Wednesday, August 16

nitpicking on language

I have become a fan of Language Log, a blog by a group of linguists from UPenn. Their analyses on language and its usage are very interesting. Recently, a reader of the newspaper Oakland Tribune wrote to the editor about a news story they had printed. It goes like this...

THE TRIBUNE'S Aug. 7 front page story headline said, in large print, "Rocket attack kills 12 Israelis," and in smaller print, "At least 16 in Lebanon die from air strikes." This has an immediate bias that Israeli lives are more valuable than Lebanese lives.

Geoffrey K. Pullum and Bill Poser of Language Log blogged here and here to explain that, bias in Tribune's use of words, if any, was not immediately obvious. Their main points of observation are

  • Both "to die" from something, and "to be killed" by something roughly mean the same thing. Their usage could possibly imply a difference in the duration of losing a life. But that doesn't imply a judgement in the value of lives lost.
  • The difference in choice of words may reflect the the fact that the Israelis were intentionally murdered (genocide) while the Lebanese were killed accidentally (collateral damage).
  • It could just be that the editors could have avoided the same words for monotony.
The difference between the choice of words in this case is very subtle, and hence the bias is not obvious (or rather no bias at all, according to the authors). I remember a better example in Indian newspapers, when I was young. It usually happens in the Sports pages, when there is a cricket match between the arch rivals - India and Pakistan. If India won a cricket match against Pakistan, the head line would read something like "India beat Pakistan by 45 runs". But if Pakistan had won the match, it would read "Pakistan won by 6 wkts" or better "India lost by 6 wkts". In some weird sense, "beating" feels better than "winning" or "losing". I think that, the choice of such a headline is a conscious decision by the editor.

I enjoy such examinations of our language and the choice of words. I re-write my sentences two or three times until I feel OK about them. I want to make sure that my tone is not condescending, not authoritative, and not offensive. I also would like my style neither be absolute nor be vague. (What am i trying to do here, really ?)

But still, one of my friends commented about a previous blog entry that I better do spell check, and grammar check. I read my blog entries again, and found my grammar awful. I had missed verbs in sentences. My prepositions were on top of each other. It seemed to me, that words were so uncomfortable being in my sentences. It looked like I was writing this blog, as an attempt to avoid watching an episode of 'Barney, the Dinosaur' (or a Tamil mega serial).

I found the reason to be my tendency to quick-edit sentences, even before they were complete. I do a lot of "micro editing" in parts of my sentences, that I end up missing verbs, and adding prepositions. I think, I need more nitpickers. (or a book on english grammar ?)

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