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September 30, 2018

"filler words" fill the news

Writing about web page https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/uk-british-slang-urban-dictionary-filler-words-a8555681.html

Non-linguists often use the term "filler words" as a convenient catch-all for utterances that, for various reasons, don't meet arbitrary prescriptivist rules for "correct" speech.

The BBC, Independent, and other news outlets recently reported the results of a pseudo-scientific study about "filler words."

"Pseudo-scientific" is overly kind. The study was apparently conducted by a marketing firm on behalf of a website, so it's really just a company taking advantage of the press for free advertising. This is a cursory list of obvious problems with the study.

Perceptions of language ≠ productions of language

The "study" surveys people's perceptions of their usages of linguistic features and presents them as facts about their productions of linguistic features. The absurdity of this should be obvious, since the "study" finds that 23 percent of people "don't realise they're using [filler words]" at the same time that it reports situations and demographics where people realise they're using "filler words." In other words, the "study" says, "People don't know when they say err, and those same people say they say err when they're on a date." You can't study what people actually do by asking them what they do. You must study them doing the thing.

The "study" design doesn't meet basic scientific standards

The "study" apparently showed people two videos of the same person giving talks about Brexit, one factual speech with "filler words" and one false speech without "filler words." As a basic methodological principle, you cannot tell people what an experimental condition is and then examine their responses to it. The method in this "study" of language is analogous to giving a person a trial medication and a placebo, telling them which is which, and then asking them whether they feel like the trial medication or the placebo worked better. That's obviously bad science. Beyond that, we'd need to know how the researchers identified the "filler words" included and whether there were other cues to the speakers' perceived confidence (like body language), not to mention conflating factors like informant demographics and attitudes toward Brexit. And the genre of speech matters, too: people like respond differently to someone using "filler words" in a situation where prepared remarks are expected (like a speech on major international policy) than they do in a spontaneous conversation.

The researchers don't know language

The "study" problematically conflates many different kinds of language under the label "filler words," revealing that they have no knowledge of the tremendous body of science about language. For instance, there are many different versions of the word like:

  1. He was like forty years old.
  2. I was like, "This is not good."
  3. Like, what do you want to do?

In (1), like carries an approximer function, so that the man is 'approximately, but not exactly, forty years old.' In (2), like introduces a quotation that captures the spirit and general idea of what was said, but may not be literally word-for-word. In (3), like functions as a focuser, which points the hearer toward the importance of the clause that immediately follows it.

These are not fresh insights into like. There's a whole Wikipedia page about like with a great bibliography of some of the work linguists have done on it. The fact, though, that this marketing gimmick conflated these very different forms of like under the heading "filler words" reveals the lack of knowledge about language and linguistics.

Indeed, there's real science behind every word that this "study" calls "filler." umm, for instance, is a hard-working discourse particle that helps govern conversation. People say umm in part to signal that they're still talking and that it's not yet someone else's "turn" to talk. Linguists refer to this as "floor management"--managing who "holds the floor" during conversational turn-taking. innit isn't "filler" at all. It is an innovation in British English that functions like a "tag question," but also indicates a speaker's strong feelings about the statement they've just made. It's lumped in as "filler" by the "study," because innit is associated with young people and the speech of young people is socially stigmatized.

"filler words" and future study

I take three points from reading the reports of this "study" in British media:

  1. Media must remain vigilant to being duped into handing out free advertisements to companies on the basis of phony science.
  2. Linguists have much more work to do to share scientific knowledge about language with the public.
  3. There are no "filler words" in language. Every linguistic utterance means something and is doing something to make language work.

September 02, 2018

The Real News about Fake News

Summary

The term fake news has two meanings. When mainstream media like BBC, the Times, and CNN say fake news, they mean ‘fabricated stories on social media.’ When politicians associated with the political right say fake news, they ‘mean mainstream media like BBC, The Times, and CNN, which are biased in favour of liberalism.’ When mainstream media talk about fake news, they reinforce this second meaning, and de-legitimate themselves as an instrument to protect democracy.

