to be carried out, we must nevertheless be prepared for the worst circumstances.

    As you can see, the double negative there actually makes sense, and the word rendered "worst" is indeed in the superlative. Hope that helps.

  20. Troy S. said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    It is puzzling it couldn't translate "Nmygzrd," a simple negative indicative, as "(a day) does not pass (by)" which I have taken the liberty of rendering "not a day passes by" for rhetorical effect. The Nbashym is a negative subjunctive "that we are not (faced with)" so maybe the software doesn't handle negatives as well as it could after all. Another point is that Persian frequently uses relative clauses that aren't really idiomatic in English, and are therefore often suppressed in human translation. This may be another challenge for the software.

  21. Emile said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:04 am

    Since I am not a native speaker of English, logic is usually my only guide to (what I think is) correct wording. Now, "the" is specific, "a" is not; "worst" is specific (for being unique), "worse is not" (for being one of many). Therefore, "the worst" and "a worse" (as in "Peter found himself in a worse situation than Paul") are logically self-consistent; "a worst" and "the worse" are not.

  22. SouthWind45 said,

    October 22, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    Should I take it at its face value, and if so, then why? ,

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