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It’s been a while between posts for me, so let me make up for it with one big one. Tucker Carlson (who Wikipedia tells me no longer wears a bowtie) got onto Sean Hannity’s show recently and declared that Michael Vick ought to have been executed for running a dogfighting ring.

(The backstory for the non-football-obsessed reader: Vick was a star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons until the dogfighting ring came to light. He served 21 months in prison and filed bankruptcy as a result, and lost three years in the prime of his career. He’s since revived his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, and President Obama called the Eagles’ owner to commend him on giving Vick a chance to prove he was rehabilitated. It was this call that riled up Carlson.)

Eventually, word got back to Carlson that his position sounded a bit unwise, and he re-appeared on Hannity’s show to clarify that he does not actually believe what he had said. His clarification:

This is what happens when you get too emotional. I’m a dog lover, I love them and — I know a lot about what Michael Vick did — I overspoke. I’m uncomfortable with the death penalty in any circumstance. Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.”

Now, there’s a reasonable question to be asked here: should a man who claimed that Vick should never be forgiven, never even be given a chance to earn our forgiveness, be forgiven if he says that his hard-line stance was the result of saying something more than he mean to? Personally, I’m fine with forgiving Carlson, if for no other reason than that his Vick comments weren’t nearly the most offensively foolish things I’ve heard him say. (This willingness to forgive is part of why Carlson and I disagree politically.) I also have to give him credit for actually taking some blame; he didn’t claim he was taken out of context or that his opponents were trying to vilify him. He admitted that he said something that is not an accurate indication of his feelings. I have to offer my begrudging respect for that.

But not everyone is in a forgiving mood, and I’m sorry to say that they don’t all have a good argument for their intransigence. Specifically, Sherry Coven at Everything Language and Grammar has written a post complaining about Carlson’s use of overspoke, which she considers an incomprehensible coinage. She writes:

“Overspoke? I’m not sure what overspoke means.”

Really? Let’s pretend for a moment that we are back in third grade. If your education was anything like mine, the watchwords of reading class back then were context clues. When you encountered a word you didn’t know, you were supposed to look at the rest of the sentence, or the rest of the paragraph, and try to figure out what the word meant. So let’s try this with Carlson’s paragraph. First he says “I overspoke”, and then he says “Of course, I don’t think he should be executed, but I do think that what he did is truly appalling.” That suggests to me that I overspoke means “I said something that was much stronger than my true position.”

And, as it turns out, Coven guesses that this is the definition that Carlson intends, writing “The most logical assumption is that he meant that he’d said too much.” Good job! But then, like a child who you’ve assigned an undesired chore will impishly stare at the necessary tools in affected ignorance, as though they couldn’t possibly figure out how this rake could be used to move leaves into a pile, she too feigns ignorance. I can picture her exaggeratedly throwing up her hands, showing how impossible it is to understand this new word, as she writes, “But in that sense, what was too much? Did he think that he’d used too many words?”

C’mon, Coven, stop playing dumb. If you’re really having trouble with this one, you have absolutely no business writing about the English language, and especially not doing so on a blog called “Everything Language and Grammar”. But let’s say you’re really, honestly trying and just can’t crack the case. In that case, our third-grade reading classteacher could offer a second plan of attack: if context clues don’t help, look the word up in a dictionary. Alas, that didn’t help Coven:

“This is yet another example of the disconnect that can occur between speaker and listener when the speaker makes up a word instead of using perfectly good veteran words that are part of the English language. Even dictionary.com, which has never met a non-word it hasn’t liked, doesn’t embrace overspoke (yet).”

Yeah, I checked on dictionary.com. It’s true that searching for overspoke doesn’t return anything. Instead, it asks if maybe you meant to search for overspeak. And when I told it that I did in fact mean to search for that, here’s what it told me:

O`ver*speak”\, v. t. & i. [AS. ofersprecan.] To exceed in speaking; to speak too much; to use too many words.
Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

If you’ll pardon another analogy, at this point I have to liken Coven to the fumblefingers in infomercials (pictured below).

Coven’s use of the dictionary seems akin to these fumblefingers’ use of eggs, ironing boards, and other everyday objects. She looks up an inflected form of a rare irregular verb — when any reasonable dictionary user looks up the infinitive form — and then gives up because she’d have to click on a link saying “Did you mean Overspeak?” in order to get to the definition.

But if she powered through these hurdles, she’d have seen that the word isn’t new; the copyright information dates it back to at least 1998. And a little bit more research (this time on Google Books) shows that it goes back much further. Here it is in a story from 1957. Here it is in a racist joke from 1910-1911. Here it is in a German-English dictionary from 1883.

And that still doesn’t bring us back to the inception of overspeak. The OED attests it back to the 17th century, with the definitions “to overstate or exaggerate, to make exaggerated claims for, to speak too strongly, to speak too much”. Hell, the OED even notes Carlson’s exact type of usage in a 2001 example:

“The three e-mails I received‥agreed that Falwell overspoke himself in the worst way.”

Coven closes with this thought:

“Carlson seemed to be making up a word in order to avoid taking responsibility for a radical opinion. Instead of saying I overspoke, he should have said what he meant—–whatever that was.”