Data

What mainstream media mean when they say fake news

  1. A Nexis search on 12 August 2018 found 21 unique stories with the term fake news.
  2. Three of these 21 were quotes attributed to Donald Trump, 2 were attributed to MP Judith Collins, and 1 to an attendee at a rally. One was in a story by Russian state media, which probably shouldn’t count as mainstream media. The remaining 14 were straightforward instances of news stories discussing fake news.
  3. The remaining 14 stories used fake news to refer to fabricated stories in online media, especially in India, where such stories contributed to lynchings. Other stories used fake news in a more general sense for fabricated news, as in Conor Brady’s editorial in The Times:
There can come a point at which a convergence of populist pressures, the attenuation of resources and the gathering of existential fears will combine to render the watchdogs toothless, opening the way for the purveyors of rumour, untruth and fake news.

What right-wing politicians mean when they say fake news

  1. Donald Trump first used the term fake news on Twitter on 10 December 2016. As of 12 August 2018, he had used it in 259 tweets.
  2. 40 of those 259 tweets name CNN. Most of these do not respond to anything that was reported on CNN, but simply invoke the name:
  • Trump invokes CNN as a metonym. CNN is symbolic for all mainstream media, which (in this meaning of fake news) report news according the liberal biases of reporters, rather than reporting facts. This is indicative of a strategy by politicians associated with the political right to cast all mainstream media as biased in favour of the political left.

What happens when mainstream media report on fake news

  1. When a news story uses the term fake news, it reinforces the term as being part of the public vocabulary. So, when news stories talk about fake news, they legitimate the label, fake news.
  2. When the mainstream media and right-wing politicians use the same word, it seems like they are talking about the same thing. In other words, when mainstream media use the term fake news to describe fabricated news and right-wing politicians use the term to describe the mainstream media, it appears that they are agreeing with each other.
  3. This means that each time mainstream media media like BBC, the Times, and CNN talk about "fake news," they confirm the realness of fake news.
  4. By reinforcing the realness of fake news, mainstream media legitimate the claims of Trump and other politicians associated with the political right that fake news is a large problem. Therefore, the mainstream media provide a foundation for claims that mainstream media are fake news. By attempting to differentiate themselves from fabricated information, mainstream media are perpetuating politicians’ attempts to de-legitimate them.

Conclusion

Fake news is a problem. But the bigger problem is that fake news has two meanings, and the mainstream media are helping politicians de-legitimate the mainstream media by reinforcing the politically motivated meaning of fake news. The mainstream media are thereby supporting their own dissolution as an instrument to protect democracy.


June 17, 2018

The Dr. is in the house…but not in the news

Writing about web page https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44496876

The BBC reported on 15 June 2018 that “the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail had proposed to change its house style to only refer to medical doctors by their titles.” On 16 June 2018, the story also said, “In BBC style, the title Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant.” (I only note this because, when I initially read the story on 15 June 2018, I’m sure that it said that the new Globe and Mail policy was consistent with BBC style guidelines, so I believe there’s an unacknowledged amendment to the originally published version.)

The story examined a “row” that followed a tweet by Dr. Fern Riddell, who noted that it was appropriate for media to use the title of address that she has earned rather than to arbitrarily re-title her. The BBC predictably framed the story as two-sided conflict, highlighting sexist attacks via Twitter on Dr. Riddell by men and inspiration PhDs who were women had taken from Dr. Riddell’s advocacy.

The way a story is framed affects the way we think about it (obviously). The BBC frames the Globe and Mail’s style decision and the various resultant tweets as a two-sided conflict, so we are channeled to interpret all information in the context of that two-sided conflict. Our role is to read the story and pick which side has won and then, of course, join that side. It’s very difficult to interpret information through a different frame than the one we’re given.

In the case of this story, we’re missing a fairly obvious conclusion: The Globe and Mail (and BBC) are stupid for using titles in stories at all. They should update their style guides to simply use last names. Here’s why:

1. Honorifics are unnecessary in news.

Titles like “Mr,” “Ms,” “Dr” etc. are a fairly lame form of honorifics. Some languages have really interesting honorific systems, but English hasn’t had much going on in the honorifics department since thou got eaten up by you.

