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It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, friends, and things are only going to speed up, because I’m currently sitting in the San Diego airport, waiting to jet off to the Big Apple for the CUNY conference on sentence processing, the psycholinguistic event of the year.

My view for the next seven-ish hours.

The bad news is that that means there probably won’t be a new post this week (unless you generously count this one). But the good news is that I’ve got a couple of updates from the week that was.

First, the grammar myths article from last weekend got picked up by Visual Thesaurus (subscription-based). The content’s the same as it was here, but the layout’s a little better and it has a nice little picture of my head so that you know that despite being a grad student, I can still pretend to look presentable.

Second, I was interviewed for a piece on redundancy in language by Colleen Ross of the CBC. There’s an audio version of it as well as a text version. They’re more or less the same — although there are small differences — and personally I prefer the audio version. But perhaps that’s just because is no comment section on the audio version, meaning that the bottom half of the page isn’t filled with amateur peevelogists saying that “issues” is a grave plague upon the language.

Lastly, I’m presenting a poster at CUNY on my recent research into uncertainty during reading. We found evidence that readers maintain uncertainty about word order in the parts of a sentence they have already read. For instance, when reading The journalist that the fact surprised …, readers also think that perhaps they read The fact that the journalist surprised (someone) …. (The former is a relative clause, the latter a complement clause.) I intend to go into more depth on this once I get back, but in the meantime, you can check out the poster here and see what the heck it is that a psycholinguist does.

Today’s post is a bit out of the site’s wheelhouse, but if there’s any day to deviate from your schtick, it’s Christmas. John McIntyre has been tracking some of the hackneyed Christmas constructions that show up in newspaper headlines, like tis the season or allusions to Dickens. I’d been thinking that he was being perhaps a bit too harsh, when what to wondering eyes should appear but this mind-boggling headline:

Yes, Virginia, there is no Newt (on the ballot)‎

Apologies, Mr. McIntyre.  I couldn’t agree with you more. This headline is terrible.

And yet, like the movies on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, there’s a certain beauty in it.  Whereas most Yes Virginias spawn from a lack of creativity, in this one the writer was instead too creative. Not many could have managed to make such an abomination, such a square-peg-round-hole sort of a sentence; this takes a real sense of purpose, a desire to keep going when all those around you say it can’t be done. This is the headline of a man on a mission, someone who said “Virginia and Christmas, there’s a joke in there” and wouldn’t give up without finding one.

It is, in some ways a minor work of art.  The whiplash-inducing swap from positive to negative polarity is redolent of the 1922 song Yes! We Have No Bananas. The parenthetical phrase at the end suggests that the allusion so obscures what the article is talking about that the true topic must be specifically pointed out to the reader. Add it all up, and I’ve got my choice for the worst “Yes, Virginia” headline of 2011.

By comparison to the winner, the honorable mentions may seem like the “Yes, Virginia” headlines of “Yes, Virginia” headlines: insipid little sentences borne from eh-good-enough thinking.  But I think there are some gems in there, especially as the connections to the original newspaper column and jolly fat man stretch toward the breaking point.

The at-least-it’s-a-person continuations:

  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Tim Tebow
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Garry Marshall‎
  • Mitt was Right! or, Yes, Virginia, There is Corporate Personhood

The at-least-it’s-Christmas continuations:

  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Christ in Christmas‎
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Rancho Hallmark store
  • Yes, Virginia, There Is a Pooping Log, and Other World Christmas Traditions

And then the wheels fall off:

  • Yes, Virginia, There Is Pepper Spray
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Science of Generosity Award
  • Yes, Virginia, There Is An Indemnity Clause‎
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a moustache-shaped baking mold
  • Yes, Virginia, there really is a squirrel season
  • Yes, Virginia, there is a Democrat-media complex
  • Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as great 3D!
  • Yes, Virginia, there is ‘climate change’ the earth is cooling off!
  • Yes, Virginia, There Is a Redneck World Magazine‎
  • Yes, Virginia, there is renewable energy in Israel

Found a worse one? Add it in the comments! Merry Happy, all!

