Shortly after 10 a.m. EDT on June 28, FOXNews and CNN erroneously reported that the US Supreme Court had invalidated the Affordable Care Act. Simultaneously, Scotusblog, which was live-blogging the last Supreme Court session of the 2011 term, correctly announced that the Court had upheld most of the ACA.

The networks that rushed to judgment were widely criticized for failing to read far enough into the 59-page opinion before reporting it. Their error initially led many, including Pres. Obama, to think that the health care bill was dead. Granted the health care opinion is long and intricate (the opinion, concurrences, and dissents fill 193 pages), but we find out in the middle of page two that the ACA is "affirmed in part and reversed in part." That should have been a clue. But since everyone seemed sure that the conservative wing of the Court was going to trash the health care law, and the Roberts opinion did say that the individual mandate could not be upheld under the Constitution's commerce clause, FOX and CNN simply reported what they were pretty sure the Court was going to say. It was a true "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment. 

Not long after FOXNews and CNN misreported the Supreme Court's health care decision, this
remix of the classic "Dewey Defeats Truman" photo appeared on the internet, with Pres. Obama
holding up an iPad (in November, 1948, Truman held up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune).

But it lasted only a moment. Scotusblog received the ACA opinion at 10:07 and at 10:08 correctly announced "the individual mandate survives as a tax" to the more than 800,000 readers logged on to its site, and at 10:10 it reported, "the entire ACA is upheld, with the exception that the federal government's power to terminate states' Medicaid funds is narrowly read."

You don't have to be a speed reader to find out what the Court said. It took me about a minute to scan the opinion syllabus and reach this statement, on page 4: "the individual mandate may be upheld as within Congress's power under the Taxing Clause."

We've long known that language mistakes illuminate linguistic structure. In the same way, reading mistakes tell us a lot about how reading works, and they're an important reminder to writers of what we should expect when we launch a text into the world.

An editor once told me, if something you write can be misunderstood, you will have at least one reader who will misunderstand it. But it seems to me that just about anything anyone says or writes can be misunderstood. Teachers are often amazed when students report back to them on tests and papers what they purportedly said in class. A colleague once told me her favorite student reinterpretation of a grammar rule: Never begin a sentence with a preposition. Even the clearest of statements, like a STOP sign, mean everything from stop to totally pause to look around to see if there's a cop.

Here's an even better Supreme Court example. In the landmark case of Washington, DC, v. Heller (2008), the Court struck down the District of Columbia's long-standing handgun ban on the grounds that it violated the Second Amendment guarantee of a right to bear arms. The Court split 5-4 in Heller, reflecting the conservative and liberal biases of the justices and leaving many gun control laws in doubt. But Heller teaches another lesson: that two groups of highly-educated jurists, who have spent their entire professional lives interpreting the language of the law, looked at the same 27-word sentence that is the Second Amendment and came to exactly opposite conclusions about its meaning. Since majority rules in such decisions, the opinion of the five conservative justices becomes the law, while the minority view becomes a legal footnote. But it also means that five justices read the amendment correctly, and four misread it.

And here are some personal examples. On June 24 I posted "Grammar sticklers may have OCD" on the Web of Language. Six days later it had gotten 14,000 page views. One reader tweeted a line from "Grammar Sticklers," adding her personal approval of what she thought I said: "'It's bad English that's sick, not correcting it.' Exactly" (emphasis added). True, I wrote "It's bad English that's sick, not correcting it," but my intention was ironic. The reader missed the contextual cues, perhaps because the line affirms her own belief, as she put it, "exactly." It occurred to me that I was getting so many page views—most of my posts are lucky to get 1,000 views in the first month—because readers were missing other cues as well. That did not surprise me.

And another: a couple of years ago I wrote a Web of Language post reporting that the House of Representatives had passed H.R. 401, a bill to ban texting in Spanish. It too got a lot of page views. Right now the count is over 11,000 and growing.

I think both these posts proved popular because readers could see in them what they wanted to see: that there's something wrong with people who hyperfocus on grammatical error (or that correcting "mistakes" is a good thing); they easily imagine a House of Representatives so influenced by Tea Party ideology that it could ban foreign-language texting (or they imagine that such a ban would be a good thing). But it occurs to me that the errors of FOX, CNN, inattentive students, or readers with an agenda are errors that we all make when we read. Mistakes are a natural part of reading. We misread because we're rushed, tired, distracted, bored, pressured, or because we believe before we start that we know what the text will say.

