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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 imagine you international readers might be slightly surprised by this, what with my being an American and all, but I get pretty excited for the World Cup. Sure, in my rankings of footballs, I’d put association football below American, Canadian, Australian, and rugby footballs, but one can’t beat the pageantry of the Cup. It’s also one of the few major sporting events where the U.S. is always big underdog, so that it’s fun to cheer for them.

The past few days have been pretty good for many of the Anglophone countries that comprise most of this blog’s readership, what with the U.S. and England both advancing, Australia pulling down a win, and France utterly collapsing in what I hope was a cathartic experience for the Irish. (I know my Ireland-obsessed friend enjoyed it. Stan, how was it for you?)

Anyway, I was cruising on Yahoo! after yesterday’s U.S.-Algeria game to see how the Ghana-Germany game played out, when suddenly a headline derailed me:

"Germany beats Ghana 1-0, wins World Cup"

Well, gosh, so much for my excitement. I suppose Germany winning the World Cup shouldn’t be so surprising. I’m just surprised how quickly they did it. Well, kudos to the Black Stars for making it to the finals. I might as well click through to the story:

"Germany beats Ghana 1-0, wins World Cup group"

Oh. It’s a shame the headline column didn’t have room for five extra letters.

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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