Update on that F-K paper

Three months ago I posted about a paper in PLoS ONE called “Liberals lecture, conservatives communicate: Analyzing complexity and ideology in 381,609 political speeches”. I noted that there are serious problems with that study. For the tl;dr:

After I posted on here, I also commented on the article with my concerns. The PLoS ONE journal allows commenting on their articles, but I’ll admit that my first comment was neither appropriate nor helpful. It was more of a troll than anything. The editors removed my comment, and to their credit, they emailed me with an explanation why. They also told me what a comment should look like. So I posted a grown-up comment on the article. This started an exchange between me and the authors of the article. Here’s the skinny:

1. The authors confuse written language with spoken language
2. The study uses an ineffectual test for written language on spoken language
3. The paper does not take into account how transcriptions and punctuation affect the data
4. The authors cite almost no linguistic sources in a study about language
5. They use a test developed for English on other languages

The authors tried to respond to my points about why their methodology is wrong, but there are some things that they just couldn’t argue their way out of (such as points 1, 2, 3 and 5 above).

Behind the scenes, I was talking with the editors of the journal. They told me that they were taking my criticisms seriously and looking into the issue themselves. In my comments on the paper, I provided multiple sources to back up my claims. The authors did not do in their replies to me, but that’s because they can’t – there aren’t studies to back up their claims. However, my last email with the editors of the journal was over a month ago. I understand that these things can take time (and the editors told me this much) but a few of the criticisms that I raised are pretty cut and dry. The authors also stopped replying to my comments, the last one of which was posted on April 9, 2019 (can’t say I blame them though).

So I’m not very positive that anything is going to change. But I’ll let you know if it does.


The American Spectator tries to write about language

But their logic gets in the way

So, apparently the American Spectator is a conservative news magazine. Their About page doesn’t load on Opera (probably IE only), so I’m going off what Wikipedia tells me. While researching the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I came across a review in the American Spectator of John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax. Somehow the reviewer, John Derbyshire, claims that McWhorter is too progressive. I mean, I guess everyone is progressive compared to the American right…

But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about how to spot a bad article on language and/or linguistics. Here is the first paragraph of the Spectator’s review:

Chinese has an extraordinary number of verbs meaning “carry.” If I carry something on a hanging arm, like a briefcase, the verb is ti; on an outstretched palm, tuo; using both palms, peng; gripped between upper arm and body, xie; in my hand, like a stick, wo; embraced, like a baby, bao; on my back, bei; on my head, ding; on my shoulder, kang; on a pole over my shoulder, tiao; slung on a shoulder pole between two guys, tai….

Whoa! That’s a lotta verbs! I counted 11 and the reviewer wasn’t even done listing them. But hold on a second. How many verbs for carry does English have? According to Thesaurus.com, at least 39.

carry - thesaurus

What gives? Well, this is a bad way to start out an article on language. It’s called the “X words for snow” meme or cliché (aka a snowclone), after the claim that Eskimos have some large number of words for snow, which is supposed to mean that they have some better (or at least different) conception of snow than English speakers.

If you think about it for a second though, you can see why this idea is nonsense. First, languages divide and combine words differently. So whereas English doesn’t have a single word for ice hockey, Finnish does (it’s jääkiekko, literally a compound noun of jää “ice” and kiekko “puck/hockey”). But English speakers in Canada seem to have as firm a grasp on what ice hockey is all about as Finnish speakers in Finland. The inverse of the trope above is called the “No words for X” meme.

Second, what really counts as a word meaning “carry”? I could skate the puck into the zone in hockey or run the ball into the end zone in American football. In both cases I would be “carrying” the puck or the ball, but would you consider “carry” as part of the meaning of skate or run? I doubt it. Context can fill in a lot in language. And some languages might have a grammatical marker that means “carry” – so not a word word, like the word “word,” but a morpheme that you can attach to other words, as English does with –ed to indicate the past tense. Or think about how French forms a negative using the “word” pas, which comes from the word meaning step, but is now required to grammatically form the negative (so much so that you can leave off the negative particle ne in French, but not the pas).

