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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.

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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, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

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.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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