Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Two Things I Love about Nate Silver in a Totally Non-sexual Way

First, Nate Silver (of fivethirtyeight.com) is apparently by trade a baseball statistician (write-up in NYTimes this morning). That was his training for political polling. This explains quite a bit, actually. First, it explains his strong understanding that statistics (1) are only as good as the data that goes into them and (2) are frequently mis-employed by idiots. Baseball data is notoriously finicky and slippery, and sports writers who use them are likely to do dumb things. After all, the whole sport routinely refers to a batting average of ".273" as a percentage (when it is a per-mill-age (out of a thousand), and says "a batting average of .273 percent" when they really mean "a batting average of 27.3%" or "a batting average of 273 out of a thousand." They don't mean just over one-quarter of one percent, which is what .273 percent would mean. And, of course, it's not an average of anything. It's a success rate. This background also explains some of the mistakes he has made where additional background knowledge of politics might have provided different instincts. PS, I'm irritated to find out that he is younger than I am.

But here's what made me, a language snob, very happy. This morning, in Nate Silve's review of Al Franken's chances for winning the Minnesota senate recount (down to just a 204 vote difference this morning btw), he wrote this: "For what it is worth, an 0.9 percent error rate would be fairly consistent with other studies of optical scanning systems, which are considered among the more reliable voting technologies." Note the clean phrase "an 0.9 percent error rate." That is a giveaway that he was saying the words as follows: "an oh-point-nine error rate" not as "a zero-point-nine error rate" or "a point-nine error rate." People who are too snobby to say "O" for "zero" bug me. I like this guy.

I have also seen him use correctly use the phrase "an historical election." Now, sometimes you hear some reporter saying this phrase where the "h" is aspirated as in "hiss." That is what is known as a "hypercorrection," where the speaker is applying a grammatical rule more widely than he or she should for fear of failing to apply it where needed. For example, when people say "thusly" instead of "thus" (thus is already an adverb) or overuse "whom," or use the "and I" formation where it is not appropriate, as in "she sent the package to my wife and I."

If you aspirate the "h" in "an historical,"please say and write "a historical," as you would, "a hot dog" or "a hissy-fit." The reason for the "an" rather than "a" is only if you elide the "h," so that it sounds like the word "anise." I often deal with abbreviations in my legal writing, and will use "an" before abbreviations like "SLC" or "RFP." It's natural and appropriate. I now believe that Mr. Silver elides the "h" as well. If only they could get Mike Pesca to do the same.

17 comments:

Raised By Republicans said...

"PS, I'm irritated to find out that he is younger than I am"

To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, when Mozart was my age, he'd been dead for five years.

Dr. Strangelove said...

While I cannot speak for statisticians, I believe most physicists would instinctively say "zero-point-nine." In fact, I thought "zero" was the most common usage in this context--not snobby at all. On the contrary saying "oh" in this context strikes me as the folksy or anti-intellectual affectation of a sportswriter.

But what really cracks me up is the hypercorrect usage of "an" in the phrase "an 0.9 percent." I can't believe you think that is a "clean" phrasing, LTG! If anything is "snobby" here, insisting on writing "an" surely would be it.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It's not hypercorrect to use "an" when you would say "an" - it's just plain correct. And that's my point. "An" should be used rather than "a" only when the following sound is a vowel, not a consonant. This is how you write if you are writing the way you speak. Now, there is a dialect issue here. Many African-Americans rarely, if ever, say "an," saying "a orange" or "a appple," but if you listen closely, you're hear that what's actually happening is that the "a" is tacked on to the previous word with a gap, rather than connected with the following word after a gap.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I know how to use "a" and "an" properly in written English. For example one should write, "an NBA player climbed aboard a NASA space shuttle."

But unlike "NBA" and "NASA" it is clear that "0.9" is unclear in its pronunciation. Of the many ways you could pronounce the first word, only one of them would require "an." Therefore it looks to me like an affectation.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It is unlikely to be an affectation because the vast majority of English speakers routinely say "oh," not "zero" most of the time. Perhaps you dispute this? How do you pronounce the 405 freeway? How do you prounounce "Obama in '08?" or "the '04 election?" Certainly, most people say "oh" not "zero." Most people also do the same with phone numbers, addresses, and yes, when they read statistics in the newspaper. Saying "zero" except for emphasis is rare unless it is a trained scientist speaking (the same kind who might naturally speak in metric units). In baseball (where Silver comes from) a hitter who has failed four at-bats in a game has is said to be oh-for-four and a generic oh-for score is sometimes called "ofer" in print. My zip code has an "oh" in it, not a "zero." When I read off legal citations, it is always pronounced "oh," not "zero."

