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Sarah Palin is back in the news for matters linguistic. I’ll only briefly summarize the issue here; given the strange belief by media and Internet folks that Sarah Palin’s doings are somehow significant*, I assume that by the time you’re reading this post, you’ve already been inundated with information about this latest event.

In short, there’s a proposal for an Islamic community center and mosque, the Cordoba House, at 45 Park Place in lower Manhattan. This is two blocks from the edge of the former World Trade Center site. The Community Board for that part of New York unanimously approved the proposal, but now Real Americans like Sarah Palin are instigating a Crescent Scare against the center, essentially claiming that having a good Muslim thing so close to a bad Muslim thing in a city many of them haven’t ever been to will cause them substantial emotional duress. Or as Palin herself put it, it would be a stab through the heart.

Personally, I find her position silly; there’s no reason that New Yorkers should care what Sarah Palin thinks they should do in their city, and there’s no reason she should care what they do. In fact, the only reason I find her position at all interesting is the way she chose to express it. In a tweet, she called on “Peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” something:

That tweet was quickly taken down (thanks to Little Green Footballs for getting the screenshot) and replaced with a similar tweet that took out not only the heart-stabbing imagery, but also the curious word refudiate, which was replaced with the more standard refute**:

But the damage was done. The blogosphere, primed by her usage of refudiate in a Fox News appearance a few days earlier, had already caught wind of Palin’s refudiated tweet. So Palin was left with little choice but to defend herself:

Yes, people create words a lot. Shakespeare is especially known for this. English, like all extant languages, is ever-changing, and there’s a lot of good to be had in allowing people to create words or mess with syntax when it’s called for. However, refudiate was an error (just like misunderestimate). That’s fine; we all make mistakes. But there is a world of difference between passing off a mistake as a word and the premeditated release of a new word.

The fact that Palin took down her original tweet, and then added not only the “refute” tweet but also another tweet that re-instated the heart-stabbing point of the original, shows that she lacks confidence in her new coinage. Those two tweets contain pretty much everything that was in the original, except for refudiate, so it seems pretty clear that Palin is trying to repudiate refudiate.

So what of refudiate? As Mark Liberman showed, Sarah Palin is not the first to use the word; the science-fiction author John Sladek used it in a short story, Answers, back in 1984. It’s popped up from time to time since then, but in all of the instances I’ve listed here (as well as most of the others I found), it’s explicitly labelled as erroneous, just as Palin has implicitly labelled it.

Personally, I find this surprising and a little bit sad, as refudiate could be a useful word for me. Sometimes someone will say something both profoundly mistaken and offensive, and I’ll want to simultaneously repudiate it (i.e., separate myself from it unequivocally) and refute it (i.e., disprove it). In fact, I’ve been noticing this feeling a lot more when I read about political news lately. Sarah Palin herself is someone whose opinions I’d often like to refudiate.

Unfortunately, Palin has miscreated refudiate, rendering it unusable. In her original tweet, it seems likely to me that the word she wants is repudiate; it’s a little unclear because the character limit forced her to omit the object of transitive refudiate, so we’re left to infer that the intended object is the mosque. The only other possible object would be Palin’s own argument-in-question-form, and presumably she’s not requesting people to disprove her claim.

Assuming that the mosque is the object, we can then be pretty sure that repudiate is the intended meaning, as you can’t refute a thing***; refuting is the act of disproving or rebutting or showing to be erroneous, which must be done to an argument, claim, belief, or something of the like. To refute a mosque would be, I suppose, to prove that it does not exist, in which case the whole tweet would become quite unnecessary. It isn’t a blend; it’s just a variant form of repudiate. Because she introduced the word in a domain already solidly ruled by another word, refudiate has no reason to catch on.

And so, sadly, the meaning that people will think of for refudiate will not be the reasonable meaning that blends refutation and repudiation into a rebuttal-and-disavowal. Worse, because of Palin’s awkward attempt to justify it away, the word will be a laughingstock for the near future. This has poisoned what could have been a good word.

