My final post on language articles in newspapers (probably)

I’ve written a few posts about the (mis)treatment of linguistics and language in many newspaper articles. In short, it’s bad. But then what should we expect? Journalism is largely page filling these day (for more about churnalism read this excellent book) So I’ve decided this is my last article about bad linguistic journalism. Whatever I write and no matter how much evidence can be brought to bear on these kinds of wrong-headed articles, history shows that they will continue to proliferate. However, as I will hopefully show, the tide of history is almost always on the side of usage.
The author of the today’s article “There are lots of bacteria, but there is only one genetic codeDr Dixon, is a scientist and unsurprisingly also an editor (like grammargirl). Many journalists have a seemingly fetishistic obsession with prescriptivism regardless of  the mountain of evidence against it. An example from an earlier post is Bill Bryson describing all the reasons why “whom” could be allowed to die a natural death but then stating “I, for one, would not like to see it go”.  This is pretty much the way with many writers. Scientists who would question almost any claim about their field and demand evidence have seemingly no problem swallowing linguistic rules without the slightest curiosity as to their validity. 
Ironically, Dixon penned an piece complaining about the press’ lousy coverage of science, yet he, -a non-linguist, has set himself up as an arbiter of proper language usage. And what particular idiosyncrasies does he have a problem with? Before I dissect the article in detail I would quickly like to go over the mistaken argument from linguistic regularity which, in short, is the assumption that languages are regular and logical. Like organisms, languages evolve and as with organisms this doesn’t lead to perfectly functioning “designed” languages but rather languages with a lot of inherent waste.
In animals, an example Dixon might understand is the recurrent laryngeal nerve. the nerve especially in animals like giraffes is massively wasteful looping down then back up the neck when in reality, it only needs to travel a few inches. This is the result of evolution applying an “if it aint broke” approach.  Languages too have massive amounts of waste because they weren’t designed either, though people like Dixon act as if they were. Phrases like “the reason why“, “the end result” and “over-exaggerate” are redundant. So are things like the third person ‘s’ on verbs, the word “whom” the word “fewer“, the bizarre conjugations of the “be” verb and “do support” which only a handful of languages possess at all. As this chaos swirls around them the Dixons of this world accept 95% of the disorder but vehemently oppose the last 5% like victims of the titanic complaining that their shoes are getting wet.

So let’s examine the article in a little more detail.

She’s developed something called anorexia.”

“I was reading about that in the newspaper. It’s quite serious, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and more young women are getting anorexia these days.”

A simple enough conversation. What the speakers did not realise is that they were not talking about anorexia at all. Anorexia means loss of appetite. That is its definition in both medical and general dictionaries. There is, however, also a condition called anorexia nervosa – a psychological illness, commonest among female adolescents, in people who deliberately starve or use other methods, such as vomiting, to lose weight. But relatively suddenly, anorexia has lost its original meaning. In the media and in everyday conversation, anorexia now means anorexia nervosa

This reminds me of “Frankenstein’s monster” bores who insist on pedantically telling everyone and anyone who’ll listen that Frankenstein is not the monster! anorexia is understood by most speakers as shorthand for anorexia nervosa as “Frankenstein” is for his monster. Who cares about this? The good doctor apparently. He goes on:

Language and the connotations of words and expressions evolve over time – helpfully so, when new distinctions and subtleties arise. But meanings also change simply as a result of ignorance or error. So when, some years ago, more and more people began to say “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested”, the misuse gradually became a normal meaning of that word

Dixon thus is quite happy for language to change, -so long as it changes in ways he likes. The short sighted nature of his rant can be illustrated be looking at some of the words he uses. “error” for example means to “to wander” originally, the misuse seems to have gradually become the normal meaning. More interesting is that Dixon is actually wrong as his potted history falls a little short of the truth. Etymologically speaking:

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

So rather than switching, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that they switched back to their original meanings. But don’t let facts get in the way of a good old language rant Doc!

What seems to be happening today is that such shifts are occurring more and more quickly. Consider the word “issue”. I heard a cricket commentator saying that an Indian batsman was “having issues with” an opponent’s spin bowling. As recently as five years ago, he would have said the batsman was confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended. “Issue” then meant something quite different. Since then, however, it has come to mean “problem”.

