Angels and Demons

by John Q on May 19, 2006

Mark Steyn has a way with words. Particularly other people’s. (via Bitch PhD).

[For an earlier instance, scroll to the bottom of this post].



harry b 05.19.06 at 6:50 pm

Bloody good ad for their book, that; I’m buying it site unseen (or is that sight unseen, I’ve never seen it written and never understood it really).
How do we get at the comments in your 2002 post?


John Quiggin 05.19.06 at 8:23 pm

Lost in the great database disaster of 2003, unfortunately, but I’ll trawl my datadump and see if I can rescue this set.


emmanuel goldstein 05.19.06 at 9:25 pm

Truly, this is what the blogosphere was made for.


Tim Lambert 05.19.06 at 10:13 pm

It gets worse. You can add lying about it to the plagiarism charge.


dave heasman 05.20.06 at 7:16 am

I disagree about plagiarising Wilde on Little Nell, JQ. It really is a commonplace.


Slocum 05.20.06 at 7:57 am

Well, I would say that the Pullum pieces are really about Brown’s execrable writing style, whereas Steyn’s piece is best summed up by:

“Even in a largely post-Christian West, Jesus is still a hit brand but, like other long-running franchises, he’s been reinvented. It’s like one of those bizarro Superman/alternate universe specials the comic books like to do.”


“It’s interesting that so many non-churchgoing readers are interested in Jesus, disheartening that they’re so Biblically illiterate. Still, given the success he’s had dismissing the premise of the New Testament as a fraud, perhaps Dan Brown could try writing a revisionist biography of acclaimed prophet Muhammad. Just a thought.”

In other words, this is yet another Steyn piece about the ‘clash of civilizations’ and the decline and decadence of Christendom this time in the guise of literary criticism.

So the theme and overall structure of the review are not Pullum’s (for whom Brown’s writing style is the only concern). But Steyn should have done more than just give Pullum credit for the terminology–he should have credited Pullum as soon as he mentioned the first quote with the missing definite article. And the response to Pullum’s letter was B.S. — Steyn should have said, “Yes, though I credited Pullum with the terminology, I should have also credited Pullum for being the one to notice and describe this element of Brown’s style.”


Backword Dave 05.20.06 at 8:21 am

Both Slocum and Dave Heasman have beaten me to it. The Wilde quotation is well known, so much so that the authorship is largely forgotten and it’s just part of the trove of great literary putdowns now credited randomly between Wilde, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, and others. Everyone borrows from Shakespeare, Dickens, and the Bible, usually without knowing it.

Slocum’s got it right. Steyn did write a typical Steyn piece (and in that he plagiarised no one but himself), and he should have been more generous and more honest with attribution. The thing about that piece is that Steyn could have written it unaided. Style is his strength; he’s right wing bloggers’ favourite writer because of it, and a good stylist notes its presence or lack in others.

Steyn isn’t an “F” student who pinched an “A” student’s essay; he’s an “A” student himself who was either too rushed (his output is large) or too arrogant to give proper attribution.


Sascha Solis 05.20.06 at 8:24 am

Pullum wrote a boring academic article.

A Telegraph books editor then mentioned the same phenomenon in a far breezier fashion

Is it really so inconceivable that a books editor and a linguist would independently pick up on the same trend?

Why must Pullum be credited any more than Steyn has already credited him?

I’m never really sure what the so-called original authors are really after in cases like these?

And where does all this end?

It does strike me as a somewhat pointless exercise.


Bro. Bartleby 05.20.06 at 9:09 am

What is plagiarism when truth is but a slippery fish in hand (and out of hand) and into the frying pan and masticated and evacuated and never really taken seriously as an essence, that is, until one smells it.


y81 05.20.06 at 9:38 am

My own view of current mores is that Steyn is okay here: Journalism doesn’t come with footnotes. It’s pretty common for a journalist with a wide audience like Steyn to take an obscure piece that he or she likes and give its ideas wider dissemination. As long as the original source of the idea is credited, and the copying of phrases isn’t extensive enough to amount to a copyright violation, it seems to me like acceptable behavior.

Academic rules are stricter (and should be more strictly enforced). That is why academic writing, though hardly infallible, is more reliable than journalism. The Pullum piece seems to be inappropriately importing academic rules into the world of journalism.


foo 05.20.06 at 1:20 pm

No one’s saying that Steyn’s going to go to jail on this one, but that’s not the point. It’s a pretty cut-and-dried case of plagiarism, and that should be a stain on his reputation, the same way it is with people like Ambrose and Kearns-Goodwin. He didn’t just “mention the same phenomenon,” he stole entire sentences and phrasings. He has the title of one of Pullum’s posts as an (unquoted) sentence in his essay — if that’s not plagiarism, what is?


John Quiggin 05.20.06 at 3:24 pm

On Wilde, as I pointed out in the post, most people who use the line give an attribution (maybe sometimes an incorrect one, but no matter). More to the point, it was the best line in this well-known Steyn post, and similarly with the line he lifted from Pullum.

