From the Department of Unintended Interpretations

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The Telegraph argues that "the inability to speak a host country's language […] is a very reasonable requirement of any immigrant":

Inability to write the host country's language, on the other hand, is only required in a few specialized professions such as journalism.

[Tip of the hat to Hermann Buchard]


  1. Michael said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:14 am

    So if this journalist is an immigrant, s/he belongs!

  2. johndburger said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:15 am

    "you can't belong" also seems odd to me (vs. "you don't belong), but that might be dialectical.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:38 am

    It seems unidiomatic to me (UK English speaker) but not unprecedented: see Google Books for "you can't belong in". Since the meaning in context is "you are not allowed to belong" rather than "you do not belong", I guess it's unusual but not illogical.

  4. Ø said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    In Britain, if you don't speak English you can't belong.

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:54 am

    The sub-editor has made that phrase sound weird by pulling it out of context. Within the copy it's (to me) unremarkable:

    Language is central because we can only search for the common good through face-to-face discussion and public debate via the mass media. The simple fact is that if you can’t speak the language, you can’t take part. You can’t belong.

  6. TonyK said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    This is not wrong, it's just awkward. Like Pflaumbaum, I parsed it (on a second pass!) as "In Britain, if you don't speak a second language, you can't belong." Nothing wrong with that to my (British) eyes.

  7. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    I got hung up on the headline too for a bit, but I'm assuming that the actual mistake in this article is the bit where it says "Inability to speak a host country's language … is a very reasonable requirement of any immigrant".

  8. Alexander said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    @ the earlier commenters: The point, I believe, is not the "can't", but the rough use of "it" to get at "ability to speak the language" (or perhaps more narrowly "speak the language") buried inside "in[ability to speak the language]". As in: "His inability to bench 350 will keep him off the team, which has that as a prerequisite."

  9. TonyK said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    Oh, I see it now. That's embarrassing! What does my inability to *read* my native language qualify me for?

  10. Chris Buckey said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    @ TonyK

    Elected office, probably.

  11. garicgymro said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 7:47 am

    I didn't find it linguistically remarkable either. As a native of Gwynedd, however, where most people speak Welsh, and many children don't learn English till they start school, I find this attitude especially irritating. We were here speaking Old British before those bogus Anglo-Saxon asylum seekers started arriving…

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    As with multiple negatives, we humans have a remarkable ability instantiate a concept from its apparent opposite/negation. Most of us, for example, have played Speaker B in (some variation of) the following:

    A: Do you mind rescuing the baby from certain death?
    B: Yup.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    Those who don't see anything linguistically remarkable, did you read the post, both before and after the picture? Mark Liberman makes pretty clear what he's pointing at, and the way he quotes it makes clear why it was, well, notable enough to post about.

  14. Vance Maverick said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    I missed the error on the first and second reads. I think that's because "speak English" is made so prominent by the headline that it's easy to fill in a satisfying referent for "it". No question that it's an error, though, or that I don't belong in Britain.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 9:23 am

    @garicgymro: I did notice the issue you bring up. (And I'm from the middle of the USA.)

  16. Neil Coffey said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 9:26 am

    Not quite sure what the big fuss is about. "You can't belong in Britain" sounds no less unusual than "It can't be Easter yet".

  17. NW said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    I'm not quite sure why the 'it' sentence is ungrammatical (though of course it is). 'It' can have an infinitival clause as its antecedent:

    To speak the language is useful, and it is a reasonable requirement too.

    And it can also refer to an NP antecedent inside an infinitival clause that's a complement to another NP:

    The inability to digest milk is widespread, and it is not a common food item everywhere.

    That is, the NP + Clause junction isn't a barrier to coindexation as such.

    [(myl) The reluctance to find anaphors inside words has been discussed by linguists under the term "Anaphoric Island" constraints. If you browse that literature, you'll find various points of view on the nature (and even the reality) of the problems that some people find in interpreting anaphoric reference to parts of words, or to concepts evoked by words.

    The Telegraph's sub-hed has the added feature that the phrase "the inability to speak a host country's language" is an obvious and accessible antecedent for "it", but the reader is expected to reject that interpretation and construct the de-negatived version of the phrase instead. There's an old and still vexed controversy about whether things like this are a matter of grammar or mere usage — I have no dog in that fight, but this example seems clearly to be a case of bad writing, if only because it allows people to make fun of the author.]

  18. Emily said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    I interpreted "you can't belong" as a stronger version of "you don't belong"– with the implication that there's not even a possibility of your belonging, at least until you gain the right linguistic (in)ability. It's an odd construction, but not incomprehensible.

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    @ Ellen K –

    We were talking about the phrase you can't belong, not to the negation mix-up in the the sub-headline under it that MYL's post was about. At least, that's what I was talking about with my 'unremarkable'. MYL's point was clear, yes.