Dixon offers (as all news articles it should be said) no evidence for his (amazing if true) suggestion that the pace and amount of language change is increasing in English. He seems to have issues with the use of “have issues with” (hohoho) and actually Google Ngram does show an increase in its use between 1990-2008. That said, if the alternative to “having issues with” really is “confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended” then forgive me for calling it a welcome addition to English.

What is especially surprising nowadays is that misuses of words can increasingly be found even in specialised communications – as in my own particular field of science. Long ago, when I was a microbiology student, I learned that the singular of bacteria was bacterium. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, print and broadcast journalists began to say “this bacteria”. And the alteration did not stop there. It is now affecting professional discourse too. In the past three months, I have seen “a bacteria” or “this bacteria” six times in research journals. I have even heard a speaker making the same mistake throughout his conference presentation.

Most of what is described here I have dealt with in detail in this post and so won’t rehash suffice to say that what Dixon describes as a “mistake” is a change in usage and also that it is altogether unreasonable to expect foreign words to retain their foreign morphemes in a host language. Note that Dixon admits that it was not evidence of usage that led to his knowledge about “bacteria” but rather that that is what he was taught -and what he unquestioningly accepted. When his friends tell him that “this spaghetti is delicious” does he, I wonder correct them “THESE spaghetti ARE delicious!” Shoddy stuff for a scientist.

Sports commentators appear to be culpable in another area – the demise of the adverb. Within the past 10 years, firstly snooker commentators and then those in other sports began to tell us that “he hit that one strong”, that “she’s playing confident”, and that “he’s bowling accurate”. The habit is now spreading more widely.

This is a pretty old chestnut. This type of inflexible thinking is what leads to people avoiding saying “I am good” (I am well!) and “This food is healthy” (This food is healthful!) A basic question to be asked when people talk about “bad” grammar is whether communication is actually breaking down. As with the pedantic parental chide “two negatives make a positive” (they don’t) the listener understands perfectly what they speaker is saying but just insists that language must, for some unknown reason, stand still at this moment in time and stop changing. Really quite a bizarre position for someone presumably well versed in evolutionary theory. The good Dr. seems to be suffering from a linguistic form of the “golden age fallacy” namely that there was a time when the English language was perfect. Perhaps a little after Shakespeare and a bit before the Bronte sisters. Ever since then it’s just been on the decline and will eventually reach a state where morlock-esque yoof roam the streets of Neo-England burbling an incomprehensible text-like patois to each other as society collapses.

In many cases, although it is impossible to pinpoint the initial change

And of course this is true though as a biologist such a statement should have him holding his head in shame. He’s basically asking for a missing link which could never exist. Just as no old world monkey gave birth to a human, no linguistic change can really ever be pinpointed. As McWhorter notes, Latin didn’t die, it turned into French, Spanish and Italian, but there wasn’t a day when people woke up saying “OK, now we’re speaking French”.

the reason why people begin to adopt erroneous usages so quickly is probably one of fashion and a desire to demonstrate familiarity with the modish vernacular. Consider “fantastic”, which is now a universal expression of hyperbole. Anyone interviewed in the media about anything that impresses or excites them will repeatedly call it “fantastic”. Over recent weeks, I have heard a celebrity chef describe a particular dish as fantastic (when he meant unusually succulent), a drama critic call an actor’s performance fantastic (when she meant disturbingly realistic) and a politician describe a party conference speech as fantastic (when he meant inspiring).

Reading this I’m almost tempted to think Dixon is pulling our collective legs. The idea that language use is something like wearing hipster jeans and not related to a complex set of social and psychological factors is quite staggeringly simplistic. Also does he really have a problem with the word ‘fantastic’? Does he really expect people only to use the word only for “characteristic of fantasy”? He goes on to talk about ‘literally’ which I dealt with here and so won’t go into nor will I again deal with what he calls the “important differences between ‘who and whom‘” (tl;dr = It isn’t an important difference.)

