Monday, September 18, 2006

What Hath Truss Wrought?

I'm not about to jump on the Truss-wagon. I've come a long way in my efforts to give up prescriptivism and focus on pure description. My analyses are moving away from "why is this wrong" and moving towards "why do people disagree about whether or not this is grammatical." The distinction between wrong and ungrammatical is key.

Language Log has recently put up a post that argues in favour of judgment when necessary. I agree with the main points. Some distinctions serve a purpose and to lose them can confuse communication. At her best Lynne Truss defends grammar and punctuation on these grounds. At her worst she equates a lack of curiosity regarding punctuation with a depraved state of intellectuality (xxiii in her panda-book's preface). I can see that someone bereft of any curiosity whatsoever is likely oafish. But let's be honest -- curiosity comes in many forms and alights on many endeavours. Punctuation is hardly a necessary bailiwick of the greatest minds.

And yet I will take issue with the punctuation in a recent AP headline. Please let me know if my point is elitist. "Autopsy: Smith's son on antidepressants" reads the headline of a story regarding the death of the celebrity's child. A colon is usually taken to mean that what follows is the claim of what precedes. So the headline "Michael: French fries are delicious" correctly predicts a story in which I Michael give my opinion that them French fried taters is tasty.

The headline regarding Smith's son goes a step further to say that an autopsy --not a person-- reveals the fact of the boy's pharmaceuticals. This is fine. Headlines are all about quick punchy facts. Instead of the complete explication "The pathologist who performed the autopsy based on his findings in said autopsy, claims that Smith's son was on antidepressants," we can throw out the easily assumed information. We assume an expert can reach valid conclusions based on an autopsy so we just say "Autopsy: X" the autopsy revealed X.

But read the story. We find that the forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht did not discover this information from the autopsy. According to the story "Wecht...said he learned about the prescription medication after the autopsy from Daniel Smith's psychiatrist in the United States."

So what business does "autopsy" have before the colon if the autopsy had nothing to do with the claim? "Pathologist: X" - fine. "Doctor after autopsy: X" - perhaps misleading but technically correct. "Autopsy: X" - misleading and indefensible. We decry it based on what we know because of grammar -- but I do not call it bad grammar.

And beyond all that --why am I reading stories about Anna Nicole Smith?


  1. Yeah. Why WERE you reading a story about Anna Nicole Smith?

    This is key.

  2. I'll give you "endevour" because of your work in Old English.

    The headline is interesting to me because it is often the copy editors that write the headlines. So one who should be grammatically inclined has failed us.

  3. Still not a good reason to misspell indeliberately. Perhaps you should be my copy editor. That would hurt Buffy who has offered many times to edit my posts for me -- she cringes at my mistakes thinking they make me seem lazy and imprecise.

    I say it's not the mistakes.

    The issue I had with this headline was not that the grammar was wrong but that I think it was intentionally misleading. A headline is likely to get attention when it makes absolute claims -- or when it promises to report an absolute claim. John Wells (follow the link on my sidebar to his phonetic blog) was widely misrepresented as having said that cows moo with regional accents.

    He writes in one post:
    "Was it possible, they asked, that the local cows might moo with a west-of-England accent? I told them that I thought it was highly unlikely, but that there had been serious research showing that various species of bird exhibit geographical variation in their calls. And if birds and human beings have local accents, you can’t entirely rule out that cows might too."

    One newspaper wrote "John Wells is professor of phonetics at London University and author of The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. All the more reason, then, to give serious consideration to his claim that cows moo with a regional accent."

    His life was ruined for a few weeks. It was a big story on Language Log for a while.

    The autopsy story is much more interesting when it sounds like prozac was coursing through the body and the pathologist might have found the cause of death. It's not nearly as exciting to say that the pathologist still doesn't know much and he consulted with another doctor to get some background information.


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