Third, if it’s true that speakers of a language have some better conception of something because their language has a bunch of words for it, then surely that only works for the speakers who know those words. It doesn’t matter how many words Chinese has for “carry” – if a Chinese speaker doesn’t know those words, then they are useless. You can can sometimes fill in the blanks based on context, but this idea places too much importance on the words of a language and removes other factors relevant to language, such as speakers’ pragmatic and semantic knowledge or skills. (I have to also say that it’s interesting that the reviewer in the Spectator doesn’t say which dialect of Chinese he’s talking about. I know from reading about Chinese that there isn’t really one Chinese language and that some of the dialects are farther apart than Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. I guess he’s talking about Standard Mandarin Chinese? If you know more, leave a comment.)

There are other reasons that the Spectator’s opening paragraph is nonsense, but that should get you started. If you want to know more, McWhorter’s book delves into this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The reviewer in the Spectator tries to engage with McWhorter’s claims, but falls flat by saying things like the differences in language are “biological in origin,” that the differences in the ways language marks things cannot be chance, and that McWhorter is a “fanatically extreme egalitarian protesting too much,” something I don’t think anyone except the American right would or could accuse him of.

Stop using the Flesch-Kincaid test

Before Language Log beats me to it, I want to hip you to another Bad Linguistics study out there. This one is called “Liberals lecture, conservatives communicate: Analyzing complexity and ideology in 381,609 political speeches” and it’s written by Martijn Schoonvelde, Anna Brosius, Gils Schumacher and Bert Bakker. It was published in PLoS One (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0208450).

The study analyzes almost 400,000 political speeches from different countries using a method called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Score. The authors want to find out how complex the language in the speeches is and whether conservative or liberal politicians use more complex language. But hold up: what’s the Flesch-Kincaid score, you ask. Well, it’s a measure of how many syllables and words are in each sentence. The test gives a number that in theory can be correlated to how many years of education someone would need in order to understand the text. This is called the “readability” of the text.

So what’s the problem? Well, rather than spend too much time on it, I’ll listicle-ize the problems with this paper.

Continue reading “Stop using the Flesch-Kincaid test”

The vowels haven’t gone anywhere

There’s another brainfart article on language in the New York Times. The author, John Williams, shows right away that he’s thinking out loud from somewhere deep inside his armchair with this one. Basically, Williams is having some vague instance of a Recency Illusion as he ties James Joyce and MGMT to Tumblr, Flickr, and other modern companies which opt out of using vowels in their names. His idea is that – apparently all of a sudden – no one is using vowels anymore. lol.

A couple of things. First, as a Twitter friend pointed out, orthography and speech do not correspond. That means that our writing system and our spelling system only have a passing resemblance to each other. Writing is not speech on paper – it’s so much less than that. You think we need vowels in writing to distinguish between words, but we really don’t. This is Linguistics 101. Williams totally whiffs on it.

Second, Williams claims that people are only now routinely removing vowels from their writing by signing their correspondence with “Yrs” (his example). He makes a reference to “Finnegans Wake” and says “Time was that you had to be an experimental weirdo to ditch vowels.” That’s a nice dig at ya boy Joyce, but ol’ Jimmy J was just stealing this style from other writers. John Adams didn’t use vowels when he signed his letters. Neither did Jane Austen. Time was when no one wrote vowels because ink and paper were precious commodities yo.

Third, I kinda have to give Williams some credit for actually reaching out to a linguist, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the article any better. Williams contacted John McWhorter to see what is going on with people dropping vowels. I don’t know how much he talked to him – I only have the quotes included in the article – but it seems like McWhorter was really phoning this one in.

Now, full disclosure: I like John McWhorter when he talks about linguistics. He’s made some highly questionable political debates and articles recently, but his linguistics stuff has always been sound. In this article, however, McWhorter says “There is a fashion in American language culture right now to be playful in a way that is often childlike. This business of leaving out the vowels and leaving you to wonder how to pronounce something, it channels this kid-ness in a way — like saying ‘because science,’ or the way we’re using -y, when we say something like, ‘well, it got a little yell-y.’”

