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  • 03/23/16--18:10: Good on Us
  • 19th_century_slangLike others in this forum, I try to keep abreast of changes in idiom over time. We notice the emergence of vocal fry, the increasing acceptance of singular they, and so on. But for the most part, our observations are those of the disinterested listener. We may note, as I have, our tendency to cling to expressions now considered old-fashioned or stiff. But what of the ways in which we find the expressions of the zeitgeist coming out of our own mouths?

    I can’t recall what my husband and I were t...


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  • 03/29/16--18:04: Being a Subjunctive
  • buddyHolly

    Teaching them who Buddy Holly was would be more valuable than trying to make them shun covertly inflected mandative clauses.

    For grammar bullies “the subjunctive” is sacred ground. Reforms proposed for the British national curriculum in 2012 required teaching use of the subjunctive not later than sixth grade. People seem to think the subjunctive is a fragile flower on which civilization depends; without our intervention it will fade and die, and something...


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  • 04/03/16--15:28: Being an Antecedent
  • On the morning of April 1, I heard a BBC newsreader say (without levity, April Fool’s Day though it was) that Sajid Javid, the British government’s secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills, had “assured the steel workers that ministers were doing everything they could to save their jobs.” And for a few misguided milliseconds my brain was saying “Typical: politicians trying to protect themselves!” I had linked the genitive pronoun their to t...


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  • 04/10/16--16:00: Hillary Who?
  • Hillary-60-minutesNoting that I’ve written about the hip-hop/youth/New York trend of glottalizing (that is, “swallowing” the t before the last syllable) such words as important, button, and Manhattan, a reader recently e-mailed me, “I was intrigued by how Hillary Clinton glottalized her last name … as early as 1992. Not surprisingly, she changed it back to Clin’T'on in her campaign video last year.”

    The reader included links to two YouTube videos. The first, a fairly amazing comedy bit at a 1992 roast of Ron Brow...


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    An English teacher living in Jerusalem wrote to ask me to resolve a dispute about a test question. Someone had set a correct/incorrect test on the preterite (the simple past, e.g. took) vs. the perfect (e.g. have taken). This was the test item (the students were supposed to circle the correct form of the verb inside the parentheses):

    I (have just received / received) a message but I haven’t read it yet.

     

    Some of the teachers who discussed the quest...


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  • 05/19/16--18:35: DARE to Carry Guts to a Bear
  • DARE 03af27e0171c51712aee768a333b41abIn 1985, to much acclaim, Harvard University Press published an ABC of American English — the first volume of the monumental Dictionary of American Regional English, edited by Frederic G. Cassidy and covering the first three letters of the alphabet.

    That was more than 30 years ago. And the fieldwork on which much of the dictionary was based (it also made extensive use of other studies and examples) took place in the 1960s, half a century ago. So what has happened since?

    The last volume of the c...


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  • 07/31/16--15:58: Bad Optics
  • “Tarzan has always had bad optics — white hero, black land — to state the excessively obvious,” wrote Manohla Dargas in her review of The Legend of Tarzan in The New York Times.  This time around, the muscular white expanse of Tarzan is supplied by Alexander Skarsgard, who induces no eye strain. The use of optics is another matter.

    Optics, the science of light and lenses and sight, has given way in popular use to the sense of “the way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceiv...


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  • 08/11/16--18:43: In the Phonetic Jungle
  • rabbit_redux

    A distinguished computational linguist from the University of Colorado, Professor Martha Palmer, is about to begin a lecture in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh under the title “The Blocks World Redux,” when she realizes that (like all of us) she had learned the word redux (it means “restored” or “revisited”) from printed sources, and neither she nor the person introducing her has any idea how to pronounce it.

    Two linguists in the front row spring instantly to her aid. “...


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  • 08/14/16--15:49: Brit Thesps Nail Yank Lingo
  • laurie

    Hugh Laurie can talk the talk.

    The American characters in Genius — screening earlier this summer in art-house cinemas everywhere — are played by the following actors.

    Thomas Wolfe: Jude Law (English)

    Maxwell Perkins: Colin Firth (English)

    Aline Bernstein: Nicole Kidman (Australian)

    Ernest Hemingway: Dominic West (English)

    F. Scott Fitzgerald: Guy Pearce (Australian)

    Zelda Fitzgerald: Vanessa Kirby (English)

    I didn’t see the film, but I don’t have to in order to know the American accents are ...


