Category Archives: Grammar

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But

When I assign my freshmen to write about both sides of an issue, I tell them to pay special attention to the connective words they use. If you’re presenting the other side, you have to make clear that you aren’t suddenly changing your mind and going back on your own position. So you need to introduce the other side with words like “True,” “Admittedly,” “It could be argued that,” to signal clearly that this is somebody else’s position, not yours.

And you can’t leave it at that, either. Even wit…

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To Whomever It May Concern

I was gobsmacked the other day while watching an episode of the NBC series Crisis, which I would describe as my guilty pleasure except that I don’t feel especially guilty about it and it’s not that pleasurable. Anyhow, the show is about bad guys who kidnap a school bus full of children of the rich and powerful, including the U.S. president’s son. A Secret Service agent and one kid, who you can tell is a genius because he’s chubby and has curly hair,

Joshua Erenberg and Lance Gross from “Crisis.”…

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A Postcard From Salzburg

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Members of Golden Dawn break up a dictionary launch in Athens. Photograph by Victor Friedman.

Salzburg, Austria—Mozart’s beautiful city provided an ideal locale for the conference I am attending here, where Slavicists and Balkanists have been discussing the role of ideology in grammar. Salzburg is close enough to allow scholars from Croatia or Kosovo or Macedonia to attend easily, without being actually in the Balkan region itself.

Matters relating to the great Balkan laboratory for sociolinguis…

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Over and Over Again

Athelstan

King AEthelstan presenting a book to St. Cuthbert, c.895-939. The Laws of AEthelstan included “over” meaning “more than” back in the 10th century. Illuminated manuscript, c.930, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the most part, a newspaper stylebook aims to fly under the radar, directing journalists to use the least obtrusive terminology and forms, so readers will not be distracted from the reporter’s message. But the stylebook is put together by individuals (editors) who have strong feelings about ri…

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The Latest Style

ap (7)Just as California offers the most neutral and unobtrusive variety of American English (we don’t think of someone having a “California accent”), so The Associated Press Stylebook offers the most neutral, unobtrusive, and inoffensive choices in spelling, punctuation, and usage. For this reason both are worthy of note as reflecting the norm, the unmarked version of American English.

They come to their roles for different reasons. East of the Mississippi, American dialects are layered north to sout…

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No Language for Lottie

LottieEating

People sometimes take my skeptical comments on animal-language news stories (“Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity,” for example) as evidence that I regard animals as inferiors. Jeremy Hawker complained on Language Log that I showed no interest in animal communication, and that linguists “cannot mention the subject without making a snotty comparison with human language.”

In truth, the only animals I had showed contempt for were the bipedal primates who write science stories for newspapers. Back in …

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Final Madness

We’ve finally come to the end of Language Madness, and not a moment too soon. Just as Kentucky and Connecticut, two storied programs, will face off tonight in the NCAA men’s basketball finals (finals  instead of final  being another instance of rampant pluralizing), the LM tournament closes out with a classic matchup.

To recap, we started out with 16 “sins against the language.” As many have noted, they were a mixed bowl of wrongs. Some were mistakes or “mistakes” people love to hate, such as th…

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Are You Feeling It?

I’ve never been a huge McDonald’s fan (my loyalties lie with Wendy’s), but lately the Golden Arches have become a particular bugbear. Many of you will recognize the chain’s slogan of almost a decade, “I’m lovin’ it,” and some will find its grammar grating. Traditionally, after all, English stative verbs—those that describe a state of being, what we think or how we feel—are not conjugated in the present continuous form. Before the lovin’ it campaign, a tasty Filet-O-Fish would have prompted most …

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Communicating With the Public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

If I had ever thought that …

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The Sex Class

550px-Censored_rubber_stamp.svgIn the last few weeks, the topic of my class “Love” has been romantic love, and, within that category, the language of sex.

I told students that by language I implied a standardized system of signs that serves to express a wide range of meanings and that by sex—not sexuality but sex—I implied intercourse, that is, sexual intercourse. Sex, then, has its own grammar. Could we analyze that grammar together?

For starters, I asked why, when referring to the act of having sex, we say to make love? Do …