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