Archive | April, 2013

That’s the law

29 Apr

We all know what a prescriptivist rant sounds like: after all, there’s a lot of them about. A descriptivist rant is a much rarer thing: after all, descriptivist linguistics is a flexible, observational and forgiving discipline. But they do exist, and some of the best I’ve ever read have been by Geoffrey Pullum, professor of general linguistics at Edinburgh University and one of Language Log’s greatest eminences.

The subject of several of his rants has been that old favourite, the distinction between “which” and “that” – specifically the idea that “which” must introduce non-restrictive clauses, set off with commas,  that are parenthetical to the sentence, and that “that” must introduce restrictive clauses, without commas, that define (or “restrict”) the item that has just been mentioned.

It’s often taught as a rule of English grammar, but it isn’t: it was a suggestion advocated by HW Fowler  (in fact, he called it a “plea”) to clarify a part of English where genuine ambiguity can occur.* It caught on and became widely taught, especially in the US. But Professor Pullum, who very much believes in letting language flow free of artificial restrictions, is less than impressed with the intellectual landscape that has resulted:

“Grammar snobs trying to show off their linguistic rectitude by playing gotcha with an invented rule that never matched educated usage; copy editors slaving away trying to enforce it; Microsoft Word blindly putting wavy green underlining under every relative which not preceded by a comma. What a senseless waste of time and energy.

Follow the Fowler rule if you want to; it’s up to you. But don’t tell me that it’s crucial or that the best writers respect it. It’s a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups.”

Linguists who are able to take a calmer view of the matter than the professor (who also wrote another post on a similar subject entitled “More Timewasting Garbage, Another Copy-editing Moron“) explain that, in fact, it is the presence or absence of the commas that makes the crucial difference. You can use “which” for a restrictive clause without making it non-restrictive, as long as you avoid commas.

The always sensible Stan Carey offers a good example on his blog: “The bike which I keep in the garage is ideal for short trips” means something different from “The bike, which I keep in the garage, is ideal for short trips”. In the first case, there may be more than one bike under discussion; in the second, there is clearly only one. As Mr Carey says:

“I don’t think it’s useful or beneficial to outlaw which from restrictive clauses, and I like having a choice of relative pronouns. Let punctuation do the work of clarifying. Used with skill, it does it well.”

There’s no doubt that the linguists’ case is  a convincing one – not least because of the large corpus of English that precedes and contradicts Fowler’s efforts to introduce the distinction. But nonetheless, his idea has spread. And not just to the subs’ desk, or even Microsoft’s grammar checker, but even further – to the state capitol.

The legislative drafting manuals of several US states – that is, the official guides for those who write laws for legislators to pass – reveal an adherence to Fowler’s idea so slavish and definite that it makes you fear for Professor Pullum’s blood pressure. For example, The State of Wisconsin’s Bill Drafting Manual makes Fowler’s “plea” a straightforward rule for its drafters:

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Utah does more or less the same thing:

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Colorado’s guide concurs, additionally exhorting its drafters to use which and that “correctly”:

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But Massachusetts’s guide is much balder: “which” and “that” alone, it suggests, do the work of distinguishing a non-restrictive from a restrictive clause. Commas are not even mentioned:

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And Texas goes as far as to indicate that commas, far from being the critical feature in defining the clause, are more or less an afterthought:

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“As a rule of thumb.” Ouch.

Fowler’s suggestion may not be strictly necessary for comprehension, but if you follow it the way he drew it up, it won’t get you into any trouble. However, if you don’t grasp the rule fully – and, on the face of it, Texas and Massachusetts don’t – it might be a different matter. By ignoring or downplaying the role of commas, it’s at least theoretically possible that a “which” clause somewhere in the statute book that was intended to be non-restrictive has become restrictive, and changed the meaning of a section in a bill or an Act.

Not very likely, perhaps, and you’d need three spare weeks and a Westlaw account to look for it. But it makes you wonder.

*Ambiguity, for example, like this.

Ten years after

24 Apr

This is a post to echo a good point that’s been made at HeadsUp repeatedly in the past few years: that there’s a lot of hidden or implied maths in historical stories that can be checked. Not just, say, the simple recalculating of percentages in financial copy, but the more difficult-to-spot progression of dates in a timeline, or perhaps the comparison of a biographical piece against the fixed historical dates it mentions.

In one recent story, the raw copy began:

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The events in question, we soon learn, took place in 1931:

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And the way she found out about them was by finding a copy of a memoir about them under her bed – a memoir that her father didn’t want his teenage daughter to read:

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But despite her father’s unhappiness, what she had read left a strong and lasting impression on her:

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There’s quite a lot of data there: enough, in fact, that the information can be plotted on one timeline that ought to take us from the incident itself to the present day.

But it doesn’t. Not quite. The incident happened in 1931. “Almost three decades later”, the copy says, Ms Washington was born. Let’s say three decades exactly, to make it easier; that would be 1961. So when she was 17, it would have been 1978; but “25 years” after she found the book only takes us to 2003. Ten years have gone missing somewhere. Time to email the author.