There's another basic reason why we misread: we may share the same language as a speaker or writer, but not everyone shares exactly the same vocabulary, not to mention the same presuppositions, contexts, and experiences, and so our words must always be received to some extent obliquely. That's why, when I'm asked to stop for bread on my way home, I often buy the wrong kind. And it's why so many grocery shoppers walk the store aisles with a cell phone in one hand and a shopping list in the other, asking someone on the other end what exactly they're supposed to buy.

Given the impediments to accurate reading, it’s amazing that we get anything right at all when we communicate. And yet sometimes we do, because we can ask for clarification, or because a judicial or religious authority tells us what a text is supposed to mean. It also turns out that misreading is fundamental to how reading works. But not to worry if you read this post and come away with a different message altogether. That message may be as valid as the one I intended (although I doubt it). Plus, I’m sure I do the same when I read something that you write.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 3:24 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I liked your post. And it is very true.
Sometimes the misreading is due to a neuronal misconnection in the brain, too.
As a young child, I once brought home a dozen ORANGES instead of the ONIONS my mother had requested.
Later in life, I began to understand the cause to be ADHD. The "mishearing" can be developmental in additional to any of the other causes you listed.
I spite of an unknown diagnosis (in the 1930s), I was able to achieve the Medical Doctor degree at U of Illinois by 1962.
Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Wendy S. (St. Petersburg, FL)
All the more reason we need to write carefully, edit thoroughly and then reread at least 10 times before launching our words into cyberspace.
Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 9:20 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
FOX news and CNN misread the court ruling because they were non supporter of the Affordable Care Act. Though they argue for presenting non biased opinion yet their activity surfaced their true nature in this case.
I have seen in most of the case I misread because of my pro opinion on the subject/topic. And I think it is true for everyone. Take a survey on the issue "when we misread"-- and I believe the majority opinion will lean towards the answer "we misread because of our pro inclination of the topic."
Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 11:04 AM
Comment by: larry A.
In my youth Eugene O'Neill wrote the play "Mourning becomes Electra" For many years I puzzled over how morning could become anything other than part of a day. A curious but simply misinterpretation. It was only later I realized that the spelling was different.
Larry A.
Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm in technical writing, where (like law, I suppose) misreadings -- or let's call them alternate interpretations -- are very common. An experience that every technical writer should have is to watch someone through a one-way mirror trying to follow the writer's instructions in order to accomplish a task, i.e., watch a usability test. It's an eye-opening experience.

I love this:

"An editor once told me, if something you write can be misunderstood, you will have at least one reader who will misunderstand it."

Editors know this and cultivate, to some extent, an ability to find ways to misunderstand a text, the better to anticipate ways in which things can go wrong. (It can go overboard, of course; editors like to find ambiguity in places where most people experience have no confusion.) But it's true that writers should remember that getting across their intention perfectly is unlikely. :-)
Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Jean C. (Verdun Canada)
Wasn't it stated once that a war was lost (or won, or started) for lack of a comma?
Jean C.
Tuesday July 3rd 2012, 4:28 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
"We've long known that language mistakes illuminate linguistic structure."

As a former computer programmer having to deal with the exacting nature of programming language structure, where a syntax mistake or even a simple typing mistake of a single character can cause complete failure, I soon became sensitive to human language ambiguity.

For instance in the above quote, which I would read serially, the word "language" would be initially interpreted as a noun subject, then
"mistakes" would become a verb. From there on, I would be in trouble, until I back-tracked and put an invisible hyphen between "language" and "mistakes".

Finally, in the any communications field the concept of 'signal vs noise' can be useful in helping us understand that since we may not "receive" every word (signal) in a sentence, we should try to make sure that the important bits do "get through".
Wednesday July 4th 2012, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Theresa Y. (Atlanta, GA)
In art making, the same phenomena occurs - I create a piece to convey an idea/feeling/story, and must then let it go out into the world to have a life of it's own, allowing for the transformation of the concept itself, from it’s being my handcrafted micro-world, to being a newly inhabited world, who's landscapes are altered by the new participant/observers own culture/history infusion.

You gotta cut that proverbial umbilical cord ;)

Though I may have intended one meaning - I do not feel it is any more or less valid than someone else's interpretation. Nor do I feel my piece has been less successful for this 'misreading'.

Also, I would go a tiny step further than saying that "misreading is fundamental to how reading works" - it's practically the most important part, or at least the most intriguing. The juxtapositions it exposes are what keep us thinking and defining who we are, what we think/feel and how we fit in the world around us...

Thanks for the thought provoking article!

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.