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  • Why we misread

    Shortly after 10 a.m. EDT on June 28, FOXNews and CNN erroneously reported that the US Supreme Court had invalidated the Affordable Care Act. Simultaneously, Scotusblog, which was live-blogging the last Supreme Court session of the 2011 term, correctly announced that the Court had upheld most of the ACA.

     Screenshots of CNN and FOX headlines and banners announcing that the health care mandate was struck down

    Collage of CNN and FOX screenshots of mistaken headlines and banners. (A subsequent Scotusblog reconstruction of media reports that day can be found here.)

    The networks that rushed to judgment were widely criticized for failing to read far enough into the 59-page opinion before reporting it. Their error initially led many, including Pres. Obama, to think that the health care bill was dead. Granted the health care opinion is long and intricate (the opinion, concurrences, and dissents fill 193 pages), but we find out in the middle of page two that the ACA is “affirmed in part and reversed in part.” That should have been a clue. But since everyone seemed sure that the conservative wing of the Court was going to trash the health care law, and the Roberts opinion did say that the individual mandate could not be upheld under the Constitution’s commerce clause, FOX and CNN simply reported what they were pretty sure the Court was going to say. It was a true “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment. 

    Pres. Obama holds up an iPad with CNN's erroneous report on the screen

    Not long after FOXNews and CNN misreported the Supreme Court’s health care decision, this remix of the classic “Dewey Defeats Truman” photo appeared on the internet, with Pres. Obama holding up an iPad (in November, 1948, Truman held up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune).

    But it lasted only a moment. Scotusblog received the ACA opinion at 10:07 and at 10:08 correctly announced “the individual mandate survives as a tax” to the more than 800,000 readers logged on to its site, and at 10:10 it reported, “the entire ACA is upheld, with the exception that the federal government’s power to terminate states’ Medicaid funds is narrowly read.” 

    You don’t have to be a speed reader to find out what the Court said. It took me about a minute to scan the opinion syllabus and reach this statement, on page 4: “the individual mandate may be upheld as within Congress’s power under the Taxing Clause.”

    We’ve long known that language mistakes illuminate linguistic structure. In the same way, reading mistakes tell us a lot about how reading works, and they’re an important reminder to writers of what we should expect when we launch a text into the world.

    An editor once told me, if something you write can be misunderstood, you will have at least one reader who will misunderstand it. But it seems to me that just about anything anyone says or writes can be misunderstood. Teachers are often amazed when students report back to them on tests and papers what they purportedly said in class. A colleague once told me her favorite student reinterpretation of a grammar rule: Never begin a sentence with a preposition. Even the clearest of statements, like a STOP sign, mean everything from stop to totally pause to look around to see if there’s a cop.

    stop sign

    Even language as apparently explicit as a stop sign is read to mean a variety of things, from “come to a complete stop as evidenced by your pre-synchromesh ability to shift into first gear,” as I learned it, to “totally pause,” as Cher defines it in “Clueless.”

    Here’s an even better Supreme Court example. In the landmark case of Washington, DC, v. Heller (2008), the Court struck down the District of Columbia’s long-standing handgun ban on the grounds that it violated the Second Amendment guarantee of a right to bear arms. The Court split 5-4 in Heller, reflecting the conservative and liberal biases of the justices and leaving many gun control laws in doubt. But Heller teaches another lesson: that two groups of highly-educated jurists, who have spent their entire professional lives interpreting the language of the law, looked at the same 27-word sentence that is the Second Amendment and came to exactly opposite conclusions about its meaning. Since majority rules in such decisions, the opinion of the five conservative justices becomes the law, while the minority view becomes a legal footnote. But it also means that five justices read the amendment correctly, and four misread it.

    And here are some personal examples. On June 24 I posted “Grammar sticklers may have OCD” on the Web of Language. Six days later it had gotten 14,000 page views. One reader tweeted a line from “Grammar Sticklers,” adding her personal approval of what she thought I said: “'It’s bad English that’s sick, not correcting it.’ Exactly” (emphasis added). True, I wrote “It’s bad English that’s sick, not correcting it,” but my intention was ironic. The reader missed the contextual cues, perhaps because the line affirms her own belief, as she put it, “exactly.” It occurred to me that I was getting so many page views—most of my posts are lucky to get 1,000 views in the first month—because readers were missing other cues as well. That did not surprise me.

    And another: a couple of years ago I wrote a Web of Language post reporting that the House of Representatives had passed H.R. 401, a bill to ban texting in Spanish. It too got a lot of page views. Right now the count is over 11,000 and growing.

    I think both these posts proved popular because readers could see in them what they wanted to see: that there’s something wrong with people who hyperfocus on grammatical error (or that correcting “mistakes” is a good thing); they easily imagine a House of Representatives so influenced by Tea Party ideology that it could ban foreign-language texting (or they imagine that such a ban would be a good thing). But it occurs to me that the errors of FOX, CNN, inattentive students, or readers with an agenda are errors that we all make when we read. Mistakes are a natural part of reading. We misread because we’re rushed, tired, distracted, bored, pressured, or because we believe before we start that we know what the text will say.

    There’s another basic reason why we misread: as we see so clearly from the "Nancy" cartoon below, we may share the same language as a speaker or writer, but not everyone shares exactly the same vocabulary, not to mention the same presuppositions, contexts, and experiences, and so our words must always be received to some extent obliquely. That’s why, when I’m asked to stop for bread on my way home, I often buy the wrong kind. And it’s why so many grocery shoppers walk the store aisles with a cell phone in one hand and a shopping list in the other, asking someone on the other end what exactly they’re supposed to buy.

    Nancy cartoon

    This old “Nancy” comic on metaphor shows that we can never expect our audience to share our assumptions about what words mean.

    Given the impediments to accurate reading, it’s amazing that we get anything right at all when we communicate. And yet sometimes we do, because we can ask for clarification, or because a judicial or religious authority tells us what a text is supposed to mean. It also turns out that misreading is fundamental to how reading works. But not to worry if you read this post and come away with a different message altogether. That message may be as valid as the one I intended (although I doubt it). Plus, I’m sure I do the same when I read something that you write.

    Update: In the end, the FOXNews/CNN misreading may not have made much difference. According to a Pew Research Center poll, "an astonishing 45 percent of respondents...either wrongly believed that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Obamacare (15 percent) or didn't know how the court had ruled (30 percent)." 

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