Thursday, April 27, 2006

WORDS: Brrrraaawk! Polly Wants a Copy of The Elements of Style!

I was first drawn in to this article in The Globe and Mail, not just because it's about grammar, but because it's about teaching grammar to birds, which is kind of nifty, if you ask me. I mean, it's not teaching an orangutan to smoke a cigar while reading a tricycle, but it's a pretty cool party trick nonetheless.

According to journalist Seth Borenstein:
While many animals can roar, sing, grunt or otherwise make noise, linguists have contended for years that the key to distinguishing language skills goes back to our elementary school teachers and basic grammar.
But don't get too cocky, Big Head. We're not so special after all. Apparently, researchers (with way too much free time and government grants than are good for them, I'd reckon) have taught common starlings to recognize "the most basic of grammar in their own bird language." He doesn't say if the birds then go on to learn to recite bad poetry or write in their diaries, but I imagine it's inevitable. I'm not one to advocate keeping birds in captivity, but I really hope they don't release those poetry-reciting ones into the wild. Or into my neighbourhood, anyway.

Have you ever noticed, though, how an article about something like spelling or grammar or whatever suddenly makes you hyper-aware of spelling and grammer grammar and whatever, particularly as evidenced in the article you're reading? Like, in just my first pass-through of this piece, I noticed a few glaring... well, I don't know if I'd call them mistakes, exactly. Let's just call them "things I wouldn't write if I were a SCIENCE journalist purportedly getting PAID for what I write."*

1.
Sentences that contain an explanatory clause are something that humans can recognize, but not animals, researchers figured.
Last time I checked, weren't human beings also animals? Sorry to sound peevish, but this is a minor beef of mine. (Get it? Beef? Not really? Okay.)

2.
To put the trained starlings' grammar skills in perspective, Mr. Gentner said they do not match up to either of his sons, ages 2 and 9 months.
Ages 2 and 9 months? Two months and 9 months? Two years and 9 months? Sloppy, sloppy. But I'm sure it's better than a trained starling could do.

3.
But starlings may be more apt vocalizers, however, and have a better grasp of language than non-human primates.
Mr. Borenstein. You can have the "but" or you can have the "however." You cannot have both, sir.

Yes, I'm being nitpicky. It's what I DO.


*Note how this sentence craftily absolves me from adhering to my own high standards. Well played, if I say so myself.

6 comments:

Tobias said...

"Have you ever noticed, though, how an article about something like spelling or grammar or whatever suddenly makes you hyper-aware of spelling and grammer and whatever, particularly as evidenced in the article you're reading?"

You misspelled grammar (the second time)! Oh the irony! The best part of it is not so much that you made a mistake, because it happens, whatever, but that in my browser, the misspelled grammar was almost precisely beneath the correct one in the next line, like my browser was DARING me to miss the mistake. Cheeky bastard, my browser.

Griffin said...

Check this out...

According to the AP, Prairie Dogs have a word for 'human.'

Doppelganger said...

Er, I have no idea WHAT you're talking about, Tobias.

Griffin, that comes as no surprise to me. I've always believed prairie dogs are smarter than they let on.

fshk said...

Actually that first sentence kind of sounds like humans can't recognize animals.

(As a science editor, I run into this kind of stuff all the time. Science people are often not so good with the writing.)

J said...

I loved the prairie dog article!

P.S. Did you see the ad to the side for a "Gothic Graveyard Garden?" Seriously, what demographic are they targeting? Possessed preschoolers? Sinister Seniors?

Only 24.99!

Amanda said...

I'm not sure if it was this way in the original article, or if you merely neglected to type the apostrophe, but sample 2 should also contain an apostrophe after "sons".

Hopefully, the researcher is comparing the starlings' grammar skills to his sons' grammar skills. Not merely comparing the starlings' grammer skills to his sons.