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When a linguist stumbled upon a Buttonwood – A Review on an Economist article

Raymond Cheng

Desktop (c) Martin Molenkamp
Photo © Martin Molenkamp

I stumbled upon this old Buttonwood article [1a] the other day and, as a language and cultural briefing consultant, I just can't help not sharing in here what I got after reading it. But before I start, I need to make it very clear that I am not in anyway against anyone's freedom of speech, freedom of press, or anything similar. What I intend to do here is to share with you how the use of grammar in the Buttonwood text had possibly helped or hindered the realization and communication of meanings.

So let's start from the tiny little building blocks – the words.

A glance at the words

The lexical choice (or in plain English, the choice of wordings) in a text often reflects subconsciously, as Eggins (2004, p. 29) suggests, the true intentions of the author and his writing goals. The semantic prosody [1b] of the words chosen, together with the use of tense, aspect, voice and modality may therefore be worth studying if one needs to accurately interpret and analyze what the author is trying to say, or hide from the readers. In the Buttonwood case, a few words and terms caught my attention. They are "central banks", "believe passionately", and "free markets".

Let's check them out.

According to the Economist's official website, the newspaper "believed in free trade, internationalism and minimum interference by government, especially in the affairs of the market." [1c] The Buttonwood text, however, used the term "central banks" repeatedly throughout the text instead of "banks", "financial institutions" or "monetary authorities". A quick corpus search using COCA [2] confirms that the term "central bank" has collocates like "crisis" and "debt" and has a semantic preference with negative words like "rumors", "losses", "control", "credit crunch", "concerned", "weakened", "discouraged", "serious", "worse", "dropped", and "failed" etc, see concordance lines for "central bank".

While there is nothing wrong with using the term "central bank", the author did use it as if its role were absolutely positive and constructive in a free market (see Table 1 below).

Examples of "central bank" from the Buttonwood text
... central banks can and should do more to counteract bubbles ...
... central banks and governments have to intervene when credit growth and asset prices start dancing their toxic two-step ...
... central banks need to be willing to inflict enough pain ... so that they (investors) change their attitudes ...

Table 1. Examples of "central bank" from the Buttonwood text

The seemingly contradictory use of the terms, if not deliberately marked, remind us of one important concept – with "central bank" comes the discussion of "planned economy", not "free market." And maybe this explains why the author has to start by saying, "economists believe passionately in the principle of free markets." Had the author really believed in the concept of free markets, he would have used the adverb "firmly" or "sensibly", or simply omitted the adverb. A further search down the corpus reveals something even more intriguing. The phrases, "believe passionately" and "believed passionately", actually carry different semantic prosodies. The present form "believe passionately" is related to ideas that are either negative, wrong, mistaken or has a sense of negation whereas the past form "believed passionately" relates to ideas that are encouraging, constructive, and positive in nature, see concordance lines for "believe passionately" and "believed passionately".

Hmm... so that means when The Economist says in their website, "(the newspaper) believed in free trade ..." (in simple past), they mean so. Whereas in the Buttonwood text, this might just be the opposite.

There are other similar but less controversial examples in the passage too, like using the verb "allocate" (for planned economies) instead of "self-regulate" (for free markets); or "prices are set through" (by a powerful mechanism) as opposed to "prices are based on" [3] (some kind of external factors). Together with the choice of "central bank" and "believe passionately", they probably suggest that the author is not a genuine, let alone loyal, supporter of "free markets."

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Note 1a: The Buttonwood article, "The demand for financial assets is not like the demand of iPods", can be found at http://www.economist.com/node/16792858

Note 1b: See my other article on John Sinclair's lexical items

Note 1c: See "Our history" under the section "About The Economist" at http://www.economist.com/help/about-us#About_The_Economist

Note 2: The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) at Brigham Young University in Utah is created by Professor Mark Davies and is reachable at http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/

Note 3: The phrase "based on", according to COCA, is one of the most frequent collocates of the core word "price". In plain English, "based on" is more likely to be found or used together with the word "price" – and hence, in the editor's opinion, this would suggest that market prices are more likely to be decided by external factors, and not be set through a certain mechanism, in general.