Monday, 14 January 2013

My final post on language articles in newspapers (probably)

I've written a few posts about the (mis)treatment of linguistics and language in many newspaper articles. In short, it's bad. But then what should we expect? Journalism is largely page filling these day (for more about churnalism read this excellent book) So I've decided this is my last article about bad linguistic journalism. Whatever I write and no matter how much evidence can be brought to bear on these kinds of wrong-headed articles, history shows that they will continue to proliferate. However, as I will hopefully show, the tide of history is almost always on the side of usage.
The author of the today's article "There are lots of bacteria, but there is only one genetic code" Dr Dixon, is a scientist and unsurprisingly also an editor (like grammargirl). Many journalists have a seemingly fetishistic obsession with prescriptivism regardless of  the mountain of evidence against it. An example from an earlier post is Bill Bryson describing all the reasons why "whom" could be allowed to die a natural death but then stating "I, for one, would not like to see it go".  This is pretty much the way with many writers. Scientists who would question almost any claim about their field and demand evidence have seemingly no problem swallowing linguistic rules without the slightest curiosity as to their validity. 
Ironically, Dixon penned an piece complaining about the press' lousy coverage of science, yet he, -a non-linguist, has set himself up as an arbiter of proper language usage. And what particular idiosyncrasies does he have a problem with? Before I dissect the article in detail I would quickly like to go over the mistaken argument from linguistic regularity which, in short, is the assumption that languages are regular and logical. Like organisms, languages evolve and as with organisms this doesn't lead to perfectly functioning "designed" languages but rather languages with a lot of inherent waste.
In animals, an example Dixon might understand is the recurrent laryngeal nerve. the nerve especially in animals like giraffes is massively wasteful looping down then back up the neck when in reality, it only needs to travel a few inches. This is the result of evolution applying an "if it aint broke" approach.  Languages too have massive amounts of waste because they weren't designed either, though people like Dixon act as if they were. Phrases like "the reason why", "the end result" and "over-exaggerate" are redundant. So are things like the third person 's' on verbs, the word "whom" the word "fewer", the bizarre conjugations of the "be" verb and "do support" which only a handful of languages possess at all. As this chaos swirls around them the Dixons of this world accept 95% of the disorder but vehemently oppose the last 5% like victims of the titanic complaining that their shoes are getting wet.

So let's examine the article in a little more detail.

She's developed something called anorexia."

"I was reading about that in the newspaper. It's quite serious, isn't it?"

"Yes, and more young women are getting anorexia these days."

A simple enough conversation. What the speakers did not realise is that they were not talking about anorexia at all. Anorexia means loss of appetite. That is its definition in both medical and general dictionaries. There is, however, also a condition called anorexia nervosa – a psychological illness, commonest among female adolescents, in people who deliberately starve or use other methods, such as vomiting, to lose weight. But relatively suddenly, anorexia has lost its original meaning. In the media and in everyday conversation, anorexia now means anorexia nervosa

This reminds me of "Frankenstein's monster" bores who insist on pedantically telling everyone and anyone who'll listen that Frankenstein is not the monster! anorexia is understood by most speakers as shorthand for anorexia nervosa as "Frankenstein" is for his monster. Who cares about this? The good doctor apparently. He goes on:

Language and the connotations of words and expressions evolve over time – helpfully so, when new distinctions and subtleties arise. But meanings also change simply as a result of ignorance or error. So when, some years ago, more and more people began to say "disinterested" when they meant "uninterested", the misuse gradually became a normal meaning of that word
Dixon thus is quite happy for language to change, -so long as it changes in ways he likes. The short sighted nature of his rant can be illustrated be looking at some of the words he uses. "error" for example means to "to wander" originally, the misuse seems to have gradually become the normal meaning. More interesting is that Dixon is actually wrong as his potted history falls a little short of the truth. Etymologically speaking:

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

So rather than switching, it's perhaps more accurate to say that they switched back to their original meanings. But don't let facts get in the way of a good old language rant Doc!

What seems to be happening today is that such shifts are occurring more and more quickly. Consider the word "issue". I heard a cricket commentator saying that an Indian batsman was "having issues with" an opponent's spin bowling. As recently as five years ago, he would have said the batsman was confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended. "Issue" then meant something quite different. Since then, however, it has come to mean "problem".

Dixon offers (as all news articles it should be said) no evidence for his (amazing if true) suggestion that the pace and amount of language change is increasing in English. He seems to have issues with the use of "have issues with" (hohoho) and actually Google Ngram does show an increase in its use between 1990-2008. That said, if the alternative to "having issues with" really is "confused by the spinning ball, which he was failing to hit in the way he intended" then forgive me for calling it a welcome addition to English.
What is especially surprising nowadays is that misuses of words can increasingly be found even in specialised communications – as in my own particular field of science. Long ago, when I was a microbiology student, I learned that the singular of bacteria was bacterium. Then, towards the end of the 20th century, print and broadcast journalists began to say "this bacteria". And the alteration did not stop there. It is now affecting professional discourse too. In the past three months, I have seen "a bacteria" or "this bacteria" six times in research journals. I have even heard a speaker making the same mistake throughout his conference presentation.

