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[I’m betting that many of you readers already have heard enough about the BBC’s recent Americanisms article, which was just a list of 50 pet grammar/word peeves supplied by their readers, without any evidence of American origin. Mark Liberman, Lynne Murphy, Lane Greene, and John McIntyre all have great posts on the matter already. I’ve got the background at the beginning if you need it, but if all you want are my thoughts on the matter, you can skip ahead to the seventh paragraph. If you don’t want to hear my thoughts, you can skip this post entirely.]

We Americans aren’t very good at paying attention to the rest of the world. But a lot of us have been recently paying attention to the whole News Corp phone-hacking scandal, and I’ve seen a couple of pieces congratulating the British media for holding various parties’ feet to the fire — i.e., for doing a good job at what journalists are supposed to do. So I don’t understand why, when there’s all these good feelings about British journalism, the BBC seems intent on mocking the very idea of journalism as a purveyor of truth.

It started with a column talking about Americanisms that have invaded British English. It’s dressed up with an investigative headline, “Viewpoint: Why do some Americanisms irritate people?”, but it never bothers to look at that question, and after a brief bout of simply recording Americanisms without too much denigration, it devolves into name-calling. Power outage is an “outrage”, hospitalize a “vile word”. (You know how it’s said that you’ve lost the argument when you resort to ad hominem attacks? What about when your argument is calling words bad names?)

[American holding a "These Colors Don't Run" sign, Brit carrying a Union Jack]

This is the image the BBC used to illustrate the column, making it clear they weren't about to defend American English.

Columns like these don’t require a lot of fact-checking; after all, it’s just somebody stating their opinions loudly. As far as I can tell, the only facts to be checked are that the supposedly American words really did come from America. Apparently that is too much to ask. Mark Liberman points out that the first five Americanisms in the column — the ones from a paragraph in which the author talks about his lengthy journalistic career and his hope that he is reliable — aren’t reliable. Only one of the five “Americanisms” (lengthy) is actually from America.

Suppose you published something 20% accurate. Would you try to correct it? Or would you just double down? The BBC went the latter course, posting 50 complaints from their readers about other “Americanisms”, apparently without even a thought of fact-checking.

A few of these supposed Americanisms sound utterly foreign to me, such as wait on to mean wait for (#6), or a million and a half for one and a half million (#34), each of which seem more British than American to me. Others are standard forms presented as thought they were errors, like Scotch-Irish (#39). Scotch-Irish refers to the settlers in the Appalachians in the American colonial days, which means that it is unavoidably an Americanism. And, by the way, the standard form, as ably explained by Wikipedia and confirmed by the OED.

Some of these 50 might be American in origin, but I doubt many.* Lynne Murphy has a great set of counter-comments on the first 25 complaints and promises a follow-up for the other 25. Lane Greene at the Economist further debunked a selection of them. (My favorite, in response to “Is ‘physicality’ a real word?”: “Yes, first noted in a book published in London in 1827.”) So there’s no reason for me to say anything more about the specific complaints. Instead, let me tell you why I hate this sort of “completely passive journalism” (Murphy’s phrase).

I’ve been a bit preachy about journalistic integrity of late, but I have to say it once more. Journalism should never consist solely of asking people their opinions and then reporting it. Repeating lies (or mistakes) that are obviously lies (or mistakes) without noting that they do not fit with the truth is not journalism, or at least isn’t what journalism is supposed to be. Journalists are supposed to make truth clearer, not obscure it further behind popular opinion.

Oh well, it’s just a stupid little piece, right, and why am I concerned? Because pieces like this destroy my confidence in journalism. What does it mean when a news source cares so little about finding out the facts? Yes, the piece gets them hits (there were 1294 comments in the first day of the article being up, and it was sitting pretty at #2 on the list of the most visited stories when I first read it), but at the cost of trust.

If a news agency can’t be bothered to do its research on something so simple as whether or not a word originated in the U.S., then how can we trust their research on a war, on a political debate, on a phone-hacking scandal, where truth is murkier and people actively try to hide it? If they’re putting up garbage like this, putting webhits above accuracy, why should I believe that any of their other stories do it the right way and put accuracy above webhits?

[The most shared news items at the BBC, 07.22.11]

This is a very bad thing.

In their defense, the BBC did imply that these two pieces were not hard journalism. The first had a headline prefaced by “Viewpoint”, and the second starts by noting that these are only the most e-mailed examples of Americanisms. But the BBC has a duty not to promote misinformation, whether it be in hard news or soft. They may not have had evidence that these weren’t Americanisms, but I’d argue that they didn’t have evidence that they were, either. Perhaps they weren’t knowingly misleading us, but they were negligently misleading us, which isn’t much better.

I call it negligence only because it is so easy to determine that this stuff is wrong. You can tell in part by how fast the linguistics blogging community put together their responses. You can disprove it yourself by going to Google Books N-grams, typing in the terms, and comparing the usage in British and American English. You can look in the Oxford English Dictionary for the earliest attestations of the term. Thanks to the Internet, it is stunningly easy to do this.

A more forgiving person might say that it’s only easy if you already know how. Maybe the BBC doesn’t have anyone who knows how to do this. But that’s my point. It’s negligent to write about something you don’t understand without at least consulting with someone who does. And if they don’t bother to consult on stuff like this, why should we trust that they do on more obscure or time-sensitive topics like Malawian politics or the physics of magnetism?

