Field of Science


I have never been good at coming up with titles for articles. When writing for newspapers or magazines, I usually leave it up to the editor. There is some danger that comes with this, however.

Last week, I wrote a piece for Scientific American about similarities across languages. This piece was then picked up by Salon, which re-ran the article under a new title:
Chomsky's "Universal Language" is incomplete. Chomsky's theory does not adequately explain why different languages are so similar.
I agree that this is snappier than any title I would have come up with. It's also perhaps a bit snappier than the one Scientific American used. It's also dead wrong. For one, there is no such thing as Chomsky's "Universal Language." Or if there is, presumably it is love. Or maybe mathematics. Or maybe music. The term is "Universal Grammar."

If you squint, the subtitle isn't exactly wrong. In the article, I do claim that standard Universal Grammar theory's explanation of similarities across languages isn't quite right. But the title implies that UG suggests that languages are not that similar, whereas the real problem with UG is that -- at least on standard interpretations -- it suggests that languages should be more similar than they actually are.

I sent in a letter to "corrections" at Salon, and the title has now been switched to something more correct. The moral of the story? Apparently writing good titles really is just very hard.

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