New York Times on the PSAT Glitch

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Jun 2 00:43:13 UTC 2003

john baker reproduces geoff nunberg's piece in today's NYT
Week in Review, adding
  >This is forwarded without the permission of the New York Times,
 >but I notice that the New York Times didn't bother getting the
 >permission of the American Dialect Society or its members to use
 >their contributions on ADS-L.

well, he had my permission to use my stuff.  we've been mailing
back and forth on this since the flap started.  (larry horn and
tom wasow, and probably some others, also took part in this
exchange with geoff nunberg.  [i have to specify geoff *nunberg*
because geoff *pullum* is also trying to get something published
on the subject.])

i can't recall an occasion when journalists asked for permission
to paraphrase material from this mailing list.

writers usually give *credit* where credit is due, but editors very
often cut these citations, and on simple matters of fact - such as the
fact that possessive antecedents for pronouns occur routinely in the
NYT and the New Yorker - editors discourage such citations (though
they expect you to have the evidence to back up what you said and to
satisfy the publication's fact checkers).  a significant part of
journalism is getting stuff to fit into small spaces.

another significant part of journalism is writing for the specific
audience for a publication.  the NYT was not especially interested in
the linguistics of the matter (though geoff n. managed to get a fair
amount of linguistics into the piece); it was the political angles
that the staff thought would interest its readers.

a sad side fact in all of this is that linguists are widely regarded
in the media (and by more intellectual publications like the American
Scholar, Harper's, etc.) as being partisan, even fanatic.  the problem
is that we claim to know some truths about language, and trumpet them,
even when common sense, not to mention the publications of talented
amateurs, tells educated people that we are just wrong.  i doubt very
much that i could get anything of mine published in the NYT; it would
be seen as too opinionated and one-sided.  if geoff n. had mentioned
me, it might well have doomed his piece.

i *can* get some things published, but in Out magazine, where i get
some entry by being a card-carrying queer.  even then, my ability to
get published there depends on having established a working
relationship with an excellent editor.  (by the way, geoff nunberg
acted as the go-between in this.)  i've written huge amounts of stuff
on language for lgb newsgroups, including one where i have
considerable standing, for more than a decade, as a good guy, known
personally to many hundreds of the readers - but, still, perfectly
ordinary claims about language, grammar, dialects, etc. sometimes meet
with deep hostility on this particular newsgroup.  this happens pretty
much any time i write, however legitimately, as the voice of
authority. (what i write for Out has a deliberately personal tone,
even if i do slip in factual claims and research results.)

sometimes, i just want to say: look, i know more about this than
anyone else in the world.  or: i can cite the work of the people who
know more about this than anyone else in the world.  i *did* once say
this to a copy editor for an extremely famous academic press, after
this editor, desperately unhappy and near to tears with my
unwillingness to accept various by-the-book alterations in my writing,
burst out with the admission that "they *told* me linguists were
difficult to work with".

arnold (zwicky at, noting that geoff nunberg
  is viewed by many people as a loony liberal propagandist, suitable
  only for doctrinaire-left outlets like NPR and the NYT

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