Plagiarism is not really the right category here, as y81 says (and I was incorrect to use this term in my earlier post). Rather the point is that Steyn is someone who has a reputation as a witty writer that is built, to a significant extent on lifting other people’s lines, while giving little or no attribution.

The Pullum case just shows that he knows exactly what he is doing. He’s given just enough credit that defenders can argue he’s in the clear.


Colin Danby 05.20.06 at 4:00 pm

Why isn’t plagiarism the right category here? The normal definition includes lifting ideas as well as words.

Granted the British press, in particular, seems quite cavalier about this:


roger 05.20.06 at 4:18 pm

I can’t stand Steyn, but it doesn’t look like he has committed any major sin, here.

The problem is with the criticism of
Dan Brown’s habit of dropping the ‘the’. It does what it is supposed to do — hurries the reader on. I’ve never read the Da Vinci code — actually, the phrase quoted by Pullum is my first encounter with Brown’s writing – but I see nothing wrong with headline-esque prose style. Or: Thumbs up Headline style, commentor says. Isn’t this what the hardboiled writers of the 30s were all about? Strip the language down, go faster, shed description for action.


JE Meyer 05.20.06 at 4:20 pm

Rather the point is that Steyn is someone who has a reputation as a witty writer that is built, to a significant extent on lifting other people’s lines, while giving little or no attribution.

To a significant extent? I’ve seen roughly two alleged instances of minor plagiarism as to a sentence or two, while Steyn has written many hundreds of pieces in many different magazines and newspapers. Where do you get the word “significant”?


y81 05.20.06 at 5:38 pm

I also have to disagree on the Wilde thing. My rule is, any canonical text can be quoted without attribution. (Otherwise you get one of the earnest junior high school papers with footnotes to the Encyclopedia Britannica.) My further rule is, “canonical text” is defined as anything I have read and remember.


roger 05.20.06 at 6:06 pm

y81 — isn’t there a mythical dialogue about the subject of plagiarism between Wilde and Whistler? Wilde saying, about some bon mot, I wish I had said that, and Whistler saying, you will, Oscar, you will.


John Quiggin 05.20.06 at 6:42 pm

Real, I think Roger and i was just about to quote that one myself.


Nicholas Gruen 05.20.06 at 9:38 pm

It even appears in a Monty Python sketch so it must be true.


Mark Liberman 05.21.06 at 8:55 am

With respect to comment #8 (“Pullum wrote a boring academic article…”), you might try reading the weblog posts by Pullum that are actually in question, for example: “Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence”; or take a look John Holbo’s hilarious discussion of “premature dejoculation”, taking off on the comment itself.


James Wimberley 05.21.06 at 9:12 am

Ad 16: I agree. But why limit the rule to canonical texts? Mark Liberman cites approvingly:
“Even facts or quotations can be plagiarized,” writes Ms. Stearns, “through the trick of citing to a quotation from a primary source rather than to the secondary source in which the plagiarist found it in order to conceal reliance on the secondary source.”

Surely not. If I cite the records of the Carcassone Inquisition in 1250 without giving credit to le Roy Ladurie where I found the material, that’s wrong, because I don’t have independent access to the records and I, and the reader, am relying on Ladurie to have copied them right. But if he cites a published work and I cite that, where’s the sin, even if I don’t actually get it out of the library to check?
Scholarship like art relies on mimesis – not of nature but of previous writers. La créativité, c’est le vol, as Proudhon didn’t say.


hank 05.21.06 at 11:07 am

>But if he cites a published work and
>I cite that, where’s the sin, even if
>I don’t actually get it out of the
>library to check?

If you steal from Al Capone what he stole from the downtown bank, did you rob the bank?

But more seriously — you’re taking work that someone did finding cites, and you are (1) not crediting the person who did the actual work, and (2) not checking that it’s correct before stealing it. You’re not quoting from the original. You’re quoting from the person whose work you are copying.

Yes, maybe they did get it exactly correct. If you don’t check, you’ll never know unless someone calls you on it.

My experience is that more often than not secondary sources get their material slightly wrong, or leave out some material that changes the meaning.

You should get that sort of experience for yourself.


hank 05.21.06 at 11:14 am

These are from Wikipedia:

“I am not arguing with you – I am telling you.”
James Abbott McNeill Whistler * Propositions, 2

Oscar Wilde: “I wish I had said that”
Whistler: “You will, Oscar, you will.”
o L.C. Ingleby, Oscar Wilde (1907)


Sascha Solis 05.21.06 at 1:34 pm

Thank you for replying, Mark Liberman. I have indeed read all the posts on this matter including some earlier ones on the Azerbic blog.

I notice that John Quiggin has now retracted his charge of plagiarism and that Antonia Zerbisias has also made clear she is not accusing Steyn of plagiarism.

So then, what exactly is it you are accusing Steyn of doing?

