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Hashtags Hammer Grammar (or Not)

The hashtag is a major innovation in language. It was invented just a few years ago, to allow quick and easy categorizing of tweets. And then hashtags became an easy way to comment on the topic of a tweet, as in

You had one job: A show about a detective with OCD, and that’s how they designed the box for the last season. #wellplayed

Often a hashtag is a comment on a comment:

I’m done with science #stopcorrectingparties2k14

Im extremely obsessive about everything I love Fall Out Boy so much #Super…

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Not by a Long Chalk

As I have mentioned here before, my hobby is writing and maintaining a blog about British expressions that have become popular in the United States. I know, I know. Listen, it keeps me off the street.

Anyway, not long ago, Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, opened a piece this way:

And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

The opening of the second p…

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O Canada! in New Orleans

LouisiCANADA“I’m so New Orleans, when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian.”

A joke, right? No, it seems that, contrary to all expectations, a certain Canadian pronunciation is beginning to emerge in the Big Easy.

I heard about it in a talk by Katie Carmichael of Virginia Tech at the annual gathering of linguists this month in Portland, Ore. She found “when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian” on Facebook, together with this response: “most people don’t come out and say, ‘are you canadi…

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Saving El Gordo

(Credit: We Love Philosophy)

A few years ago, a Spanish psychologist and his team of researchers asked about 700 students to decide whether they would kill one person to save five. It was a version of the classic trolley dilemma: A small train is trundling toward five people on the tracks who will perish in the crash; you see this from your perch on a footbridge and realize you can save them by shoving one of your fellow pedestrians—a fat man—off the bridge, into the train’s path. Do you do it? …

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The Rules for Essay Exams

bluebksAt my university the time has come (indeed, the deadline has come) for the process of grading the final exams from the fall semester. I started working on my stack of examination books speedily, accurately, and efficiently, deriving great satisfaction and enjoyment from the process of reading what my students have written.

Oh, who the hell am I kidding. I didn’t. For several days I hovered near the stack like a nervous swimmer unwilling to enter the water on a cold day even though it would proba…

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To Be or Not to Be Charlie

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In English, it forms possibly the shortest subject-verb-predicate sentence: I am X. But we cannot seem to agree on what it means. In my lifetime, the first phrase that rings out is John F. Kennedy’s, on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg: Ich bin ein Berliner! The second, echoing now from Paris across the Western hemisphere, is Je suis Charlie Hebdo. These are both rhetorical flourishes, obviously. But they also both nag at our sense of what it means to declare ourselves something—as opposed…

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He (or Possibly Him?) as Head

4622063623_c3a61fda47_oA commenter on a newspaper article about Prince Charles (the opinionated royal destined to inherit the throne under Britain’s hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

 

“With he at its head?” Not “with him at its head”? Let’s face it: The traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in Standard English are simply a myster…

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Is That a Real Novel or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?

ItBNnDhR3tjwAMx0vEwj“Is your novel fiction, or did any of it really happen?”

I’ve started doing readings of my new novel, A Sister to Honor, and sure enough, the question came from one of the attentive listeners waiting in line to buy a signed copy.  I can’t blame her for her confusion. I’d like to blame Truman Capote, who came up with the term nonfiction novel to describe his new-journalism book In Cold Blood:

It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the “nonfict…

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Less Is More Better

10_items_or_less

You got a problem with that?

The email came in with the heading “Ben! How could you!?” The message read, in its entirety:

“How Not to Write Bad,” page 26: “As for state names, never abbreviate when they’re four letters or less, or when they’re standing alone.”

Less? You mean fewer, right? Or did the rules change? Please advise.

(Before proceeding to the question, I’ll note that, unsurprisingly, my correspondent misstated the title of my book, which is How to Not Write Bad.)

As virtually everyone…

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A Real Tweet for Linguists

Early in January every year, nearly a thousand people who study how language works flock together for the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America together with six smaller groups under its wings, including the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, the Association for Linguistic Evidence, and of course the American Dialect Society.

This year they migrated to Portland, Ore., for meetings January 8 through 11. There were hundreds of talks on the workings of …