October 5, 2013

I refer the Honorable Member to the answer given some moments ago

There’s an interesting story in Stuff today about an increased risk of death in people who drink lots of coffee. One of the interesting things about it is that the Herald has the same story about two weeks ago. And when I say “the same story”, I mean almost word for word the same AAP story.  I wasn’t convinced then (neither was Andrew Gelman), and it hasn’t gotten any more convincing.

The other interesting thing about the story is that the research paper was published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. “What’s interesting about Mayo Clinic Proceedings?”, you ask, having never heard of it.  That’s my point. There are some scientific journals whose press releases you’d expect the media to monitor, and you’d expect to see stories about research papers with popular appeal. Mayo Clinic Proceedings is not really one of those journals, and it isn’t clear how this research came to the attention of AAP.


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar
    Martin Kealey

    Even more bizarre are the differences:
    «…according to the the University of Queensland and the University of South Carolina study…»
    «…according to the The University of Queensland and the University of South Carolina study…»
    which differs by a capitalization in the middle of a glaringly obvious grammatical error.

    I’d guess the original was something like «…according to the UoQ & UoSC study…», and the full names of the institutions were substituted without regard for context.

    ob-topic: anyone care to give me odds on this guess?

    3 years ago Reply

    • avatar
      Thomas Lumley

      I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. My guess is that the original text actually was “the University of Queensland”, with no acronym and only one definite article.

      Some tertiary institution proper names are ‘arthrous’, ie, take an article, so the institution is called “The University of Queensland”. Others (Harvard University) aren’t. Some institutions, such as The Ohio State University, feel quite strongly about the ‘the’.
      Outside the USA there is a general tendency for The University of X to also be referred to as X University, but not always. And institutions typically referred to by acronyms, such as The Australian National University (ANU) and The University of New South Wales (UNSW) lose the article in the acronym form.

      UQ (not, I think, UoQ) expands as The University of Queensland, and so “the The University of Queensland study” is ugly but grammatical. It would be preferable to write “the study from The University of Queenland and The University of South Carolina”.

      There are some relevant posts on Language Log

      (Incidentally, one of the problems with using the abbreviations is that The University of South Carolina is correctly abbreviated as USC, which is ambiguous with respect to the better-known institution in Greater Los Angeles. )

      3 years ago Reply

      • avatar
        Martin Kealey

        That same language log link points out that (an)arthrousness doesn’t trump grammatical correctness; near the bottom it says:

        “Syntactic footnote. All of the preceding was about proper names standing on their own or serving as arguments; some of these names are normally anarthrous, some normally arthrous. But other syntactic constructions can impose their own requirements. As a result, it’s easy to find instances of normally anarthrous names preceded by the, and also instances of normally arthrous names without preceding the, but these aren’t relevant to the classification of proper names with respect to arthrousness.”

        3 years ago Reply

        • avatar
          Thomas Lumley

          Yes, that’s right. I still think the mechanism for the error was what I suggested, but the link does make clear that it’s an error.

          3 years ago

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