But at least it gives us a cautionary tale. Refudiate coulda had class. It coulda been a contender. Instead, it’s the butt of a joke. If you have a pet word that you’ve been nurturing, and you want to see it find its way into the language, don’t introduce it as an identical replacement for an existing word. Don’t omit its context. And don’t ever treat it like a typo. Be proud of your word, thrust it into the light of day, make clear what exactly it means, and you’ll be the proud parent of a word.

*: Of course, the fact that I’m writing about Sarah Palin again means that I am part of the problem. Crumbs.

**: I say “more standard” here even though her usage of refute is still non-standard. The OED notes that pre-18th century Scotland is the only place and time when refute has been used consistently to mean “to refuse or reject (a thing or person)”. In general, refuting something is about disproving it, and it doesn’t really make sense to disprove a plan.

***: Unless you are in Scotland in the 17th century, which I remain confident Palin is not.

It looks like CNN credulously spit out another story from Global Language Monitor (GLM). Basically, GLM did their usual thing of running a speech (in this case, Obama’s oil spill speech from mid-June) through some mindless statistics, getting out the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, and then reporting it as though it was actually meaningful analysis. Language Log and Johnson already explained why the GLM analysis is nonsense, and as a result, CNN actually substantially re-wrote the story.

I discussed the meaninglessness of grade level analysis a year and a half ago in more depth, but this time let me just offer an illustration of why grade-level analysis is not at all appropriate for political analysis.  Here’s a bit from the early part of Obama’s address.  It has a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level of 10.2, a level that GLM said reflected Obama’s “elite ethos”

“Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it’s not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

Okay, but let me show you another passage that I’ve chosen to exactly match the above passage in Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. It ought to be equally reflective of an elite ethos:

“one Gulf Already, America unlike millions even has oil does of spill ever be its minutes of not for disaster the And the single matter event earthquake we this epidemic, are a damage spilled The worst into environmental months it’s that or of a that of faced. will oil an is or like a hurricane, fighting Mexico more days. in an gallons that have and years.”

If the extent of your analysis is to look at grade levels, you’re going to say that these two passages are equivalent. That’s because the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level formula is merely a weighted linear combination of number of words per sentence and number of letters per word. Since these two paragraphs contain the same words, letters, spaces, and periods, the statistics are the same for each, and therefore any conclusion drawn about the first paragraph solely from these statistics necessarily must be drawn about the second paragraph as well.

That’s the problem. These statistics and readability tests don’t look into word frequency, semantics, pragmatics, fluidity, rhetoric, style, or anything that actual humans do to assess the readability and meaningfulness of a text. The tests, after all, are intended as an approximation for when an informed analyst is not available, not as a data source in lieu of informed analysis.

To be fair, GLM’s analysis doesn’t stop at grade levels. They also offer the proportion of passive sentences in the address, which they report as “the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century”. And that’s something, except for Mark Liberman’s discovery that it’s not nearly true. Bush’s similar post-Katrina address had 17% passives; Obama’s post-oil-spill address lagged behind with a mere 11%. (GLM’s president, by the way, considers “There will be setbacks” to be a passive sentence, so it’s not terribly surprising that their passive statistics aren’t great.) But even if the count were right, the passive proportion is not an inherently meaningful statistic either, because passives are employed by good writers for reasons other than evasion, which seems to be the only use GLM can come up with for them.

I hesitate to say that there is no useful information to be found by calculating simple statistics on major presidential addresses. But readability scores are dependent on the choice of punctuation for a speech, overlook rhetorical devices and structure, ignore frequency and semantics, and haven’t been shown to correlate very well with listener comprehension. It is unlikely that useful information will come such simplistic analyses. And though it is not impossible that one day someone will find it, I have not yet seen a single informative result from grade level or other simple statistical analysis on political speech.

Some short time ago, I stumbled upon a delightful blog known as the ragbag, which I quickly subscribed to after reading about five posts, in no small part because reading it reminds me of the sort of strange conversations I used to have in college with my suitemate and fellow mathemagician. (One of the more memorable of these conversations took place in a physics lecture hall immediately prior to a talk by some famous mathematical physicist, and revolved primarily around my new electric green jacket, which, as a welder’s jacket, happened to be flame-retardant — a fact whose veracity I had confirmed the night before by burning a small hole in the armpit and watching as the flame did not spread. As the conversation grew more intense, covering the potential range of uses of a jacket that would not immediately combust, the fellow seated in front of us turned around and stared at us a moment, almost as though he thought we were unbalanced. That fellow was John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame.)