    @ Emily –

    you can't belong has been pulled out of the para that I quoted above, where it's part of a tricolon of you can't phrases. So I reckon that was the primary motivation behind the choice of auxiliary.

  20. Valentine said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    My cousin has lived in Japan for several years, has married a Japanese woman, and is raising a daughter with his wife. He only knows about 50 Japanese words and has even less knowledge of Japanese grammar. While he gets along fine, I do find his decision a little odd.

  21. Ellen said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 11:16 am

    Pflaumbaum, I guess you are better at mind reading at me. Me personally, when someone writes "I didn't find it linguistically remarkable either." it's not at all clear to me that they really did find something linguistically remarkable. Not at all clear that the "it" doesn't cover the whole of what was posted.

  22. JQ said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    @Chris Buckey / TonyK

    But politicians need to read their teleprompters… I would say any face-to-face customer service job.

  23. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    I assumed garicgymro was picking up on my 'unremarkable', but whatever…

    Either way, my post wasn't meant to sound like it was having a go at you.

  24. garicgymro said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    My comment was indeed a response to Pflaumbaum and Tony K. But, obviously not having woken up properly, I missed some intervening comments that made mine rather obscure.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    garicgymro, according to what the U.K. government says on the web, an applicant to become a naturalized (ok, they actually say "naturalised") British citizen "must have a good enough knowledge of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic to deal with everyday situations." I would be interested to know how many, if any, persons are naturalized per year who qualify based on demonstrating competency in one of the non-English alternative languages. (I'm assuming that Scots is being considered a form of English rather than an ineligible fourth language; if not, the SNP may have something to add to their running list of grievances.)

  26. lucia said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    Color me confused by all the comments about "can't" versus "do not" etc.

    Isn't the funny part supposed to be that the writer seems to have suggested that Inability to speak the host country language appears to be a "very reasonable requirement" for an immigrant. So, for example, it would be reasonable for England to insist immigrants be unable to speak English.

    I'm sure the writer means just the opposite. I'm also sure I've made similar mistakes when writing. Lucky for me I'm not a journalist.

  27. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

    Yes, that's the funny part, but we then started talking about another aspect of the headline.

    Serves us right for going off topic I suppose.

  28. lucia said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    Thanks. I thought I was just not getting it.

  29. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    He only knows about 50 Japanese words and has even less knowledge of Japanese grammar.

    That's different. British people living in foreign countries aren't immigrants, they're expats.

  30. C Thornett said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    Government policy is just as confused as the writer of this article. I know adult literacy and Functional English teachers who could help the writer, but the government is not interested in data or expertise from those who actually provide ESOL. Forgive me for mounting the soap box, but this affects some of my former students and people like them, who are being priced out of English lessons.

    Funding for ESOL has been cut far more than for any other adult basic skills and fee remission is restricted to those receiving benefits related to seeking employment. Women, unless affluent, will be disproportionately affected as many have substantial care responsibilities, both for pre-school children and elderly relatives, which make paid employment difficult. Men and women working in low paid jobs began to find about 2 years ago that they could not afford ESOL lessons and were not entitled to fee remission. Evidence to this effect has been ignored.

    Bodies such as NIACE have also submitted evidence that the most effective way to ensure that spouses, among others, learn English is by ensuring English lessons within the first 6 months of settlement in the UK. Even well-educated people who have had English lessons at school often find it very difficult to speak and understand the Englishes they encounter here. Further, A1 is far from being conversational English*, and is far below the standard required (often with a certificate as proof) for most vocational qualifications and for many jobs.

    The bitter laughter you might hear comes from UK ESOL teachers and their students.

    *A1: Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

  31. Scotty Schup said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

    @myl: Couldn't this be a case of the infintival construction functioning as the antecedent apart from the 'ability' anaphor? I.e.: 'I can't wait to go home; it's my favorite part of the day' where it is clearly the 'going home' and not the 'waiting' nor the 'inability to wait' that are the speaker's favorite parts of the day.

    At the expense of sounding anecdotal, it seems the fact that so many of us missed the actual grammatical error the first time might indicate, from a descriptive point of view, that we need to find a way to explain how it is grammatical rather than why it isn't grammatical. Or at least experiment with similar cases in order to better determine the grammaticality of the sentence. I know there is a wealth of research out there regarding the syntactic confusion that often arises where compound negation is involved, but even though there is negation involved in this example, the interesting part seems to revolve more centrally around the infinitival construction's possible role as the antecedent to 'it.'

    At the same time, it is quite fun to laugh those who use language for a living when they accidentally say the opposite of what they intended.

  32. Nelida said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    @Lucia: YES!! That's what struck me at once! Either the inability to speak the host country's language is an impediment, or the ability to speak it is a reasonable requirement to ask of immigrants. To my mind, this is where the error lies. All the rest (cannot, don't, etc.) is deadwood, not the (linguistic) issue at all with this statement. (And I'm not even native in English, but a certified translator, and so I have been trained to look for inconsistencies).