At the end he wonders “why are even the editors of scientific journals adopting fashionable but incorrect usages?” and this is where I would like return to the point I made in the first paragraph. The reason that editors are (sensibly) adopting “fashionable” usages is because those usages will almost certainly, triumph. And for the second part of this (rather long!) blog I’d like to take you and Dixon on an Dickensian tour of the ghosts of pedants past. I’m hopeful there is still time for the good Doctor to have a change of heart. So here it is, a list of complaining prescriptivists throughout the ages:

George Fox (1624-1691) wrote in his Epistle:

If you’re not getting that then Fox was complaining that only a ruddy great idiot would say “you” to one person, when as any fule kno the right word was “thou”.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) disliked past tense ‘ed’ being pronounced softly, (i.e. as we pronounce it now) he wanted it pronounced as the ‘aed’ in ‘dead’. He also didn’t like the words “sham, banter, bully, bubble, cutting and shuffling”.

Robert Lowth (1710-1787) thought that (formal) sentences shouldn’t end in prepositions. Somehow this opinion became accepted as a ‘rule’ by editor types at some point although almost everyone ignores it. Lowth also argued for “My wife and I” over “me and my wife”.

William Cobbet (1763-1835) wrote “A grammar of the English language” and complained about the use of the following as past tenses “Awoke, built, dealt, threw, swam and meant” (among many others) arguing instead for the more ‘proper’ “awaked, builded, dealed, throwed, swimmed and meaned”. (McWhorter)

Strunk and White, authors of a famous style guide loved by the likes of Dixon and first published in 1919, proscribed against the use of “hopefully”, the verbs “host” and “chair” and the passive voice. Rather amusingly (or at least, this passes for amusing to sad folks like me) of the four examples they give of mistaken use of the passive voice, only one of them is actually passive. And this isn’t their only mistake. As Pullum notes, they “The book’s contempt for it’s own grammatical dictates seems almost wilful.” The awful situation therefore is that we have know-nothings telling others how they should be writing and incredibly being listened to.

Steven Pinker notes that the verbs parent, input, showcase, impact, and contact “have all been denounced in this century” (1994:379)

So, if we examine the broad sweep of history we can see that most of the things that have been railed against have become normal and natural. Dr. Dixon and people like him can get upset about usage but his views about the word “fantastic” will, if they don’t already, eventually be seen as preposterous to future generations. I might be losing the battles against this type of newspaper article buthistory shows that the war is already won.



It’s not easy and it takes time.

Of all the EFL quackery out there, perhaps the most commonly employed by advertisers is the notion of learning a language in a extremely short space of time using some fantastic new method.  This closely parallels weight loss and fitness advertising, and both of these play on the human tendency to want something but not want to have to work for it. People want the gains but they don’t want the pain. Unfortunately the value of being able to do something difficult is that it is difficult to do. 

Advertisers get round this because “learn a language” or “become fluent” mean different things to different people and there isn’t really a way to objectively measure this. For people who don’t speak another language this might seem odd as the notion of “fluent” might be, to them, connected with the idea of a native speaker, but it’s not that simple. Non-native speakers rarely reach levels comparable with native speakers and it’s questionable if that is even a desirable target for many. Like most things in language learning, when you scratch the surface you find things are a bit more complicated.
The Guardian recently had an article with the headline “How I learned a language in 22 hours” which uses this same fuzziness in order to get away with a very misleading headline. The author later adds several caveats:
It goes without saying that memorising the 1,000 most common words in Lingala, French or Chinese is not going to make anyone a fluent speaker. That would have been an unrealistic goal. But it turns out to be just enough vocabulary to let you hit the ground running once you’re authentically immersed in a language. And, more importantly, that basic vocabulary gives you a scaffolding to which you can attach other words as you hear them

This though, is quite different from the claims made earlier in the article:
When I asked Ed if he thought it would be possible to learn an entire language in such a minuscule amount of time using Memrise, his response was matter-of-fact: “It’ll be a cinch.”

