October 08, 2005

Many are discretely called, but few decline and agree?

I almost missed this one, since my normal news outlets don't include AFP anymore, but Richard Hershberger sent the link along. The context is a 10/5/2005 story entitled "Ig Nobels to honour strange science".

The winners are discretely contacted beforehand to give them an opportunity to decline. It is a testament to the growing prestige of the event that very few turn down the offer and agree to attend at their own expense.

Don't be distracted by the simple spelling problem in the first sentence, where the writer probably meant that the winners are contacted discreetly, i.e. in a circumspect and private way, rather than discretely, i.e. separately rather than as an undifferentiated mass. The real fun is in the second sentence, which literally means something much further from what the writer must have intended.

I wonder whether this might have been the result of editing in a hurry. After all, these two phrases are pretty much synonymous in isolation:

a. Nearly all accept the offer.
b. Very few turn down the offer.

but the context of conjoined verb phrases changes things:

a. Nearly all accept the offer and agree to attend at their own expense.
b. Very few turn down the offer and agree to attend at their own expense.

Luckily for the writer, (s)he is anonymous. I guess this is also lucky for the editor, come to think of it.

[Update: Jean Véronis suggests another explanation: perhaps the errors result from hasty translation. My understanding is that multi-lingual news agencies like A(gence) F(rance) P(resse) produce most of their stories independently in their different language bureaus, rather than translating stories from one language to another -- so that these feeds are not a good source of genuinely parallel text for statistical machine-translation training -- but some pieces are sometimes translated, more or less loosely. In this case, Jean found a French-language AFP story with similar structure:

Les gagnants sont alors discrètement contactés avant la cérémonie pour leur laisser la possibilité de décliner cette offre. Mais en fait ils sont peu nombreux à résister à cette récompense et sont même beaucoup à venir recevoir leur prix en personne et à leurs propres frais.

This easily explains the spelling mistake with "discretely". The conjunction mistake in the next sentence is a little harder, since the French original (if the story indeed was originally in French rather than the other way around) shifts the quantified agent from the "few in number" who refuse the award to the "many" who come at their own expense. However, the French sentence uses a construction that is at best awkward in English: "in fact they are few in number to refuse this award, and indeed many to come and receive their prize in person and at their own expense." So perhaps the mistake resulted from trying to get the quantifiers into the subject position where English wants them to be.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 8, 2005 07:50 AM