Are free-range eggs all they’re cracked up to be?

Posted by on September 10, 2012

Today I’d like to begin by looking at the often diverse and convoluted relationships within noun groups. These snippets, from ukWaC, show some of the nouns occurring after free-range (which is itself a compound):

free-range chickens
organic, free-range eggs
dolphin-friendly tuna fish mixed with free-range mayonnaise
domestic free-range units
large free-range producers
the free-range market
free-range farming
a chemical-free, vegetarian diet in free-range conditions
the free-range nature of the poultry enterprise
the achievement of lower cracked egg losses in free-range systems

As the essential meaning of free-range is ‘being allowed to move around freely’, free-range chickens is the most transparent of these combinations. Such chickens, like other free-range animals, are free-ranging (at least in theory). The free-range eggs – laid somewhere in the free-range unit and used to make the free-range mayonnaise – are less mobile, but are still only a step away from the chicken, so to speak.

As for free-range producers, they are doubtless free to roam alongside their poultry, but that is hardly the point. The other nouns – free-range market, farming, conditions, nature, and systems are more abstract, and are all far removed from the original chicken. And new coinages are burgeoning as the law enters the picture: free-range certification and free-range regulation spring from attempts to stop producers reducing the birds’ space: how squashed-up can chickens be before they lose their free-range label?

In her recent post, Roberta Facchinetti discusses the levels of difficulty of various text-types in the press. News reports, she writes, are relatively simple in structure, but their specialized topic-related vocabulary can make them difficult for learners. My question is whether ‘specialized’ vocabulary is really the problem, or whether the difficulty lies rather in unpacking the connections between fairly common and accessible words.

Consider the last example above – the achievement of lower cracked egg losses in free-range systems. Such opaque combinations are typical of the way information is packaged in news reports as well as in technical and scientific writing. News headlines in particular are rich in information, bundled up and presented as a tight little unit for future reference. Together with their opening sentences, headlines are a microcosm of the whole story, something for readers to catch hold of as they flip through the pages.

Headlines from last week’s press include:

New Culture Secretary to meet angry gay rights groups
(= angry groups campaigning for the rights of gay people)
Labour says free schools fail to fill primary places shortage
(= shortage of places in primary schools)
Dentist jailed for hapless Ecclestone kidnap plot
(= a ‘hapless’ plot to kidnap Ecclestone’s daughter)

Working out the relationships within such noun groups can be tricky, although scare quotes and hyphens often help, as in ‘fitness to work’ benefit tests and a fitness-to-practise tribunal. It is also easier if part of a long noun group is a standard compound, like gay rights.

The concept of lexical density may be useful here. Lexical density is simply a measure of the proportion of a text that consists of ‘lexical’ words – the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs responsible for its ‘aboutness’. You can measure this by counting the words in your text, discarding the ‘grammar’ words (of, that, moreover etc), and re-counting. A 50-word text containing 30 lexical words, say, has a lexical density of 60%, or a lexis-to-grammar ratio of 3:2. News headlines average a lexical density of over 80%, while these headlines, with no grammar words at all, score 100%:

Teacher unions’ joint strike threat
Government reignites Heathrow night flights debate

News reports themselves usually hover around the 50-60% mark – still high compared with informal speech, which often has a lexical density below 40%. This approach, although fraught with practical and theoretcial problems, is a helpful rough-and-ready guide to one kind of complexity in texts.

None of the vocabulary I’ve mentioned here is particularly specialized, but where lexical density is high, the reader has to figure out all the connections – a job normally done by an army of industrious, uncomplaining little grammar words.

Finally, I would probably go further than Roberta and suggest that authentic texts should never be simplified for classroom use. However difficult the language around us may be, it is what students will encounter. We cannot justify offering them language that has been especially simplified for them. Groping for an analogy, I recall the mistaken approach taken by Mullah Nasruddin in the well-known tale: he has lost his ring in his dark basement, but later a neighbour finds him searching for it outside his house. Nasruddin explains that the basement is too dark, so he’s looking for the ring out here in the street, where it’s so much lighter. Exactly.

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Comments (3)
  • […] Are free-range eggs all they’re cracked up to be? | Macmillan. Share this: Posted in Blog, Daily Words, ESL Cancel Reply […]

    Posted by Are free-range eggs all they’re cracked up to be? | Macmillan | ESL Chiayi on 12th September, 2012
  • Usually, adjectives have no plural. I’d love to hear your comments on the use of the plural in nouns that occupy adjective positions as in the examples:

    angry gay rights groups
    primary places shortage

    In comparison with
    lower cracked egg losses, where the noun egg is in the singular.

    Posted by Ana Scatena on 14th September, 2012
  • Ana: This is a good point. I guess ‘gay rights’ is always plural, unlike say ‘human rights’. But then ‘trousers’ is always plural (in its peculiar way) – yet you have a ‘trouser leg’ or a ‘trouser pocket’. And you could also say ‘primary place shortage’ – that would be equally acceptable.

    And exactly – ‘cracked-eggs losses’ would be odd, even wrong. I guess that the norm is to use the singular form, e.g ‘shark attack’ not ‘sharks attack’. But if the noun is only used in the plural to start with, then you sometimes have a degree of choice. Except with the trousers. So there is no easy answer – I’ll have to think about it! Maybe sometimes the avoidance of ambiguity comes into it, especially in headlines.

    Posted by gill francis on 15th September, 2012
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