The operative word here is seemed. It seemed to Coven that Carlson made up a word, even though a quick cursory search of Google Books or the Oxford English Dictionary (which, for crying out loud, is even having a free trial for the month) could have told her that Carlson was using a rare word in one of its standard meanings. But Coven’s too busy reprimanding Carlson to bother to see if he’s right. Mark Liberman, by comparison, initially guessed the same — that Carlson has invented a word in overspeak — but before writing a post about it, actually checked to see if his impression was correct. It wasn’t, and he ended up writing an informative post about the history of overspeak and its relationship to AAVE and Southern American English.

The lesson: never trust your instincts when you’re writing about someone’s speech. You’ll surely overspeak if you do.

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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.

Many grammarians go about their days maligning ambiguity. Don’t use while when you mean although, they say, because it’s ambiguous. Don’t use since in place of because either, they say. And so on. If they were right, then everyone would be confused by these two sentences:

(1a) Since I eat the right foods in the right combinations, I’m not focused on calorie restriction.
(1b) The Oscar-winning director tells the story of Venezuela’s “peaceful revolution” since Chavez came to power in 1998 […]

But people aren’t confused, because the clauses readily disambiguate since. (1a) uses the present habitual I eat, which prevents the “ever since” meaning from making sense. (1b) uses the past perfect, which would allow for either meaning, but there’s nothing in the sentence that a “because” clause could attach to, so the “ever since” meaning is the relevant one.

In general, these concerns about ambiguity are actually concerns about potential ambiguity, where someone intentionally misreading the sentence or not paying a lot of attention to it could misread it.* These situations usually don’t result in actual ambiguity for reasonable readers. That’s not to say there are never ambiguities, but only that these ambiguities are usually much less of a problem than prescriptivists claim.

(2) In a second term, Carter might have moved the course of government toward the left, but since Reagan won the election the nation’s political movement has been toward the right instead.

When it is important that the reader gets exactly the meaning you desire, it is important to remove ambiguity, and at those times you’d want to, for instance, replace since in (2) with because or ever since. When the distinction is either obvious or unimportant, there’s no reason to change it. And the problem is that trying to make language completely unambiguous often comes at the cost of readability and comprehension:

(3) Upon such default, and at any time thereafter, Secured Party may declare the entire balance of the indebtedness secured hereby, plus any other sums owed hereunder, immediately due and payable without demand or notice, less any refund due.

That’s legalese; an officiously precise form of the English language that is borderline incomprehensible to those not trained in its tortuous wendings. Although there is little ambiguity in (3), it’s very difficult to extract the meaning, and the sentence seems bloated. But just try shortening or clarifying the above sentence without re-introducing an ambiguity, and you’ll see the difficulty: languages are not built for precision. And, in fact, ambiguity in language is not a bug, but a feature. This is a point nicely summarized by Frederick Newmeyer in a paper that I otherwise disagree with heartily, Grammar is grammar and usage is usage (PDF):

“The transmission rate of human speech is painfully slow […] less than 100 bits per second—compared to the thousands that the personal computer on one’s desk can manage. A consequence is that speakers have to pack as much as they can into as short a time as they can, leading to most utterances being full of grammatical ambiguity […] For that reason, humans have developed complex systems of inference and implicature, conveyed meanings, and so on. […] Stephen Levinson phrased it beautifully: ‘[I]nference is cheap, articulation expensive, and thus the design requirements are for a system that maximizes inference’ (Levinson 2000:29).”

[Emphasis mine.] Ambiguity is useful, as ambiguous sentences can convey the necessary information just like unambiguous sentences, but in fewer words. The reader, listener, or whoever you’re directing your language to is then able to use their knowledge of context and implicatures to determine the appropriate interpretation (this is the “inference” process). A great example of this (again from the Newmeyer paper, but originally from Martin, Church, & Patel 1987) is (4), which has 455 possible parses, many of which yield different meanings.

(4) List the sales of products produced in 1973 with the products produced in 1972.

And yet, given a bit of context, and some knowledge of what one is trying to do in the situation in which this sentence is uttered/written, you are able to pretty quickly figure out which potential meaning is the best. Trying to make the sentence perfectly unambiguous would only drown the reader in words.

Summary: Pick your battles against ambiguity. Where ambiguity is truly detrimental, put forth the effort to clarify, to root out plausible ambiguities and remove them. Where ambiguity is tolerable, it can be better to leave it in to keep from exhausting yourself and your audience.

[If you’re interested in more on potential vs. effective ambiguity, Arnold Zwicky had a post on Language Log from 2008 discussing this topic. Now that I look at his post again, I’ve realized that most of what I said here, he already said there, plus more.]

*: I know some of you in the audience are editors, and I’ve had a few editors explain to me that their job consists in part of idiot-proofing writing. This requires you to try to make it as easy on the reader as possible, and to assume that the reader will fall into whatever garden paths and other meaning pitfalls are possible. Removing the potentially ambiguous situations might be seen as a step in this task. That’s a fair counter-point, but it does not compel a change, and the change must be weighed against the considerations. Avoiding ambiguity that requires the reader to wantonly misinterpret is less crucial than avoiding easy-to-fall-into ambiguities.

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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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