All honorifics do social work. In English, these titles help us out in a space where we need to address someone by their name, but it might be impolite to address them by their first name. So we need them for formality, to bridge social distance, etc. Strictly cultural stuff that helps us be polite.

But the news is under no obligation to be polite. News isn’t normally addressed from one person to another the way conversation is. News isn’t supposed to make people feel nice. It’s supposed to be detached and objective. The news can do that better without honorifics.

2. Titles like “Mr” etc. don’t add anything to the news.

A news story uses names so that readers know who did what and/or what happened to whom. Titles don’t provide any referential help beyond what we already get from a person’s last name. Consider:

  1. Dr. Riddell received hostile emails.
  2. Ms Riddell received hostile emails.
  3. Miss Riddell received hostile emails.
  4. Riddell received hostile emails.

There’s absolutely no difference in the way that the three possibilities refer. Each one has the exact same subject, and there’s no way that a reader could interpret the referent of (4) as different from the referents of (1)-(3).

News writing is supposed to be concise. Word counts and character counts are supposedly at a premium. Here is a case where writers can cut one word out of their stories for every single time they refer to a person.

Somewhat bizarrely in the BBC story, Dr. Riddell is referred to by her first name, “Fern.” It would be interesting to know if she recommended this, or if they adopted it as a strategy on their own. If BBC did it on their own, they’d better refer to “Jeremy” in the next story they write about Labour.

3. Dropping all titles gives the media a really easy way to be progressive.

Or, at least, to appear progressive. Or just not actively regressive.

Look, we can agree that it’s stupid to give women a title on the basis of whether or not they’re hitched, and that if we were starting English today we wouldn’t do the Miss/Mrs thing. Right? And we’re 30ish years past that being an interesting thing to say? Yeah?

Ok, good. So now we can acknowledge at least that the title system we have doesn’t cover everybody. For instance, people under 18. (I dare you to post that we should call 5-year-old boys Master.) Also people who are/identify as transgender, non-gender-conforming, ungendered, cross-gender, etc.

At some point, the news must handle these. I mean, at a really banal level, there’s some copy editor somewhere wringing their hands over who to conform to the style guide in a story about a thirteen-year-old who identifies as transgender. But at a bigger level, some day some news board of directors is going to debate how to position the outlet’s position on social issues and how the readers will take their activism (or not) and how advertisers will react.

Or just quit using titles, and they never have to deal with it. So, in the interest of lazy self-interest, news media should drop all titles of address period.

4. There’s no way to apply a style guide on titles consistently.

In the case of the BBC’s stated style guide--“Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant”--it’s unclear how the relevance standard would be determined. I’ve been interviewed for the news a few times. In each case, I got interviewed about the stuff that my PhD is in. So my “Dr” is directly relevant. (Which is the point Dr. Riddell was making with her initial tweet.) I guess maybe if I was interviewed about baseball, they wouldn’t use “Dr”--but why on earth would I be interviewed about baseball? (I dislike the shift, btw.)

And what about titles like “Reverend” or “Lieutenant Colonel”? These are often used in American media at least, and I suspect that few news outlets would welcome the right-wing backlash that would accompany a story about the liberal media disrespecting veterans by refusing to call them by the titles they earned. But PhDs earned the title “Dr,” so “earning it” is not going to be a standard applied to all people equally.

And if you use “Dr” because the person is a medical doctor then what you’re saying is the important part of the address is really disambiguating their profession. But then why not refer to “Joiner Smith” in a story about carpentry, or “Nurse Jones” in the same medial story where you quoted Dr. Thomas?

And then suddenly you’ve painted yourself back into the corner of gendered address, since “doctor” is traditionally gendered male and “nurse” is traditionally gendered female.

In short, the Globe and Mail, BBC, and all other news outlets just dump titles.

Last names are enough, and they’re better.


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