I don’t know what McWhorter is on about here. No one wonders how to pronounce Tumblr, Flickr, MNDFL or Mdrn (except maybe NYT writers working on a deadline?). And saying “because NOUN” is not channeling “kid-ness” (what is kid-ness anyway, linguistically speaking?). And and, adding a y-sound onto the end of words is really not child-like. That’s just language-like. They’re called diminutives. Go talk to the Aussies about them. Or any other English speakers.

So yeah, stay away from the NYT Style Section’s hot takes on language.

When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot

Last week I did a twitter and it got a big response (for me, that is). It was about a recent paper on language that appeared in an economics journal and it lit a fire under other people as well. The paper is called “Do Linguistic Structures Affect Human Capital? The Case of Pronoun Drop” and it’s by Horst Feldmann. I thought that in addition to dunking on that paper on Twitter, I’d spell out some of the fundamental problems with it. Here goes.

Continue reading “When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot”

Casting the first ice pick

This tweet by Prof. Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School came across my feed last night.

Teachers, don’t make fun of your students. It’s not funny. It’s shitty.

Besides that, the distinction between its and it’s is so insignificant that only people who don’t know much about language would cling to it like it’s some ancient secret. Arguing about its/it’s (or picking on your students over it) is like arguing over who the best Robin was, Dick Grayson or Tim Drake*.

As it turns out, Ammon Shea (the author of Reading the OED, which you should totally read) did some digging and found out that Prof. Danny mistakenly used it’s for its in his dissertation. Because of course he did.

I wonder how he’d feel if his supervisor joked on twitter dot com about stabbing him with an icepick.

* If you didn’t get this reference, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. Just like misusing its/it’s doesn’t matter. If you did get this reference, then you know the answer is Tim Drake**.

** Fight me.

Pronoun nonsense on Grammar Bytes

Hi! Greetings from Crazy Grammar Town! We’re still here… We’re still… here. This time we’re going to (again) look at a website called Grammar Bytes (the website is chompchomp.com). This “grammar” site wants to tell you about pronouns. They say that a “possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.” What the heck does that mean? We’ll take it piece by juicy piece. Grammar Bytes says:

Possessive nouns function as adjectives. You can drive a fast car, a red car, a dirty car, or Mom’s car. Fast, red, and dirty are all adjectives telling us which car. The possessive noun Mom’s is adjectival too.

Yeah, ok, I guess. Tell me more.

You ruin the clarity of a sentence when the antecedent for a subject or object pronoun like he or him is a possessive noun.

Read this example:

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna.

When we read this sentence, we assume that Kevin is the he winking at Donna. But remember that Kevin’s is adjectival, not a noun. If we replaced Kevin’s with agile, quick, or long, we wouldn’t consider any of those adjectives the antecedent for he, so we shouldn’t consider Kevin’s either. And the fingers certainly aren’t doing the winking as they have no eyes!

Hold up! Who the hell would say “Agile fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna”? Answer: absolutely no one. I mean, did you really misunderstand Grammar Bytes’ example sentence? You knew Kevin was winking at Donna while he strummed the guitar. No problem. You would even understand it if someone said, “Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar. Then he winked at Donna.” BECAUSE THAT’S HOW PRONOUNS WORK! You know who is referred to by context. And there is no rule of grammar that says pronouns can’t refer to things across sentence boundaries. Think about how often you use pronouns and how often you misunderstand who the pronoun refers to. The ratio is 1 gajillion to zero.

But wait! Grammar Bytes goes on:

Furthermore, a reader might wonder if the whole Kevin is strumming the guitar or if just his disembodied fingers are making the music. The sentence in its current version is unclear.

Dafuck? Who strums a guitar with their whole body?

There’s more:

To fix the problem, you can replace the pronoun with a specific noun. You can’t have a pronoun reference error if you have no pronoun!

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when this young man winked at Donna.

See, now here’s where things get more confusing. Because to me “this young man” might not refer to Kevin. Because guess what? “This young man” is not specific! It’s arguably less specific than the pronoun. So if you write this, you will be more clear to Grammar Bytes and less clear to everyone else.