Uninformed information and opinion are rife on the Internet, and cheap, too. Good information is rare and expensive. This is the one thing that can keep good journalism alive; the superior product. Too often a trusted news source forgoes the good for the cheap, and it’s killing journalism.

*: I looked up the first two complaints on Google Books N-grams, can I get a (US, UK) and least worst (US, UK), and I’m not seeing the US lead the way in either case. This is a little tough to compare because the y-axes aren’t the same across the graphs. That’s especially true for least worst; the 80s peak in AmEng seems to presage the 90s peak in BrEng, but the AmEng peak is only as high as the 70s plateau in the BrEng data. If anything, it looks like each time least worst peaks in BrEng, AmEng follows a bit behind.

I’m guessing that by now most of you have heard about the Endress et al study that monkeys are able to learn certain mechanisms that underlie human language. I want to talk about that research, but I also want to talk about the way it’s being covered on BBC News. Last week, I saw a story whose headline read France ‘banned Yemen crash plane’; I misread the headline as France ‘banned Yemen plane crash, because I saw the quotes and figured that no one would ever say or write “banned Yemen crash plane” outside of a British headline. As often noted by Geoff Pullum, the British news uses this distinctive noun-compounding scheme in their headlines. Yemen crash plane is a stack of three nouns, referring to a Yemeni plane that crashed. It’s a somewhat reasonable means of compressing a lot of information into a headline, but it’s not how people talk, so I was surprised that anyone would be quoted saying that. And, sure enough, they weren’t. The quote was actually

“A few years ago, we banned this plane from national territory because we believed it presented a certain number of irregularities in its technical equipment,” Mr Bussereau told parliament.

Eh, it’s not a direct quote, but it’s the same basic idea. I don’t feel comfortable with this myself; I was taught in my high school journalism classes to believe in a Sanctity of the Quotational on par with that of the Confessional. I checked with a journalist friend at CNN and she agreed that what goes inside of quotation marks ought to be a direct quote, even in a headline.  All in all, it’s not a big deal; the meaning of the headline quote and the actual quote are essentially the same, so no harm, no foul, I guess.

But yesterday I read the BBC’s take on Endress et al, the research that showed that cotton-top tamarins can learn to recognize a simple affixation rule.  First off, let me note that this is a pretty cool result, and the paper is pretty easy to read if you want the details straight from the horse’s mouth. The researchers played recordings of nonsense words to a group of tamarins, where each word consisted of a variable stem and a constant affix. The tamarins were familiarized with a series of stems+suffix (e.g., bi-shoy, lo-shoy) or a series of prefix+stems (e.g., shoy-bi, shoy-lo). This familiarization was done without any incentive to learn; they weren’t given food or shocked or tested in any way.  The words were just played over a loudspeaker in their enclosure. After the tamarins were familiarized with the words, they were taken to a new enclosure, where examples of suffixed and prefixed words were played to them (the affix remained the same as in the training period, but the stems were new).  The tamarins stared surprisedly when shoy was used as a prefix when they were trained with it as a suffix. Similarly, if they were familiarized with shoy as a prefix, they reacted to its use as a suffix. In summary, their “results suggest that, in the absence of training, cotton-top tamarins learn a rule that is formally similar to affixation patterns […] in natural language.” This is a nice result in my book because it shows that

“[…] the language faculty uses similar positional mechanisms to compute affixation patterns, and though these mechanisms are uniquely used in humans to create and understand words, the mechanisms themselves are not specific to humans or language.”

Which is to say that some of the core pattern recognition systems that underlie our ability to learn language are not unique to humans. (I think this result makes it a bit easier to understand how language could emerge through evolution.) There’s a bit more that can be said about that point, but that’s the basic finding of the research. The researchers do a great job of establishing that this as far as the data should take us:

“[…] nonhuman animals may have the capacity to learn surface transformations involved in affixation, but they cannot link them to other aspects of linguistic structure. […] Unlike other primates, however, infants can use such evolutionarily ancient abilities for purposes that are specifically linguistic and (presumably) unique to humans.”

Which is to say that all the news stories talking about how monkeys can recognize bad grammar have it all wrong. Monkeys can recognize the difference between established and new morphological patterns, but there is no evidence that monkeys can expand this to a grammatical system. It’s right there in the paper.

The BBC, though, uses the headline Monkeys recognise ‘bad grammar’ . Why on earth are there quotation marks around bad grammar? Unlike the plane crash example, there is no quote in the story about grammar at all. The pre-print of the paper I posted to above also doesn’t mention grammar anywhere. (It does use the phrases “grammatical competence” and “grammatical computations”, but establishes immediately within these sentences that only the abilities of humans are being referred to.) Judging by how scrupulously the authors avoided referring to grammar, and how they restricted their conclusions, I would be surprised to find that they suggested in interviews that monkeys know anything of “bad grammar”. So why is bad grammar in quotation marks? Who is it supposed to be quoting? What use are the quotation marks if nothing in the story tells us who the quoted matter is attributed to? It’s misleading and inaccurate, and contradicts the findings of the research. And, of course, it’s the misleading headline that’s stuck in everyone’s minds. Alas.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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