Let’s röck

19 Apr

Here at the Tribune, it’s a rule that we try to put accents on foreign words wherever possible, and make a particular effort with foreign names. And the style guide asks that those efforts should stretch even to bands:

“Try to include diacritical marks if bands use them in their name, no matter how absurd: Maxïmo Park, Mötley Crüe, Motörhead, etc”

This causes a bit of a problem, as you might imagine, when it comes to Queensrÿche. WordPress can manage it, but not every font or character set will let you put a diaeresis over a y. Perhaps it’s just as well that the Pacific Northwest music scene isn’t the global news phenomenon it used to be.

And however big your expert set is, you’ve got no chance with this one, from Wikipedia’s compendious entry on the subject:

“American sleaze metal band Dethkorpz, whose logo properly features an umlaut half over the h, half over the k, and a backwards s”

The heavy-metal umlaut is of course one of the few diacritical marks that makes no difference to the sound of the vowel it modifies. It’s quite fun to imagine what would happen if it worked like a conventional umlaut: MOERtley CrOER. MotOERhead. But then, as my colleague Phil points out: how on earth would you pronounce Queensrÿche?

The weak and the strong

14 Apr

One of the things we talked about a few weeks ago when the Science Media Centre came to visit was the Andrew Wakefield MMR controversy, which seems to be back with a vengeance this weekend. Even after having his controversial paper linking measles vaccines to autism withdrawn by the Lancet some years ago, and subsequently being struck off, Wakefield is again being given space in the papers to explain himself even as the measles outbreak that many blame him for spreads. Everyone in the media now knows that his work has been discredited, and can see the potentially tragic consequences of his campaign. But we just can’t seem to let it go completely.

Why is that? The SMC press officers weren’t surprised that the media got excited when his paper was first published in 1998: how can you expect the papers to ignore a major study under the imprimatur of the Lancet? But as the controversy and questions over his work grew – long before 2010, when the paper was finally withdrawn – they couldn’t understand why some journalists obstinately stuck with him.

But I think I understand. The impression I get is that scientists, who are even-handed, evidence-based and impartial in their work, think that journalists are the same: but they aren’t. Reporters are romantics. They don’t get into journalism to magisterially weigh the evidence; they want to use the power of the media to redress injustice and battle powerful lobbies – to fight for the weak against the strong.

This is most clearly seen in consumer journalism, of course, where, if it emerges that a reader’s complaint against a big company has no foundation, the whole investigation is simply dropped. No one runs “Tribune reader attempts petty fraud on multinational” stories in the consumer pages. If the strong are in the right, there’s no story.

But that guiding principle gets particularly tricky in specialist subjects. Science reporters, especially, can’t possibly know as much about the subject as the researchers in the field; so they replace that knowledge gap with that combination of suspicion, compassion, cynicism and inquisitiveness known as “news sense”. Confronted with something like the thalidomide scandal, they  don’t understand the in-utero biochemistry, but they see a pharmaceuticals company with a “wonder drug”, a series of personal tragedies for families, some high-profile dissidents in the scientific community – and they start to wonder.

And the instinctive romantic’s support for the outsider also comes into play. The parallels aren’t exact, but if you compare the treatment of the now-discredited Wakefield and the now-vindicated 2011 Nobel chemistry prize winner Dan Shechtman, in a certain light they look very similar. Shechtman was an outlier for years in his belief in the existence of quasicrystals: the great Linus Pauling rebuked him publicly and repeatedly (“There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists”) to the extent that he was almost fired from his job. It took years and years to bring a hostile scientific community round to his point of view. But he was right all along.

At the start, Wakefield seemed to have all the same characteristics of the courageous loner. Add in the thalidomide-like elements of personal disasters for families on one side, and Big Pharma making money on the other, and the combination was simply irresistible for the press. Of course Wakefield was being rubbished, the thinking went; isn’t that how the scientific community deals with its dissenters? Isn’t that what pharmaceuticals PRs are paid to do? It took years of patient research rebuttals and damning revelations against Wakefield himself, and the complete withdrawal of all official backing for him in 2010, before most of the media got the message.

We never normally need to be judicial; on the one occasion when we really needed to be, we couldn’t manage it, or at least not in time.

And some people still can’t.

Three-parent babies eat Frankenstein meat!

12 Apr

A few weeks ago, we got  a visit in the newsroom from some scientists who wanted to shout at us.

Well, not quite: in fact, they were press officers from the Science Media Centre, an organisation that “works to promote the voices, stories and views of the UK scientific community to the news media when science is in the headlines”, and they were very friendly. But they were worried about the kind of language that journalists use “when science is in the headlines”. You know the kind of thing: “Trials of GM crops bring new fears of ‘Frankenstein’ food“. “Could Chinese herbs and coffee cure cancer?“.

We came in for our fair share of both praise and criticism. As the SMC saw it, tabloids and broadsheets both seemed to swing between responsible reporting and outrageous sensationalism almost by the day, with, on occasion, the redtops doing a more even-handed job of reporting a new breakthrough than the more august papers.

