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  • When Donald Trump blocks you on Twitter, does he violate the First Amendment?

    The Knight First Amendment Institute claims that when Donald Trump blocks Twitter followers who criticize him or his policies, he’s violating the First Amendment, and so Knight is suing on behalf of seven blocked tweeters to force the president to unblock them and open his Twitter feed to everyone.

  • Miranda and the Louisiana Lawyer Dog: a case of talking while black

    Talking while black cost Warren Demesme his Miranda rights in Louisiana.

    In a 6-1 decision, on Oct. 27 the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Warren N. Demesme, in jail in Orleans Parish since January of the previous year while he awaits trial on a count of first degree rape and another of “sexual misconduct with a juvenile under the age of thirteen.” During questioning Demesme confessed, but he later asked the court to throw out that confession because police ignored his request for an attorney, one of the “Miranda” rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

    The court is not required to explain why it refused to hear the appeal, but in order “to spotlight the very important constitutional issue regarding the invocation of counsel during a law enforcement interview,” Scott J. Crichton, one of the court’s judges, wrote in a concurrence that police did not have to stop their questioning after Demesme’s request because he asked for a “lawyer dog,” not a lawyer.

  • Language in the age of Fake News, Fox News, and Trump™

    Everyone likes to pick apart the language of politicians, but it’s the job of linguists to pick apart everybody’s language, from the everyday to the very rare, from the learned and refined to the rough and tumble, from the main streets and gated communities to the empty lots and back alleys. We come up with stunning insights about language for a living, and so far as analyzing political language, well, you could say we eat it for breakfast. But the age of fake news, Fox News, and Trump™—all of them synonymous to some extent—is challenging our long-held beliefs about how language works.

  • Court rules that gay bashing is not a crime in West Virginia

    West Virginia's hate crime law protects people from threats and violence because of their race, religion, or sex. Last week, the state's Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the word sex in the hate crime statute does not include sexual orientation. The 3-2 decision in West Virginia v. Butler means that gay bashing is not a crime in West Virginia.

  • Tennessee’s new “plain meaning” law masks an anti-gay, anti-feminist agenda

    Tennessee's new plain meaning law masks an anti-gay, anti-feminist agenda. It’s plainly ambiguous and discriminatory.

    When laws don’t define the words that they contain, we’re supposed to give those words their plain or ordinary meaning. A Tennessee bill, passed on April 27 and awaiting the governor’s signature, would take this common practice of legal interpretation and turn it into a law, only with a twist: the Tennessee plain meaning law has a hidden meaning that threatens to roll back hard-won rights.

  • Dictionaries are trending

    When people don’t understand something in the news, they no longer wait for the Sunday talk shows to tell them what it means, or the next issue of Time, or even the Daily Show. With just a click, they look it up in the dictionary.

  • Is the mother of all bombs sexist?

    “Is the mother of all bombs sexist?” That’s what the reporter who called me wanted to know. I couldn’t take that call, so I missed his deadline, and anyway, I didn’t have a sound bite, which is what reporters always want. But here’s my answer: “Yes. But sexism’s not its biggest problem.”

  • The Frozen Trucker v. The Bolognese Bloodletter: Why we read law sensibly, not literally

    Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is catching well-deserved shade for favoring employers in legal disputes. As he began his Senate confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court, which Gorsuch hopes to join, unanimously overturned his decision siding with a school board against an autistic pupil in a special education dispute. But the Gorsuch opinion that interests me most, because it involves dictionaries, is “The Case of the Frozen Trucker.”

  • Let's eat grandpa: Commas are not a matter of life and death, even in the law

    There’s a pedant at my university who likes to stand on the Quad, wave a grammar book at passers-by, and warn them that a comma can mean the difference between life and death. He or she points an accusing finger at some poor soul and makes them fix the commas in their term paper.

    You’d better get those commas right, pedants like to warn, because “Commas save lives,” an eternal truth they illustrate with the life-and-death Parable of the Dinner Guest: 

        (1) Let’s eat, grandpa.

        (2) Let’s eat grandpa.

    Don’t let the pedants sucker you with their scary comma talk. There is no one in their right mind who reads the second example as an invitation to cannibalism. 

  • You lie: Dictionaries find truth in a post-truth world

    It’s a fact: politicians lie, and the news media exposes their lies. It may seem surprising, but lately dictionaries, not the media, have become the guardians of facts and the exposers of lies.

  • The oath of office in the post-truth presidency

    When it came time for Chief Justice John Roberts to administer the presidential oath of office to Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, to use the language of political euphemism, mistakes were made. Roberts and Obama stumbled over mis-timed phrasing. Then, trying to recover, the Chief Justice misspoke the words that are specified in the Constitution. Following Roberts’ lead, the president-elect also made mistakes in wording. This led to a do-over the next day. The oath of office could take on a whole new life in the post-truth presidency.

  • The word of the year for 2016 is too terrible to name

    Of course it is. 2016 is the year that Britain declared its independence from the European Union—or at least it declared its intention to declare its independence. It’s the year the far right surged in France, Germany, and Austria, not to mention Turkey, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland.

    So it goes without saying that the Web of Language choice for Word of the Year for 2016 is too terrible to name.

  • Should ze be in the dictionary?

    Gender-neutral pronouns were in the news again this Fall, as more universities gave students the option of picking their own pronouns. (For last year’s university pronoun news, click here). In addition to the traditional binary he and she, options may include invented words like ze, jhe, sie, and hie, along with singular they. “Ask me about my pronouns” has become a way to recognize gender nonconformity.

    Not everybody likes these invented pronouns, but a lot of people are using them. The question isn't whether ze should be banned or promoted--that's something people will decide for themselves. The question is, Should ze be in the dictionary?

  • “We come in peace,” or, how to talk to space aliens

    With increasing frequency we’re seeing headlines trumpeting “earthlike planet discovered”—for example, this announcement from NASA, or this, this, or this. These worlds may be inhabited by intelligent life forms, and that raises the question, “How on earth (as it were) are we going to talk to them?”

  • When you ask people for the words they hate, don’t complain when they tell you

    On August 24, Oxford Dictionaries launched a campaign to get people all over the world to report their least favorite English word. The goal was to create a global map of hated English words. Two days later, after more than 14,000 responses, Oxford suspended its #OneWordMap project because of “severe misuse.” The problem? Apparently, when you ask people for the words they hate, they tell you.