  33. paulr said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    Another headline from the Telegraph (4 June 2011):

    "Numbers paid benefits after claiming to be hyperactive rockets"

    Does it count as a crash blossom if faulty grammar induces an unintended reading?

  34. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Taking "can't belong" out of its original context is part of the problem, but I think another part of the problem is putting it in a new, incompatible context. In the original context, it's clear that "belong" is being used with a sense of (roughly) "be a part (of one's community); have a sense of belonging", but in the subhed, "belong" was changed to "belong in Britain", which can't have that sense — and the senses that it can have, can't be headed by "can't", hence the weirdness of the result.

    Also, I love Language Loggers' ability to find the small linguistic angle that justifies posting about a news story that is . . . entirely about language anyway. ;-)

  35. Brian said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 8:14 pm


  36. Keith said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    "Can't belong" v. "don't belong"…

    For me, having grown up in the UK, "can't belong" has a weak implication of a future state, while "don't belong" has an implication of a present state.

    So in the case of this headline, what was intended by the writer of the headline was "if an immigrant has not a good command of English, then he or she can never fully participate in society at any time in the future, until such time as he or she gains a good command of English".

    But I think we should also bear in mind that in most cases the headlines are made up by somebody other than the writer of the article, and that space and eye-catchiness (is that even a real word?) are more important than grammatical correctitude.


  37. bloix said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    "You can't belong to the club" = you don't meet the eligibility requirements
    "You don't belong in the club" = you may be a member, but you're the wrong sort of person
    *"You can't belong in the club" – not idiomatic English.

  38. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 3:29 am

    @ Ran –

    Yeah, I agree that's why it sounds weird. I wouldn't go as far as to say that can't belong in Britain categorically can't have that first sense, but it is much less natural and requires a prosodic break before Britain.

    @ Scotty –

    I'm not sure the sub-headline is ungrammatical, isn't the point just that its propositional content is more or less the opposite of what the writer intended – ironically, given what he did intend? Or am I missing it?

  39. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 3:29 am

    Sorry, before in Britain I meant.

  40. Nick Lamb said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 6:16 am

    Thornett – I'm surprised to hear you seem so enthusiastic about language schools in this context. Surely (though I admit the Torygraph won't like it) immersion is a far better way to acquire a new language?

  41. Chris Waters said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 7:16 am

    Hmm, in my idiolect, all three seem fine:

    "You can't belong to the club" = you don't meet the eligibility requirements
    "You don't belong in the club" = you may be a member, but you're the wrong sort of person
    "You can't belong in the club" – you may be a member, but you won't feel like one.

    But I grew up in California where we tend to assign new touchy-feely granola-y meanings to ordinary words sometimes, so I'm not sure if that works in other dialects.

  42. vanya said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    "I interpreted "you can't belong" as a stronger version of "you don't belong""

    I interpreted it as the opposite. "You don't belong" sounds very rude and certainly has strong nativist overtones to my ear. As Chris notes above it means you are the wrong sort. I think the editor chose the awkward "you can't belong" in an attempt to soften the phrase. "You don't belong here" implies that we are telling you to leave. "You can't belong" implies that your not belonging is an intrinsic quality of you, and thus, much as we would like to have you here, you will have to go, and we are powerless to do much about it.

  43. C Thornett said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    @Nick Lamb: My point is precisely that people can learn English more effectively in the UK than in settings where English is not spoken on an everyday basis and where the aim is passing an exam rather than developing effective communication.

    Some of the adults who present themselves for lessons at FE (community) colleges and adult education programmes have little or no formal education, and ESOL lessons can also be a gateway into other subjects and areas of learning.

    In the UK, language schools tend to have a different clientele, generally younger and more affluent, who are in the UK for the purpose of learning or improving their English, rather than for work or permanent settlement.

  44. J. Goard said,

    July 29, 2011 @ 10:46 pm


    But doesn't the epistemic can't make sense, especially if you're talking about a set of people rather than an individual?

    If you're humor-impaired, you can't belong in the club = Among all people, there is no way that one who is humor-impaired would feel like she belongs in the club.

  45. Charly said,

    July 30, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    I'm American, and while I disagree with the rather Know-Nothing bent of the article, I've read and re-read the excerpt and the comments and still don't see what is unidiomatic or incorrect about this, besides a usage of the less-apt "can't belong" rather than "don't belong." Is this one of those may/can/might things? All synonymous (more or less) to these eyes. "Can't belong" = "impossible to belong;" "don't belong" = a state. Is this the issue? Something completely different! ¡Ayuda!

    [(myl) As the first line of the post observes, "The Telegraph argues that 'the inability to speak a host country's language […] is a very reasonable requirement of any immigrant'".

    If that seems unproblematic to you, then you don't get the joke, and should turn your attention to other matters, since the joke is not really worth explaining.]

  46. A. said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    @J. W. Brewer
    What about Ulster Irish? :-)

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