We had a lively exchange of views about a lot of subjects; it wasn’t just a lecture. The SMC were interested to talk to subs and section editors and find out what happens to a story after it enters the production process.

We talked about how a responsible science reporter will often need to temper a non-specialist news editor’s enthusiasm for a story that the latter doesn’t fully understand – “negative pitching”, as one of our correspondents calls it. This is a phenomenon almost unknown to journalists as a rule; they usually have to talk their leads up as far as they will go in news meetings to get any space in the paper at all. But conscientious medical writers often have conversations with news editors that go something like: “You mean just drinking coffee and eating these herbs can cure cancer? THEY’VE PROVED IT? HOLD THE…” “No, it’s not as simple as that … Don’t put it on the front: I reckon it’s worth a page lead further back in home. It’s only a preliminary test on mice, and mice aren’t people.”

The SMC, because they are neither active scientists nor working journalists, are happy to tread the middle ground between researchers’ grumpiness about trite phrases and subs’ need to write headlines in small spaces. Some scientists object to the phrase “three-parent babies” used in connection with injecting donor DNA into embryos to cure mitochondrial disease. The SMC told us that they were grumbling: “It’s only a tiny bit of material”. Our regressive hack’s headline-writing instincts aroused, we said: yes, a tiny bit of material … from someone else.

We agreed to disagree about that. But, in truth, there was little to argue about when it came to the SMC’s best practice guidelines for reporting science and health stories, reproduced here:

  • State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc, ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
  • Specify the size and nature of the study – eg who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research – eg cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic timeframe for any new treatment or technology.
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – ie if “cupcakes double cancer risk” state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – eg does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
  • Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.*
And the two big ones that they were really keen for us to take away from the meeting:
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
  • Remember the patients: don’t call something a “cure” that is not a cure.
*Of course, quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement in any headline; that’s not what quotation marks in headlines are for.

Brussels doubts

7 Apr

Here’s a bear trap of an an error that I’ve stepped right into myself in the past.

“A headline was wrong to describe the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner as an ‘EU rights watchdog’. The Council of Europe is not part of the EU, but a separate organisation with a wider membership.”

It flies the same flag and plays the same anthem as the European Union, but the Council of Europe is not to be confused – if you can help it – with the European Council or the Council of the European Union, both of which are EU bodies. It also has a commissioner, who is not to be confused with an EU commissioner from the European Commission. The whole thing can be a nightmare if you’re having to rush through copy written by someone who isn’t a specialist.

The two most dangerous words to read in European news copy are “council” and “court”, at which point it’s a good idea to stop dead and think: which one?

  • Council of the European Union. Part of the EU; can be usefully thought of as the “upper house” of the European Parliament.  Often known as “the council of ministers”, which can help to alleviate confusion.
  • European Council. Part of the EU, this is the high-level direction-setting forum attended by all the EU’s heads of government and other notables, led currently by Herman van Rompuy. Powerful, newsworthy and influential.
  • Council of Europe. Not part of the EU: set up in 1949 and conceived from the start as a notional “United States of Europe”, unlike the EU, which has largely evolved step-by-step from various free trade blocs. Anything the Council of Europe does is therefore not EU policy. And “Brussels” won’t do in this case as headline shorthand – the Council of Europe is based in Strasbourg. (Yes, the European Parliament, which is part of the EU, also sits in Strasbourg: the possibilities for confusion are everywhere.)
  • European Court of Justice. The highest court in the EU. Addresses matters of law that are formulated in EU treaties and given effect in national legislatures, usually when a case is referred to it  by a national court. Not to be confused with…
  • European Court of Human Rights. Not an EU institution, but the most high-profile body of the Council of Europe. It exists to rule on matters arising under the European Convention on Human Rights, passed in 1950 and signed by all 47 member states of the Council. Stories about “article 8 rights to privacy” or “article 10 rights to expression” – much in evidence in the current debate on UK press regulation – refer to articles of the human rights  convention, and are therefore not “stories about the EU”.

I don’t know why I find this so difficult – perhaps because of years of subliminal exposure to undifferentiated tabloid bludgeoning about “Brussels” and “Europe”. Anyway, I’m now almost as cautious about editing EU news as I am about pre-trial crime stories.

UPDATE: As Estelle Wolfers notes in her comment below, there has been a further wrinkle in the EU court system since 2009 and the Lisbon Treaty; there is now a two-court system. As she says, “the Court of Justice of the European Union” – the now-correct phrase – “encompasses both the Court of Justice (ex-ECJ) and the General Court (ex-Court of First Instance)”. Proceed with more caution than ever.

All-or nothing

3 Apr

The raw copy read: 

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So that’s the first government-to-civilian government … hang on. It’s the first civilian government democratic transition that is government-to-civilian in nature. No, wait. Ah: it’s the first civilian-government-to-civilian-government democratic transition in the country’s history.

Even the bravest compound hyphenator tends to falter slightly after the third or fourth word.