It seems to me you that want you really want is for Steyn to pay some sort of homage to Pullum as being the first person to notice that Dan Brown did away with definite articles. But how do we establish that Pullum was indeed the first to notice this “fact”?

The truth is we can’t and as I pointed out in my earlier comment, it seems to me entirely conceivable that linguists and newspaper books section editors were getting heated up about this little language issue even before Pullum opened his inflight copy of the Da Vinci code.

This is precisely why facts are not copyrightable.

And I don’t think any of us would really want to live in a world where they were and IP lawyers ruled our lives including the jokes we tell each other at dinner parties.


Jamie 05.21.06 at 2:06 pm

There’s no “homage” involved. Steyn should just acknowledge that he took the idea from Pullum. Since he didn’t, it’s plagiarism.
Of course it’s “conceivable” that others were talking about the issue before Pullum. Why is it relevant to the present question what is conceivable? If someone else published the same point earlier, then you (or anyone) should feel free to find it and give a reference. Until then it’s all your imagination.

Your remark about living in world where IP laywers rule our lives is absolutely right, but you fail to notice that neither Lieberman nor Quiggin suggested that lawyers get involved. Only Steyn’s assistant made that threat.


John Quiggin 05.21.06 at 4:09 pm

It’s true that the norms of journalism are different, and the academic concept of plagiarism isn’t fully applicable. But that doesn’t make Steyn’s unacknowledged use of other people’s lines any more acceptable.


dave heasman 05.22.06 at 4:00 am

The title of this post was nagging at me. Is it a Dan Brown book? Did you or he get it from this : –


John Holbo 05.22.06 at 5:19 am

Sascha: are you in effect taking the line that there isn’t any such thing as plagiarism? Or are you saying it shouldn’t ever be bothered about (because if we do, that will just feed the IP lawyers)? Or are you acknowledging that there is such a thing as plagiarism, perhaps a bad thing, yet denying that Steyn looks to have plagiarized? Obviously the concern isn’t just that Steyn mentioned the same fact that Pullum noticed (I take it you see this much, but that makes the rest of your comment very peculiar.)


Sascha Solis 05.22.06 at 6:56 am

Actually, I do believe in plagiarism. This year I reported a student to my department chair for plagiarism. The student failed the course and got a permanent note on her transcript.

Last year, I failed two students but did not report them because the incidents in question were not as egregious.

So yes, I not only believe in plagiarism but in taking strong measures to counter it.

I just don’t think Steyn plagiarized.

He has said he got the idea from a former editor who, as you can see from the link cited above, did indeed write about the missing definite article phenomenon pre-Steyn and post-Pullum.

Did the editor get the idea from Pullum? I have no idea and as I’ve said, it seems completely conceivable that they both could have come up with it independently. It is, after all, the opening sentence we’re talking about.

As for Steyn and the staggered sentence, well, it’s an obvious play on words. I see things like that happen fairly regularly and innocently.

Quite frankly I’m amazed at the “Yeah, I’d fail him” tone of the comments section over at Bitch PhD. I wouldn’t want to be called in to the Dean’s office on a case like this, which is essentially a case with NO evidence.

Once again, Steyn credited Pullum for naming the issue in question not for discovering it , which is fine by me because we don’t know Pullum did discover it.

What’s more, I’m still not clear on what everyone thinks STeyn should have done. Could I please have an example of what you would consider appropriate.

And what about that other commenter’s valid point about the differences between journalistic and academic practices?


Barbar 05.22.06 at 8:47 am

Obviously the concern isn’t just that Steyn mentioned the same fact that Pullum noticed (I take it you see this much, but that makes the rest of your comment very peculiar.)

Ah, there’s the rub. Sascha doesn’t seem to see this at all.


Colin Danby 05.22.06 at 1:56 pm

The accusation in *NOT* that Steyn copied a fact.

It’s that he copied the entire structure of an argument and its pattern of evidentiary support:

A number of reasonable responces are still possible, but Sascha Solis is being willfully obtuse. All the relevant stuff is urled in the original post.

When someone has done analytical work or research that you draw on, *you say so.* A journalist would say “as X points out…” or “X observed that…” Ordinary English contains ample resources for acknowledging debts.


KCinDC 05.22.06 at 10:45 pm

Dave Heasman, if uses of “angels and demons” must be connected, can we assume the same about uses of “cats and dogs” or “salt and pepper”?


John Quiggin 05.22.06 at 10:55 pm

To repeat myself, there are relevant differences between academic writing and journalism. For example, a journalist restating a well-known argument doesn’t need to give sources. But, as Colin Danby points out that doesn’t mean there are no rules or no standard devices for acknowledging debts.

When you’re lifting material to the extent that Steyn does, you need to say so. But of course, if he had made it clear how much was being lifted, the stylistic part of the article would have been pointless.

The whole business is made even worse by his crediting Pullum for one minor point. This, and the subsequent response make it clear that the misappropriation was deliberate, and that Steyn (correctly) judged that, among his fans, he would be able to get away with claiming that this was enough.

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