Monday, February 20, 2017

"Fake news" and the fluidity of language, which I always hate

If you are reading this, there is a reasonably high likelihood that you are a student, and at some point, I have hassled you about proper grammar when using the following words:  media and data.  Those words are the plural forms of, respectively:  medium and datum.  Now, conjugate the verb, "to be."

Proper grammar:  The media are Donald Trump's enemies because Donald Trump is a pathological liar.

Improper grammar:  The media is Donald Trump's enemy because Donald Trump is a pathological liar.

There are basically two schools of thought on the use of language.  One school says that we should let it change over time in accordance with common usage.  I say that members of that school should be flogged.  Language only works with rules.

Great book:  Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  It is a reference to a mis-typed sign on a panda enclosure in a zoo.  Did you catch the extra comma, which changes the meaning?  Instead of eating plant material, a panda walks into a room, eats, shoots a gun, and walks out.  (How it does so without a normal thumb is another matter...)  Language requires rules.  Now, I love jazz.  You may have noticed.  Jazz breaks rules, but what happens when you take away all of the rules?  You get "free jazz."  Cecil Taylor.  Pure noise.  Garbage.  Even in jazz, rules provide structure, and without minimal structure, you are just a naked emperor, banging away pointlessly on a piano, pretending to create art, like the Jackson Pollack of sound.

Language requires rules.  Some rules can be broken because breaking them does not create an "eats, shoots & leaves" problem.  I break grammatical rules on a regular basis here.  I use sentence fragments.  I use "ain't."  I use "y'all."  What I don't do is change definitions.  Why am I so hung up on the plural aspect of "media?"  Aside from the arthropod in my gastrointestinal track?  It is a substantive point.  The fact that there are multiple organizations within "the media" makes generalizing about them substantively incorrect.  It is a point that we must always remember.  "Data" refers to a plural form because it (the word) is fundamentally about many observations.  That's the key aspect of the word.  These are intrinsic points.  Meaning matters.

And this brings me to "fake news."  (See how I broke a grammatical rule there without it mattering?)  The term has a meaning.  It refers to a made-up news story that didn't happen, sensationalized.  Pizzagate was a "fake news" story.  There was no child sex trafficking operation running out of a pizza parlor, much less one connected to Hillary Clinton.  The Obama birth certificate thing was "fake news."

Trump, though, latched onto the term after Flynn's even dumber kid had to be kicked off the Trump transition team because he was a pizzagate-truther.  Trump has taken to calling any news story he doesn't like "fake news," and so have all of his surrogates.

Now, one can imagine the following definition of "fake news," which actually fits their usage:  a news story which is either biased in its telling, or over-emphasized.  If words are defined by their usage, then Trump and his surrogates are redefining "fake news" in that manner, and everybody else is helpless to stop it because that's how language works, fluid as it is.

And that is the same argument behind the claim that "media" is now a singular noun because people use it that way.

To Donald Trump, his surrogates, and those who insist on treating media, data, and other similar words as though they are singular rather than plural:  STOP FUCKING WITH MY LANGUAGE!

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