The article also claims that the learning happened in just 22 hours with the headline “How I learned a language in 22 hours”. What we’re talking about here though is the time Foer spent studying the words. But as he notes in the article.  
Cognitive scientists have known for more than a century that the best way to secure memories for the long term is to impart them in repeated sessions, distributed across time, with other material interleaved in between.
So Foer tells us how important the time distribution is (learning goes on when we’re not studying, for example, when we’re sleeping) but yet implies that this process only took, in total, one day. I suppose the headline “I learnt some basic words in a foreign language over a period of three months“, wouldn’t have made such a good headline.
The piece is ostensibly a huge advert for an app called memrise and to some extent Foer’s books.  I download the app and was pleasantly surprised to find that memrise was free and had no ads. It’s quite a fun app too, but it’s quite limited in what it can do. For instance you can’t check your pronunciation listen to any of the language, nor can you practise writing characters or making sentences. It’s basically just a app for memorising things.
Memory techniques like using mnemonics or the method of loci can help us to store information in our brains. Language learning however isn’t just about learning vocabulary items and switching them between languages. Take this phrase in Japanese:
yoroshiku onegaishimasu
It is used, in some contexts, daily and it has no simple English translation. If you tried learning Japanese from English, you wouldn’t learn this phrases because it doesn’t exist in English. The reason I mention this is because there is an interesting part later in the article when Foer writes:

I told him, “Omona, nayoka Lingala malamu mingi te. Nasengeli kozala na mosalisi koloba Anglais” – “Look, I don’t understand Lingala very well. I need to have a helper who speaks English.”

Now I don’t know this language but as it’s not related to English, it would be very surprising if they also used “look” in this way. Any Lingala speakers out there please feel free to comment.
In order to speak a language successfully you need to be able to process what is being said to you almost instantaneously and be able to formulate an appropriate response in almost the same amount of time. You need to understandable and you need to understand the grammar and pragmatics of the language. It’s not easy and it takes time certainly more than 22 hours. In a memorable article on “principles of instructed language learning” in which Rod Wllis lays out what we know for sure about language learning, the claim made with the most certainty is this:

If the only input students receive is in the context of a limited number of weekly lessons based on some course book, they are unlikely to achieve high levels of L2 proficiency


If you want to get in shape then exercise and eat less. If you want to learn a language then study it and practise a lot. There’s no magic solution.

well the 22 hours article/advert continues to buzz round twitter. The makers must be very happy and memrise has whizzed to 3rd place in the educational app chart.  

Amazingly this isn’t the first Guardian piece on Memrise, in fact they had one back in March another in January, another mention here and another plug here -all part of their memory series. Amazingly in an article just titled “what you like” a reader apparently felt the urge to write in and say how much he liked memrise in December 2011. Just fancy!


Machine Translation
Another article that caught my eye and also had some rather suspicious claims was this one on, forwarded by @ScottThornbury no less.  I won’t dwell on this one too long suffice to say its headline “machine translator speaks in your own voice” is very misleading. firstly the speech recognition software, as the guy says “makes a lot of mistakes” -you can see a number of them on the screen as he’s going along, and secondly and more importantly, it doesn’t speak “in your voice” at all. I’m sitting here listening to this Chinese translation, and it sounds like a generic Chinese computer voice to me.  

linguistic myths #1 Chinese crises

In the Guardian todayan article started with the sentence “The Chinese, according to John F Kennedy, use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis”. The first stands for danger; the other for opportunity”.  Supposedly this refers to 危機 weiji.
firstly, it’s certainly not two “brush strokes”.  Depending on whether you use traditional or simplified characters, it’s either twelve or twenty two brush strokes.  Two would be miraculous.  ThoughKennedy probably meant two characters.  
secondly, While the wei does indeed mean danger and usually appears in compounds like “dangerous” 危險, ji doesn’t mean opportunity. The mistake perhaps arises because ji appears in the compound 機會 jihui, which doesmean opportunity. However, on its own the character doesn’t mean anything, but most would see it meaning “machine” as it appears in the compounds 飛機 feiji airplane 機器 jiqi machine, 機算計jisuanji calculator,  機車 jiche moped and 機器人 jiqiren robot.

The second problem with this statement is that it leads the reader to a kind of Sapir–Whorfconclusion that’s wholly unwarranted. We are suppose to take from this sound-bite that the Chinese, because of their language, see crises as opportunities (and perhaps, therefore we should learn this from them). However this is very silly and ranks up there with Eskimos having [insert number] words for snow. Take the word “breakfast” which is composed of the word “break” and “fast”; do we actually think about the breaking of a fast when we use this word? I would argue that you would be a very peculiar individual if you did.  If a Chinese reporter indicated that the English  view breakfast as a religious event, or that English speakers were such gluttons that going to bed, and thus not eating, was such a strain it was considered as a “fast” it would seem laughable to us.  

So in short, great for motivational speakers and pithy facebook updates, not much good for linguistics.