Most of what is described here I have dealt with in detail in this post and so won't rehash suffice to say that what Dixon describes as a "mistake" is a change in usage and also that it is altogether unreasonable to expect foreign words to retain their foreign morphemes in a host language. Note that Dixon admits that it was not evidence of usage that led to his knowledge about "bacteria" but rather that that is what he was taught -and what he unquestioningly accepted. When his friends tell him that "this spaghetti is delicious" does he, I wonder correct them "THESE spaghetti ARE delicious!" Shoddy stuff for a scientist.
Sports commentators appear to be culpable in another area – the demise of the adverb. Within the past 10 years, firstly snooker commentators and then those in other sports began to tell us that "he hit that one strong", that "she's playing confident", and that "he's bowling accurate". The habit is now spreading more widely.

This is a pretty old chestnut. This type of inflexible thinking is what leads to people avoiding saying "I am good" (I am well!) and "This food is healthy" (This food is healthful!) A basic question to be asked when people talk about "bad" grammar is whether communication is actually breaking down. As with the pedantic parental chide "two negatives make a positive" (they don't) the listener understands perfectly what they speaker is saying but just insists that language must, for some unknown reason, stand still at this moment in time and stop changing. Really quite a bizarre position for someone presumably well versed in evolutionary theory. The good Dr. seems to be suffering from a linguistic form of the "golden age fallacy" namely that there was a time when the English language was perfect. Perhaps a little after Shakespeare and a bit before the Bronte sisters. Ever since then it's just been on the decline and will eventually reach a state where morlock-esque yoof roam the streets of Neo-England burbling an incomprehensible text-like patois to each other as society collapses.
In many cases, although it is impossible to pinpoint the initial change
And of course this is true though as a biologist such a statement should have him holding his head in shame. He's basically asking for a missing link which could never exist. Just as no old world monkey gave birth to a human, no linguistic change can really ever be pinpointed. As McWhorter notes, Latin didn't die, it turned into French, Spanish and Italian, but there wasn't a day when people woke up saying "OK, now we're speaking French".

the reason why people begin to adopt erroneous usages so quickly is probably one of fashion and a desire to demonstrate familiarity with the modish vernacular. Consider "fantastic", which is now a universal expression of hyperbole. Anyone interviewed in the media about anything that impresses or excites them will repeatedly call it "fantastic". Over recent weeks, I have heard a celebrity chef describe a particular dish as fantastic (when he meant unusually succulent), a drama critic call an actor's performance fantastic (when she meant disturbingly realistic) and a politician describe a party conference speech as fantastic (when he meant inspiring).

Reading this I'm almost tempted to think Dixon is pulling our collective legs. The idea that language use is something like wearing hipster jeans and not related to a complex set of social and psychological factors is quite staggeringly simplistic. Also does he really have a problem with the word 'fantastic'? Does he really expect people only to use the word only for "characteristic of fantasy"? He goes on to talk about 'literally' which I dealt with here and so won't go into nor will I again deal with what he calls the "important differences between 'who and whom'" (tl;dr = It isn't an important difference.)

At the end he wonders "why are even the editors of scientific journals adopting fashionable but incorrect usages?" and this is where I would like return to the point I made in the first paragraph. The reason that editors are (sensibly) adopting "fashionable" usages is because those usages will almost certainly, triumph. And for the second part of this (rather long!) blog I'd like to take you and Dixon on an Dickensian tour of the ghosts of pedants past. I'm hopeful there is still time for the good Doctor to have a change of heart. So here it is, a list of complaining prescriptivists throughout the ages:

George Fox (1624-1691) wrote in his Epistle:

If you're not getting that then Fox was complaining that only a ruddy great idiot would say "you" to one person, when as any fule kno the right word was "thou".

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) disliked past tense 'ed' being pronounced softly, (i.e. as we pronounce it now) he wanted it pronounced as the 'aed' in 'dead'. He also didn't like the words "sham, banter, bully, bubble, cutting and shuffling".

Robert Lowth (1710-1787) thought that (formal) sentences shouldn't end in prepositions. Somehow this opinion became accepted as a 'rule' by editor types at some point although almost everyone ignores it. Lowth also argued for "My wife and I" over "me and my wife".

William Cobbet (1763-1835) wrote "A grammar of the English language" and complained about the use of the following as past tenses "Awoke, built, dealt, threw, swam and meant" (among many others) arguing instead for the more 'proper' "awaked, builded, dealed, throwed, swimmed and meaned". (McWhorter)

Strunk and White, authors of a famous style guide loved by the likes of Dixon and first published in 1919, proscribed against the use of "hopefully", the verbs "host" and "chair" and the passive voice. Rather amusingly (or at least, this passes for amusing to sad folks like me) of the four examples they give of mistaken use of the passive voice, only one of them is actually passive. And this isn't their only mistake. As Pullum notes, they "The book's contempt for it's own grammatical dictates seems almost wilful." The awful situation therefore is that we have know-nothings telling others how they should be writing and incredibly being listened to.

Steven Pinker notes that the verbs parent, input, showcase, impact, and contact "have all been denounced in this century" (1994:379)

So, if we examine the broad sweep of history we can see that most of the things that have been railed against have become normal and natural. Dr. Dixon and people like him can get upset about usage but his views about the word "fantastic" will, if they don't already, eventually be seen as preposterous to future generations. I might be losing the battles against this type of newspaper article buthistory shows that the war is already won.



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