[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 jest about the uselessness of Twitter, but I find myself more and more defending it to the people in my daily life, a sure sign that I am crossing over into some sort of addiction that I ought to be fighting. One of the agents of this addiction is the Fake AP Stylebook, which offers one- and two-liners in the style of, well, a stylebook. For instance:

Thorough research is the key to quality reporting. Read the ENTIRE Wikipedia article before writing your story.

Mentally ill people should be treated with sensitivity and respect, unless they’re hilarious celebrities. Then: Game on!

Use English measurement units to avoid confusing readers: “The suspect was four cubits, eight barleycorns in height.”

The folks behind the Fake AP Stylebook (who call themselves The Bureau Chiefs) followed up on this with a book, Write More Good, which I received a copy of recently. I was looking forward to reading it, because I enjoy the stylebook entry parody format, but I was also a bit concerned that it wouldn’t translate well to a book. As it turns out, The Bureau Chiefs felt the same; the book breaks out of the 140-character Twitter restrictions and places its jokes into paragraphs, maintaining a quick-fire approach to the joke delivery, but also giving the jokes a bit more chance to develop, like the slow-aged bourbons that The Chiefs prefer.

[Cover of Write More Good]

The book, like the Twitter feed, is all about writing and journalism, and it presents a surprisingly honest look at the field — the sort of harsh yet good-natured honesty that only good Horatian satire can provide.* Shots are taken at the shortcomings of contemporary journalism, be them “Give the readers what they want”, “Every story has two equal sides”, or “Armageddon waits around every corner”. The chapter on science reporting was full of stuff like this:

“When it comes to the possibility that global warming is caused by human behavior, the opinion of a man with an MBA who does consulting work for oil companies is just as valid as the opinion of a man with multiple doctorates in climatology […] The opinions of the former may even be more useful, as he is less likely to be prejudiced by spending too much time on the subject.”


“Replacing FIVE NEW EXTRASOLAR PLANETS DISCOVERED with HAVE ASTRONOMERS FOUND THE REAL PLANET PANDORA? could mean the difference between another night of instant ramen and a string of filet mignon dinners at five-star restaurants.” [BTW, This really happens.]

The writers are not out for blood. They mock, but they mock lovingly. Sure, journalists might not be living up to the standards we’d desire, but a lot of that is due to the readers, and they are not spared:

“[…] don’t try too hard to make the math portions of your writing understandable. If someone with a nontechnical background reads it and realizes they can actually follow what you’re saying, the result will not be a lightbulb going off and the realization that maybe math isn’t so scary. They will instead make sure no one saw them doing math and, if if anyone was watching, they’ll explain that, ha ha, they just happened to open up the newspaper to some math: Oh, man, what was THAT doing there? I must have picked up someone else’s paper because, no sir, not me—math is gay.”

At first it seems like a silly little book, but in the end it makes a number of good points. Journalists are falling short of their ideal. Owners care about cash more than journalism. And — the one that really resonated with me — even as we non-journalists bemoan the state of modern journalism, we’re all complicit in its downfall.

At the same time, the book is positively hilarious. Even as I winced, even as I regretted the times I’ve read an article about a puppy parade and skipped the one about a political debate, I kept on laughing. It’s Horatian satire at its best, funny and a bit admonishing. The Chiefs have put up Chapter 3 of the book online for you to judge for yourself whether it’s worth reading. I recommend it heartily.

*: Another good thing about the book is that it got me to look into the history of satire a bit. Apparently, there are two schools of satire: the Horatian school, which views the satirized subject as folly and criticizes it with light-hearted humor, and the Juvenalian school, which views the satirized subject as evil and ridicules it scathingly. The things one doesn’t know that one doesn’t know!

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About The Blog

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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