Category Archives: Academe

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Disputing Linguistic Myths

arrernte_pronouns

I remarked in a recent post that the reason I spend time disputing silly things people say about English grammar is that I take seriously my job description as a professor. But I’ve actually been working to rebut silly claims about language (not just English) since I was an undergraduate.

In the 1956 British edition of The Guinness Book of Records, which I browsed for hours when I was a boy, the section on language (Page 118) has an entry headed MOST PRIMITIVE LANGUAGE. The rosette for “probabl…

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Humanities Need a STEM

As long as I can remember, the humanities have felt neglected at our colleges and universities—underfunded, underenrolled, underappreciated by those who want a “practical” education.

Recently the sciences have felt neglected too, at least in the matter of enrollment. We have too few young people aiming for careers in science, they say. So, unlike the humanists, they did something practical about it. They created an acronym: STEM. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It…

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The Decline of Grammar Education

exam-f-grade-480x250_1024Mention an interest in grammar education to most people and they will assume you are concerned about incorrect use of English. What concerns me, by contrast, is the incompetence of those who pontificate about it and set quizzes on it. Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the

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F.S.M.

FSM ButtonI’m looking at a little blue pin, the size of a quarter, with the words FREE SPEECH in two lines of capitals and below them the abbreviation F.S.M. in smaller capitals curving around the bottom. That’s all. But half a century ago, when I and many others wore it during the fall semester 1964 at the University of California, Berkeley, it made a significant contribution to the success of the most successful political campaign I have ever experienced: the Free Speech Movement. It was created, flouri…

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Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt

Anthony Trollope we are not.

Readers of my polemics against incompetent passive-disparagers (for example, this paper, and this Lingua Franca post) often suggest that I would sing a different tune if I had to grade the student papers they see.

Well, don’t be misled: I teach courses, and I grade papers. And I have to admit that when I saw this opening paragraph in a student paper last week, I did get a sense of what the passive-haters are talking about:

Throughout this essay, the various theories …

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All I Want for Christmas …

Even though European shops seem to resist promoting their Christmas products just a bit longer than their American counterparts, living four weeks away in package-delivery time from most of my family gets me planning my gift-giving early. Which is why I spent some time last week investigating the contents of the 2014 editions of The Best American Essays and The Best American Short Stories—although I don’t know why I bother: The collections are consistently fantastic, and this year’s are no excep…

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Talking About Word Aversion on TV

Language Log has devoted occasional posts to word aversion since Mark Liberman first discussed it in 2007. The New Yorker took it up in April 2012, and the Huffington Post did likewise that December (though neither used the term “word aversion”). Slate magazine followed in April 2013, and then various British newspapers; and now I’ve been asked to discuss the topic on a BBC early-evening magazine-style TV program, The One Show.

You might think it’s a big strike against me that I’ve never researc…

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The Meanings of Rape

A demonstrator at Amherst College wants the administration to admit its past mistakes.

A nod to the semantics of “rape” seems pertinent in the current climate. After all, this is a polysemous word, that is, a word with multiple connotations, some of which look like anachronisms.

In Middle English, “rape” was used when talking about haste, as in the proverb “oft rape rues,” or “haste makes waste.” Our contemporary use seems to be linked; “rape” entails an act done rashly and injudiciously—a…

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If Not Me Then Who?

dogwithtoy

“The anti-pedant zealots,” said a recent Lingua Franca commenter, “have become tedious and repetitive, and one can’t help but feel that all the strawmen getting the stuffing beat out of them is an exercise akin to watching a terrier worry a squeaky toy.”

I’m the main anti-pedant zealot the commenter had in mind. So let me begin by pointing out that zealotry in the defense of accurate analysis is no vice, and moderation in the struggle against pedantic foolishness is no virtue.

But remember too …

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The Intentional Fallacy

A fellow educator has brought to my attention the rise of intentional as a signifying term in academic life. If you haven’t noticed it yet, you will.

Intentional is a word with at least two categories of meaning.

The first sense of intentional may be found in the concept of intentional community.  Those who are part of a convent, a kibbutz, a commune— apparently things that begin with a k sound—might all be described as members of intentional communities.

I don’t love the phrase, but I get the…