Category Archives: Academe

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Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do…

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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Diary of a Visiting Speaker

kielmap

The audience at a talk sees the visiting speaker ushered into the room to check the connection dongle for the projector and greet a few faculty acquaintances in the front row. A brief introduction, a 50-minute talk, and a small reception and perhaps a hosted meal. Two or three hours, all expenses paid. Easy work?

Not exactly. For the speaker, the experience is quite a bit longer. I have about a dozen lecture trips this year, the most recent at the Christian Albrechts University, Kiel, Germany. …

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Truly Incompetent English

Ukip

Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…

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The ‘-cene’ of Instruction

The recent spate of criticism around the concept of the Anthropocene (first used, says the Oxford English Dictionary, by P.J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2000) asks us to consider the period of time within which humans have become the dominant form of life on Planet Earth. Whether that dominance is a good thing or not might depend on whether one views the subject from the perspective of, say, a strip miner, an amoeba, or a hydrogen atom.

The term Anthropocene is, of course, modeled on the tradi…

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Passive Verbosity Again

I have a correspondent I call Faxman who is a professor of accounting. He has the laudable desire to improve his M.B.A. students’ ability to write clear prose. This is a worthy endeavor, and I was rather shocked to learn that his efforts have led to (can you believe this?) complaints from students and a warning from his dean.

Faxman advises his students to avoid the passive. He wrote to me accusing me of straw-man argumentation in my recent paper on usage authorities’ hatred of passives, but wha…

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Swinging for His Supper

Jeremy Clarkson, suspended from “Top Gear”

The Chronicle’s strict profanity policies, as I explained last year, bar mentioning offensive or obscene words, even in linguistic discussions where the details are crucial. Asterisk-respelling tricks are unapproved under the New York Times style guidelines that we follow. But let me try, despite having my linguistic hands tied behind my back, to tell you a bit about the latest high-profile free-speech crisis in Britain’s media.

Jeremy Clarkson is the l…

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The International Phonetic Alphabet

phonsymb

In a Lingua Franca post a few weeks ago, I needed to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the different pronunciations of the English word garage. I didn’t explain much about the IPA; I took it for granted. We do with chemistry formulas using the element symbols in the periodic table, trusting that an educated public will understand CO2 or H2O (and maybe even NaCl or H2SO4). You get a certain amount of basic chemistry in high school or even earlier. However, my treating kn…

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Labeling Words

open dictionary 2

Photograph by Eli Gerber

Dictionaries occupy a special place in academe. In our libraries, unabridged dictionaries regularly lie open on pedestals, where we can go stand before them; the staging suggests their authority as a place to find answers about words. Rarely do we flip to the front of it to check what dictionary it is, from what year. Then I have read many an academic article that mentions a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary or another dictionary but fails to cite the work in…

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Me and Chris Jones, We Got a Thing Goin’ On

MS-MRGender neutrality, however loudly announced in official pronouncements or in the news, creeps into our own set of norms on little cat feet. In my case, I realized it had made another inroad when I was settling in at a symphony performance and heard the voice over the loudspeaker: Ladies and Gentlemen, please silence your cellphones and other electronic devices.

Why Ladies and Gentlemen? I thought. Why can’t he simply say, Symphony Patrons? Must he remind us at the outset of our socially assigned…