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    Flicker/Leimenide

    The six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2012, continues to augment its coverage with quarterly updates by the chief editor, George Goebel, at the University of Wisconsin. The fifth update, for summer 2016, has just been published, with a dozen new entries and 40 revised ones. Most of the entries update or enrich the letter B, originally published in Volume I more than 30 years ago.

    You can take a free look here.

    What will you find? To begin...


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  • 09/29/16--18:22: To Seek Out New Vowels …
  • vowels_in_mouth

    Part of my teaching this semester (with my colleague Alice Turk) involves an exploration of space: the space of the remarkable array of speech sounds humans can produce. Consider just the vowel space, for example. Phoneticians map the infinite space of possible vowel qualities by reference to a set of reference points at the edge of vowel space: the final frontier. They’re known as the primary cardinal v...


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    5827-dare-mapWhat do bob house, boo-hag, and bullnozer have to do with each other?

    In case you’re not familiar with these terms, a bob house is what people in New Hampshire, some of them at least, call an ice-fishing shanty.  A boo-hag, in South Carolina, is a kind of ghost, by one account a “witchy  woman … who can unzip her corporeal body and hang it up like a coat.” And a bullnozer, in the Appalachians and vicinity, is just another name for bulldozer.

    But what do they have in common? Maybe a story of a bo...


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  • 12/11/16--15:54: Won’t He Do It!
  • hqdefaultThe writer Tayari Jones recently posted a question on Facebook about a phrase she’s planning to use in her forthcoming novel: “Won’t He do it!” I immediately felt the interest of, say, a cat in catnip, and followed along. Here’s what I learned, and what it made me think about.

    First, “Won’t He do it!” is a statement, not a question. It’s a statement of faith in God, and it’s been popular, apparently, for several decades as a call and response in black churches. Jones’s initial concern arose wh...


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    enhanced-15475-1418079970-24

    Image by Jenny Chang, courtesy of BuzzFeed*

    A recent Daily Briefing email newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education to its subscribers included this snippet of news from a sample of faculty members who mailed in about things they have learned from student feedback on their courses:

    Shaun Bowler, a political-science professor at the University of California at Riverside, wrote that he had received a course evaluation reading, “His accent is a problem. Why can’t we have teachers who speaks...


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    Professor with bubbles coming out of pipeExactly 58 years ago today (I write on December 17, 2016), E.B. White wrote a letter of protest to his editor, J.G. Case, who had been trying to get him to take some grammar advice and modify some of the proscriptive ukases in a usage book that White was revising. White wouldn’t yield an inch to what he called “the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists”:

    I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust … to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow....


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    TrayvonMartinHoodedA stranger I will call DL recently emailed me an odious screed pouring contempt and disgust on nonstandard dialects of English. “Speaking broken English is often a sign that the speaker is monolingual in broken English,” it said; and “Sadly, rather than seeking to help such people, some in the linguistics profession see them as savages as noble as those in the Amazon or New Guinea.”

    The phrase “some in the linguistics profession” is one more anonymized reference to the possibly mythical creature...


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  • 01/24/17--18:42: Recovering My Heritage
  • RobertBurns

    It’s January 25, and as everyone knows, that is the birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire: Robert Burns.

    And since a small conference on the Scots language is being held today at the University of Edinburgh, there is surely only one possible choice for what to do tonight: We’re having a traditional Burns Night Supper.

    A Burns Supper, though the format is informal and flexible, typically involves certain rituals, and of course certain characteristic foods. The food at our gathering will be fully in l...


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  • 01/31/17--18:27: A Language Museum?
  • Franklin_School

    Franklin School in Washington, D.C. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

    The question mark was to get your attention. As of last Wednesday, we can change it to a period: A language museum.

    On January 25, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in Washington, D.C., announced that the historic Franklin School has been approved for development into a museum called Planet Word. The project is spearheaded by — and privately funded by — the philanthropist and former reading ...


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    I_wont_not_use_no_double_negatives

    Image via Wikipedia.org

    Many English grammar advice sites on the web are so dire that it almost seems rude to link to them. I don’t want to fail in my duty to clarify things by deconstructing them; yet it seems cruel to humiliate the poor well-meaning people who wrote them. So let me just say that somewhere out there is a dreadful page of confused drivel on a website maintained by a world-famous dictionary publisher, and its author begins by confessing a prejudice:

    Whenever I hear something like...


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  • 02/06/17--18:36: How Not to Teach Chinese
  • Chinese_characters_logoVictor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the ...


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