Thursday, 9 May 2013

All purpose "ignore newspapers" reponse

OK OK OK I know I said I wasn't going to write any more pieces about newspapers, but like a fly to XXXXX I'm drawn back by the rancid stench of 'Journalism'. But this folks, this really is the last time. This is going to be my masterpiece, all encompassing retort to all language articles appearing in the press. Below is a list of rules and if I've sent this piece to you then that means the article you tweeted probably has one of the problems listed below. 

Rule 1: the article in question is almost certainly wrong

It might not be 100% wrong but there is wrongness in it! The shocking surprising headline of someone learning a language in a few hourswaking up speaking a foreign language or commenting on the decline of English is almost certainly being misreported by non-experts. This is not surprising as they get most everything else wrong as well from health articles to science and pretty much everything else. Even if it's not wrong, it's probably not completely right, with misrepresentation and fudge rife. 

Rule 2: If the article isn't written by a linguist of some kind ignore it.

If a scientist, a politician, or a journalist attempt to tell you that language is going to the dogs, or that the way people are using words is wrong, feel free to take no notice. Even if it is written by a linguist (or language 'expert') view it suspiciously. The guardian is not an academic journal claims and made there require zero evidence and they will provide no links to anything asserted in the article. So when you see the quarterly article stating something like, "I'm an editor of a famous journal and here are some language mistakes everyone is making" written in reasonable tones about how split infinitives are ugly or wrong and who/whom misused please remember they are almost always wrong, -or partially wrong. The best bet is to find out for yourself, from a reputable source. 

Rule 3: If it seems to be too good to be true... probably is. Great breakthroughs are rare, but articles about them are not. "New theory" or "new breakthrough/cure" stories abound, but should be regarded with suspicion, like the story the "human language came from bird song" or that "English is really a Scandinavian Language" or that you can learn a language in 22 hours. These theories might be true, but if they are, why has no one suggested them before? This doesn't instantly disqualify a theory, and paradigms are overturned, but "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" and rather than believing the Daily Mail, I'll wait for the peer reviewed article in a reputable journal before making up my mind, thanks.

Rule 4 Muphry's law

This rule is named after murphy's law but with a misspelling and it posists that anyone launching an attack on another person's language use will inevitable have problems with language use in their article.  A good example of this is sceptic James Randy Randi, as I noted here. (thanks to Murray for pointing out I am too a victim of this)


  1. Ouch, rule 4 is harsh. I love it. You know, we might often fall on opposing sides of the pedant's line but there is kinship there :)

    1. yes, we both love the warm feeling of superiority.

  2. Does your misspelling of Randi's name count as an instance of Muphry's law?