I am pretty sure also that the use of "an" in writing normally just follows pronunciation. This is reasonably good evidence that Silver was hearing "oh-point-nine" in his head when he wrote it. Similarly, when you, Dr.S., write "a NASA spaceship carrying an NBA player," this is just an expression of your pronunciation.

I really hope that it does in all cases. So many people seem to not do follow their own pronunciation with "an historical." To go back to baseball, whether it is an RBI or a RBI depends (or should depend) if you say "ar-bee-eye" or "ribbee."

The Law Talking Guy said...

0.9 is not unclear in its pronunciation. It is variable. If asked to pronounce it, few would say "um, that's unclear." They would just say something. Most of the time it would be "point nine" or "oh-point-nine." The fact that it is written as "0.9" rather than ".9" (both of which are acceptable) is an indication of how the speaker/writer hears it in his/her head.

Pombat said...

You have no idea how hard it is for me to not be making some cheeky comment about Americans and language snobbery...

With examples such as those you listed LTG (405 freeway, Obama '08 etc), I would indeed say oh. However, when shown 0.9, I would say zero-point-nine, since it's being used here in a mathematical (well, statistical at least ;-p) context. Whenever I'm talking about numbers that I intend to be mathematical with, 0 is zero, to make it clear that I don't in fact mean the letter o (not that o is used that much in the kinda maths I did, probably due to that confusion, but hey - lots of i,j,k,x,y,z,a,b,c, and the entire flipping Greek alphabet featured - you're bound to get to o eventually!).

Dr. Strangelove said...

Pombat has it exactly right. Your examples of "oh" are accurate but not pertinent. Context matters here. The vast majority of English speakers do not say "oh" in the specific context we are discussing. So far as I know, the standard usage here is "zero-point-something." (Perhaps it is different among baseball fans.)

I believe we often say "oh" when "0" is used more as a numeral than as a number. That is, if "0" appears in a name (a freeway or year) or in a non-mathematical sequence (like a telephone number or zip code) then we sometimes say "oh." But when we use "0" in the mathematical sense (as a number that one could sensibly add to another number) we say "zero." For example, we do not say, "Obama won all 55 electoral votes in California while McCain received oh." We do not say the temperature fell to a frigid "oh" degrees.

Spotted Handfish said...

I just assumed you guys used "oh" because you didn't like "zed". "Its'" distressing...

The Law Talking Guy said...

Wow. I challenge any of you to go to the grocery store and ask people to pronounce "0.9" - very few will say "zero. Normally, I think people say "zero" when they are talking about the number all by itself as an integer (if reading an equation) or to distinguish it from the letter O when necessary. Otherwise, the preference for "oh" is strong. You have to recognize that scientist or mathematician speak is not typical usage. If asked to pronounce "20.02" most Americans would say "twenty point oh-two" not "twenty point zero two" or "twenty and two hundredths."

Similarly, ask them to pronounce "553.201" and they will say "five fifty-three point two-oh-one."

You are correct about "zero degrees," but that's a rather fixed phrase. Above zero and below zero (Fahrenheit). Although it is more common to say "forty degrees below" than "forty degrees below zero."

The Law Talking Guy said...

We say that Obama won 55 electoral votes in California while McCain won none.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Interesting! It seems like we just have different experiences here. I honestly would have challenged you to go to the grocery store to ask people to read the Nate Silver line aloud... I would think you would hear few people use the "oh-point-nine" pronunciation.

As an experiment, I just now handed Mr. S a piece of paper with the phrase "0.9 percent error rate" written on it. Without telling him anything else, I just asked him to pronounce it. Without hesitation he said, "zero point nine..." I asked him if that was how he normally pronounced it, and he repeated it. This proves nothing of course, but it served as a quick sanity check.

Incidentally, I sometimes say "nine-point-oh" when by itself but I would still normally say "nine-point zero percent." And I am pretty sure I don't say, "oh-point-nine" in either case. But perhaps the truth is that these preferences for "oh" and "zero" that we have in different circumstances are just more personal and less universal than we might suppose.

Dr. Strangelove said...

The British sometimes say "nought-point-nine" which just adds another dimension of fun.

Pombat said...

Ah yes, nought. Being a zero/oh person (I have been known to use both in the reading of one phone number, i.e. oh 123 zero 456), I don't use nought, but good point. Not to be confused with nowt of course.

Raised By Republicans said...

Pombat in defense of Americans, you'll notice that the brothers are the only ones of us partaking in this little debate. I think it's how they bond. ;-)

Dr. Strangelove said...

"I think it's how they bond."

Oh dear. Am I that obvious? :-)

Pombat said...

Ahhh, brotherly pedantry, is there any sweeter thing?