A recent ragbag post about the first Gordon Bennet Balloon Cup, the world’s oldest dirigible race, led me to his less-recent but still-more-fascinating post about an 1808 duel in which the dueling weapons were blunderbusses and the duelists were two thousand feet above the ground in separate hot-air balloons. The winner successfully shot down the other’s balloon, smashing his foe to the ground in a manner that, while perhaps needlessly brutal, was undeniably stylish. My interest in further details led over to Wikipedia, where by turns I moved from the code duello to deloping to that most famous of duels featured in a “got milk?” commercial, the Burr-Hamilton throwdown.  (By the way, Wikipedia notes that Hamilton may have pushed the duel as a strange suicide plot that would cost his life but also utterly destroy Burr’s.  Sure enough, the duel did lead to then-Vice-President Burr’s fall out of politics and his eventual exile.)

Seeing as I had some looming deadlines, I couldn’t just stop at Burr & Hamilton. I pressed onward through early American history to Burr’s treason, secession attempts, John Brown’s rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Bloody Kansas, and finally, to the caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks.

The Sumner-Brooks affair, as it’s genteely called, took place in 1856.  You might remember it from AP U.S. History, where it gets substantial discussion because it captures the zeitgeist of the immediately pre-Civil War period and also features a guy getting walloped with a cane. Charles Sumner was a senator from Massachusetts, an ardent abolitionist who delivered a three-hour long and at times personally insulting speech on the floor of Congress lambasting the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its authors. (This was the act that overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in both Kansas and Nebraska, and instead allowed slavery in those territories if the voters approved.) A few days later, Preston Brooks, a South Carolinian representative and goatee enthusiast, took umbrage with Sumner’s insults of the act’s authors, one of whom happened to be his uncle. Brooks approached Sumner in a mostly deserted Senate chamber, informed him that certain portions of the speech did not sit well with him, and proceeded to whale mercilessly on Sumner’s head with a cane, stopping only once the cane broke. Senators who attempted to come to Sumner’s aid were met by another South Carolinian representative, Laurence Keitt, who pointed a pistol at them and shouted “Let them be!” Sumner became a hero in the North, and Brooks a hero in the South. Some other things happened thereafter, something about a Civil War, emancipation, etc., but I have no idea about the details of all that because when we covered those parts of American history in class, I was too busy thinking about duels, canings, and the Whiskey Rebellion.

There’s a famous political cartoon of the Brooks-Sumner affair, one that I’ve known for years and could still sketch from memory; you’ll see it below. But there was one thing about the cartoon that I hadn’t noticed until I looked at it this time.

Yes, there it is, in the caption, a rogue apostrophe sneaking into a plural! A little reminder that apostrophe misuse isn’t new. (And goes back considerably further than 1984.) And it’s not just some private correspondence in which this error occurs; this was a lithograph intended for widespread distribution. Rather amazing, huh? So give the next apostrophe misuser you encounter a break; they just might be the next John L. Magee.

Hopefully this will console some of you prescriptivists who see the misuse of apostrophes to mark plurals as a sign of our society’s descent into barbarism. We might misuse our apostrophes, but at least we don’t try to bash a sitting Senator’s brains in for arguing that slavery is bad! It’s further evidence that societal progress and grammar mistakes are not tied together! In fact, maybe it’s our increased misuse of apostrophes that makes us the enlightened society we are today! Brazenly misuse enough apostrophe’s, and maybe gay couple’s will be treated fairly, everyone will get health care, war’s will end! Just don’t get your hope’s up.

Warning: there is nothing in this post about grammar. Nothing at all. It is just my current opinion on health care reform, which I have felt rather strongly about for quite a while. As with my previously posted opinions on Proposition 8, I don’t expect this piece will change your opinion drastically. Don’t bother reading it if you think it will skew your opinion of me or prevent you from enjoying the site in the future. If you’re interested, my thoughts are below the fold.

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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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