By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Mark Steyn and the “P”-word

Fact-challenged conservative columnist (make that the fact-challenged conservative columnist) Mark Steyn has been accused of plagiarism or something like it for a takedown he wrote of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

The case against Steyn is made by Language Log‘s Mark Liberman, who says the style and content were lifted from two posts about Brown’s crimes against the English language that had been written by his co-blogger, Geoffrey Pullum, in 2004 and 2005. Liberman offers links and analysis — everything you need to come to your own conclusion.

A lot of it has to do with Pullum’s — and Steyn’s — bemusement at Brown’s leaving out the “the” in describing what people do, as in, “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” This construction is so common in journalism that it may not be immediately recognizable as wrong (or at least weird), but, in fact, the sentence ought to be preceded with a “the.”

I wish the case against Steyn were clearer. The problem is that Steyn actually cites Pullum even as he apparently rips him off. This isn’t classic plagiarism; rather, it strikes me as inadequate attribution. Steyn’s not-quite-there crediting of Pullum is either clumsy or disingenuous. Take your pick.

Liberman makes some good points about the different shades of plagiarism and its ilk here; he also reports that Steyn’s assistant has threatened him with legal action. Nice! More on those threats here. It seems that Steyn’s claiming he’d never heard of Language Log until he’d been attacked.

File this under: “How Mark Steyn Got Pissed, Got Wild and Got a Lawyer.”

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To be continued


Steyn Central responds


  1. Anonymous

    Dear Mr Kennedy, I did not threaten Professor Pullum with legal action. He sent us an e-mail which was somewhat threatening and then another one 15 minutes later declaring “Your fifteen minutes is now up.” And then after I sent a polite reply he accused us of “brazen” “stonewalling”. I am French-Canadian so I do not always understand the famous English sense of humour but it was apparent the conversation was becoming argumentative with no end of sight and that is a waste of time for all parties. So I concluded as follows: “It is up to you whether you wish to escalate this any further. We haveinvited you to pursue it with Maclean’s and have offered Mark’s resignationif they agree with you. But, given the intemperate nature of your e-mails, Ithink it would be better if you spoke to your lawyer and we will refer him to ours.” As you know, Maclean’s did not agree with Professor Pullum. Mark credited the Professor for the only thing he “stole” from him – the technical term for the missing definite article, which I discovered via a Welsh link to Professor Pullum’s site. Everything else Professor Pullum and his co-writer accuse him of “stealing” are points others have made. Two of the three posts Professor Pullum claims were “plagiarized” were never seen by anyone in this office until the Professor brought them to our attention. In the most ridiculous of Professor Pullum’s accusations, he accuses Mark of “stealing” an observation on the meaning of Leonardo da Vinci’s name that Mark first made on the BBC in 1994. His co-author is now claiming Mark steals jokes from Professor Pullum. We’re happy for any scientists to arrange controlled studies with readers and random sampling of side-by-side pieces to test this proposition. Mark did not, as you put it, “get pissed”, “get wild” or “call a lawyer”. Having worked in Fleet Street, he only gets pissed in the British sense. Instead, he offered to resign from Maclean’s if they thought the Professor’s charges had merit. They did not. But, as you know, Mark writes for a wide variety of publications from The Atlantic Monthly to Hawke’s Bay Today in New Zealand. You are a widely respected media commentator. If you wish to take up the Professor and his co-author’s accusations with the publisher and editor-in-chief of any of those newspapers and magazines and they agree with the Professor, then Mark will resign from each of those publications, too. For an e-mail or two, you can have the satisfaction of ridding the world of a notorious right-wing hack. With best wishes to you, and thank you for your profile, about which we still receive many amusing letters. As ever, Chantal BenoîtAssistant to Mark Steyn

  2. Anonymous

    Bottom line is, Marc is still one of the most dishonest intellectuals, hateful trouble-making pundits out there.He is another Brit – and I love Brits and GB- who cannot get traction on that side of the ocean and has to come here and foist his nonsense in his English accent onto people too confused and fearful to properly see it for what it is.What a great country it is, to make money in when all else failed!!! What a HUGE loss for Ferry Street then!!! Maybe he’ll end up with his own WashTimes one day as well or booked as often as Andrew Sullivan is to make even more money.I know most Canadians to be genuinely decent and honest people. I wonder what tethers you to this insalubrious shack, “Chantal?”N.

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