Eggcorn alarm from 2004
While searching for a study reported in BBC News about teenagers and
the paucity of their vocabulary, I came across the National Literacy
Trust site, which has a database of media items on language-related
topics -- many of them, alas, old acquaintances that we have already
savaged in Language Log. Among them was a somewhat fevered story
from the Telegraph
about the "mass dyslexia" induced by... eggcorns.
What set me searching was this very brief piece
on BBC News (with a quiz you can take):
Teenagers use just 20 words for a third
of their speech, according to a new study by Lancaster University.
And their vocabulary is peppered with slang that can seem - to those
old enough to vote and to drink legally - incomprehensible.
Test yourself on the slang used by the teens in the study.
You don't need to write us about this story. We're on it, and
we'll report on it when we have some actual details.
It did occur to me that this could merely be a report on the frequency
of the most frequent words in English, in general. If you look at
the Brown Corpus word frequencies and add up the corpus percentages for
the top 20 words (listed below), they account for 31% of the words in
the corpus. But that would be ridiculous, and it wouldn't
distinguish teenagers from the rest of us, so what would be the point?
The Brown top 20: the, of, and, to, a,
in, that, is, was, he, for, it, with, as, his, on, be, at, by, I
While I was thrashing about on the net, i came across the National
Literacy Trust and this
from 2004, which I'll divide into two pieces:
Howlers of modern English usage
As part of compiling the 11th edition
of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, researchers discovered an increasing
confusion over simple words and phrases. One in five believes we should
'tow' the line instead of 'toe' the line. A further 10% 'pour' over a
book when we should 'pore' over it. The alarming increase in 'mass
dyslexia' was picked up by the dictionary's 100 researchers worldwide
on the look out for new words. As they searched the Oxford English
Corpus, a database of 400 million written words, they discovered that
while spelling remained reasonably strong, more and more writers were
mixing up like-sounding words and phrases. 'They are not so much
spelling the words wrongly, as using the wrong words,' Angus Stevenson,
the dictionary's co-editor said.
Yes, they're eggcorns, famous ones, and only 8 months before these
, right here on Language Log.
I'm suspicious about the things-are-getting-worse tone of the piece,
though: "increasing confusion", "alarming increase", "more and more
writers". Did the COD researchers actually have comparative data
showing that more people were writing "tow the line" and "pour over a
book" when the COD11 data were collected than they did, say, twenty
years before? (It's not particularly hard to find such things
from fifty years ago, though I have no idea of their frequencies
then.) Or were they merely alarmed at the 20% figure for toe
and the 10% figure for pore
? I wouldn't be at all
surprised if the percentages for these items were rising, since (like
other frequent eggcorns) they make a lot of sense to people and so
would be inclined to spread -- but is there any evidence on the
Now, the rest of the story:
His team believes that the chief
explanation was the use of the computer spell check, which does not
spot errors of meaning. He also thought that the explosion of the
numbers of people writing, mainly due to the internet, meant that more
errors were bound to creep in. Whether such mistakes will, in time,
spill over into more formal types of writing is yet to be seen. The
question is: does it matter if in a generation's time people are
writing about 'pouring over magazines' or 'towing the line'?
The findings come after a campaign, backed by Bill Cosby, the American
actor, began to stop British children from speaking patois in class. A
south London school is piloting a scheme to ban slang, often based on
the creole spoken in the West Indies, because it is thought to
contribute to the educational failure of black pupils.
(Telegraph, 8 June 2004)
The explanation in terms of spell checking programs isn't entirely
clear to me. The assumption seems to be that people used to learn
to spell the hard way, by endless drill and correction by teachers and
editors, until they got it right, but now they rely on spell checkers
to fix things for them, so that errors like toe
no longer get caught.
This isn't entirely implausible, but is it true? Did students
used to get a lot of correction on such items that would lead them to
change their practice? Do they not get that now?
The question of whether, ceteris paribus, spelling is getting worse is
not an easy one to answer. There are a number of corrections that
have to be made before things are roughly equal -- to take into account
the opening up of higher education to a much wider segment of the
population after World War II, for example, and to adjust for the much
wider appearance of informal writing in public in recent years, on the
net in particular. The materials that are being compared have to
be similar in character.
There's certainly a widespread PERCEPTION
are sliding downhill. But that doesn't make it so.
In any case, as the Telegraph
piece asks, does it really matter if toe
go most of the way to
completion? The expressive resources of the language will not
have narrowed, and people will still understand one another (so long as
they're behaving cooperatively). Things change in a tiny
way. That's no Sign of the Apocalypse, just business as usual.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 14, 2006 08:24 PM