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Why Do People Say 'Bias' Instead of 'Biased'?

It’s an error you see a lot these days: the use of bias in place of biased. Bias is a noun. You can have a bias, show a bias, or worry about bias. But when used as an adjective to describe something, the word is biased. It’s incorrect to say, “your opinion is bias,” “that’s a bias statement,” or “don’t be so bias.”

There are a number of factors that make this mistake likely and even hint at the notion that one day it could stop being seen as a mistake. First, in speech people drop the d or t sound from the end of words so often that linguists have a label for the phenomenon: "t/d deletion." Think about how you say “I passed through.” If you think very carefully about it, and speak very slowly you can get all the sounds in there, but in casual speech, it will come out as “I pass through.”

If a sound is often missing in speech, it’s likely to get left off in writing, too. There are a number of common errors where the –ed ending is left off of adjective forms. You see stain glass for stained glass, can goods for canned goods, bake chicken for baked chicken, and hundreds more like these (especially on menus).

When an adjective-noun phrase is used often enough, the –ed may eventually go missing for good. Skim milk, popcorn, and ice tea began their lives as skimmed milk, popped corn, and iced tea. Whip cream is well on its way to crossing over. Do you go over things with a fine-toothed comb or a fine-tooth comb? Either way works.

The process for biased losing its ending doesn’t quite fit this pattern. It doesn’t participate in any set phrases with a following noun of the skimmed milk variety (the most common words that follow biased are the prepositions against and toward). But bias fits another pattern: many adjectives that describe stances toward the world end in –ous, among them jealous, oblivious, righteous, serious, cautious, meticulous, treacherous, generous, callous, and pious. Bias might get a boost from the –ous family of adjectives because it ends in the same sequence of sounds.

Bias wouldn’t be the first such word to become an adjective because it coincidentally sounded like one. That’s what happened to the word genius, which has nothing to do with the –ous ending and was not used as an adjective until the 1920s, when people started saying things like “What a genius idea!” There are other words that coincidentally sound like they end in –ous, like prejudice and jaundice, which also seem especially susceptible to word errors of the bias type. “Are you prejudice?” gets thousands of hits on Google. “He was jaundice” and “She was jaundice” get thousands more.

Bias, prejudice, and jaundice are less likely than genius to become fully acceptable as adjectives because their spellings don’t fit as closely with the expectations for –ous words. They are still errors. But they are errors that reveal a complex sensitivity to the patterns of English. You might say the language is biased toward them.

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Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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