August 01, 2007

A bulletin from the Language Log Early Warning Center

A perfect storm of linguistic misinformation is brewing. Anti-passive prejudice has merged with the mind-bending power of brain-talk, powered by careless and credulous representatives of the fourth estate, and it's coming your way.

According to Glenn Abel at Write for Blogs ("Get an active workout", 7/6/2007):

I worked with a crazy man long ago who counseled me to go through my stories and eliminate all passive verbs. I took the advice and it worked like crazy. [...]

Now comes scrientific [sic] evidence suggesting that people's brains respond to active verbs by sending signals to the appropriate body part.

Abel got his "scrientific evidence" from Chip Scanlan, "Brain Science for Writers: Active verbs move nerve cells, too", Poynter Online, 6/28/2007:

Use active verbs.

It's a prescription for writing success long promoted by writers and teachers. [...]

Earlier this week, while researching another story, I discovered a fascinating report that put this time-honored writing technique under the gaze of science.

"For more than 60 years," a 2004 story in Science News Online reported, "scientists have known that a strip of neural tissue that runs ear-to-ear along the brain's surface orchestrates most voluntary movement, from raising a fork to kicking a ball."

It turns out this part of the brain also fires up when people silently read certain words, scientists reported in the journal Neuron.

"They have to be action words -- active verbs," the Science News Online story said, a conclusion certain to cheer wordsmiths.

Scanlan in turn unearthed his information from Bruce Bower, "The Brain's Word Act: Reading verbs revs up motor cortex areas", Science News, 2/7/2004:

For more than 60 years, scientists have known that a strip of neural tissue that runs ear-to-ear along the brain's surface orchestrates most voluntary movement, from raising a fork to kicking a ball. A new brain-imaging study has revealed that parts of this so-called motor cortex also respond vigorously as people do nothing more than silently read words.

Not just any words get those neurons going, however. They have to be action words -- active verbs.

OK, let's go to the sources. (And you know what we're going to find...)

That would be two articles in Neuron -- first an editorial and then the research report. The editorial is Victor de Lafuente and Ranulfo Romo, "Language Abilities of Motor Cortex", Neuron 41(2) 178-180, 2004:

Understanding the meaning of words that relate to a motor action, such as "dance," may need more than the well-known language areas of Broca and Wernicke in the left hemisphere of the brain. In this issue of Neuron, Hauk et al. (2004) report the surprising discovery that the mere reading of action-related words also activates the motor homunculus -- a cortical region of the brain that controls voluntary movements of our different body parts. Remarkably, just the reading of feet-related action words such as "dance" makes this motor homunculus move its feet.


The results of Hauk et al. (2004) suggest that the cortical network supporting language is not localized in single areas but may involve widely distributed areas, differentially activated according to the semantic content of the word. As we have seen, the process of getting the meaning of a word engages the premotor and primary motor areas. An important question, however, is yet to be answered: is the reading task activating the motor areas just because an action and its name commonly cooccur in time (i.e., they are temporally associated), or is this a functional relation in which the motor areas play an active role in comprehension?

Interesting stuff indeed -- but you might notice that there is nothing there about "active verbs" -- instead, we're told about "words that relate to a motor action", a category that can (for example) include nouns for tools, nouns for motor actions, and verbs for motor actions in the passive as well as active voice.

The primary research report is  Olaf Hauk, Ingrid Johnsrude and Friedemann Pulvermüller, "Somatotopic Representation of Action Words in Human Motor and Premotor Cortex", Neuron 41(2) 301-307, 2004.

The strings "active verb" and "passive verb" do not occur in this article.

The lexeme "verb" occurs only once, in the literature review section:

When hemodynamic and neurophysiological imaging studies compared words referring to objects with words that have a clear semantic relationship to actions, typically action verbs ... or nouns referring to tools [...], the latter elicited strong frontal activation including premotor cortex, suggesting that the frontal activation might reflect aspects of the action-related meaning of action words [...]. If so, the cortical locus of meaning processing could be, in part, determined by the general neuroscientific principle of Hebbian learning according to which neuronal correlation is mapped onto connection strength [...]. [emphasis added]

The word "passive" occurs several times, but only in the phrases "passive reading task" and "passive word reading", which refer to the experimental paradigm in which subjects silently read visually-presented words, without taking any action. An example:

Here we use event-related fMRI to show that action words referring to face, arm, or leg actions (e.g., to lick, pick, or kick), when presented in a passive reading task, differentially activated areas along the motor strip that either were directly adjacent to or overlapped with areas activated by actual movement of the tongue, fingers, or feet.

The list of stimuli is not given, but we can infer from the examples given that most of the words were ambiguously verbs or nouns (e.g. dance, lick, kick). Some may well have been adjectives. Since the words were presented in isolation, and in their base form, the study did not in any way test whether the response to active verbs was different from the response to passive verbs, or from nouns or adjectives for that matter. All the simuli were "action words" of ambiguous lexical category, and the only independent variable manipulated was the body-part associated with the action in question.

The whole misunderstanding started because Bower misunderstood "action words" to mean "active verbs".

We'll keep an eye on this one -- my prediction is that it will gradually become part of the standard toolkit of misinformation about writing. The process may be slower because the misinterpreted research report is three years old. But hell, recent popular misinformation about the "emerging science of gender differences" was largely based on research that never took place at all!

Reading about science in the popular press (or in meta-journalistic sources like Poynter) can be depressing, if you're laboring under the misapprehension that the goal is to understand and evaluate research, and to explain things to the public in a clear and interesting way. From this perspective, what you usually see is a process of progressive misunderstanding, distortion and exaggeration -- and you might conclude that science journalists are too lazy to read the original research reports, or too stupid to understand them, or too cynical and manipulative to care whether their stories bear any particular relationship to the truth.

But this misses the point, which is not provision of information, but rather moral uplift and reinforcement of cultural norms.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 1, 2007 10:16 AM