The Web of Language

blog navigation

Dennis Baron's go-to site for language and technology in the news
All Results

blog posts

  • It’s the birthday of a pronoun: heer, himer, hiser, born OTD in 1912

    Today's the birthday of a pronoun. On January 6, 1912, Chicago School Superintendent Ella Flagg Young began her talk at a meeting of principals saying, "A principal should so conduct his’er school that all pupils are engaged in something that is profitable to him’er" (Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 January, 1912, p. 7).

    According to the Tribune, the principals gasped. Ignoring murmurings from the audience, Young continued, "I don’t see how one can map out the work for the fifth or sixth grade when he’er has always done the work in the grades above or below."

    Young then explained that she had coined a set of what she called duo-personal pronouns, and she continued to use them throughout her speech. The principals reacted positively to these gender-neutral, nonbinary alternatives, resolving to introduce them in their schools.

  • Banishing the words you hate won’t help

    So, every new year brings a new round of word-shaming in the form of the banished words list. The list is put out by the PR department of a minor midwestern university, and it’s widely reported in the media. You can google the list, if you haven’t already, but don’t waste your time: banning words doesn’t improve language.

  • The politics of "he." Literally.

    There’s been a lot of talk lately about what pronouns to use for persons whose gender is unknown, complicated, or irrelevant. Options include singular they and invented, common-gender pronouns. Each has its defenders and its critics. Then there’s the universally indefensible generic he. We avoid it today because it’s sexist, but although generic he was the form approved by many early grammarians, there were some who objected to it. The gender politics of he has always been complicated, and it probably shouldn’t have become generic in the first place. But the politics of he turned literal in the United States when women sought, and won, the vote.

  • Singular they is word of the year

    Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.

  • Things are looking up :) -- It's Dictionary Day

    October 16 is Dictionary Day, Noah Webster’s 257th birthday. To celebrate the big day, I googled “dictionary” and got back 484 million hits in 0.25 seconds. Typing in “google” got me close to 7.4 billion hits, proving, in case you needed proof, that Google is bigger than the dictionary.

    The first four hits for google were links to the company, and the fifth linked to Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay, “Is Google making us stupid?” If there's a definition of google in the remaining 7,379,999,995 hits, I'm too stupid to find itBut a faster way to look up the meaning is to go to an online dictionary.

  • Some notes on singular they

    Singular they is in the news again, this time not simply as an alternative to the obsolescent generic masculine he, or the cumbersome he or she, but in discussions of what pronouns to use for trans or gender-nonconforming individuals. Although the high-profile Chelsea Manning and Caitlyn Jenner have publicly opted for the feminine pronouns she, her, and hers as they transition, not everyone feels included in the traditional male-female binary, and some people wish to avoid gender marking altogether, so they choose invented gender-neutral pronouns like hir and zie, or singular they, their, and them.

  • What's your pronoun?

    For most students, back-to-school means new clothes, a new phone, a new laptop, but this year some colleges are offering students a new pronoun as well. Harvard is suggesting the gender-neutral ze, hir, and hirs, though it will accept traditional he and she if students prefer them, and the University of Tennessee adds xe, xem, and xyr. This Fall, students at American University’s orientation are asked to break into small groups and introduce themselves with name, major, and preferred pronoun. This year’s Vanderbilt student handbook adopts singular they as an inclusive and welcoming pronoun. And the University of Vermont has been letting students name their own gender and pick their own pronoun for a few years.

  • Is Donald Trump smarter than a third grader?

    One regrettable feature of the presidential campaign season is the inevitable ranking of candidate speeches by reading level. And so, after the first Republican debate, Politico’s Jack Shafer announced with glee that Donald Trump “talks like a third-grader,” while Ted Cruz’s language sounds more ninth grade. However, anyone who spends time around schoolchildren will tell you neither claim is true.

    Shafer calculates candidates’ grade level by running transcripts of their debate responses through a formula known as the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale. Whether or not you agree that Trump is simple and Cruz, high-brow—among Republican candidates, simple has proven to be a vote-getter and high-brow is a dirty word—the fact is that formulas like Flesch-Kincaid, designed to measure the understandability of writing, fail miserably at that task, and they’re completely useless for rating speech.

  • With T-shirts at work, you can’t always say what you want

    In 2011, Southern New England Telephone suspended 183 employees who refused to remove T-shirts that said “Inmate” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back. The National Labor Relations Board sided with the phone workers, but the company appealed the NLRB’s decision in federal court. Defending its action, the phone company argued that the mass one-day suspension was justified because the T-shirts “could cause customers to believe that AT&T employees were actually convicts.” AT&T might as well have argued, “We’re the phone company, we don’t have to think it's funny.”

  • To those who want more grammar in school: Get off my lawn!

    To anyone who thinks that English is in a bad way because of texting and the Facebook, and that the way to reverse this is more grammar in school, I say, please, get off my lawn. Because you clearly don’t know anything about language and you don’t understand why the kind of grammar instruction we associate with schools should be left behind, not expanded.

  • Who defines marriage?

    On June 26, in the landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the United States Supreme Court extended constitutional protection to same-sex marriage. The Court’s action redefined marriage, delighting supporters of marriage equality—according to surveys, that’s most Americans—and infuriating opponents. It also raises an important question about making legal meaning: who are the definers?

  • Marriage equality, guns, health care, and the myth of judicial objectivity

    In Bread and Jam for Frances, a children’s book about a family of badgers, Frances’s best friend, Albert, eats his lunch bit by bit so that the sandwich, the pickle, the egg, and the milk come out even. Supreme Court decisions are a bit like that. In decisions on marriage equality, health care, and the Second Amendment, the justices interpreted the facts of each case and chose their arguments to make their decision come out right.

  • Can a Facebook post land you in jail?

    The United States Supreme Court answered this question last week with a resounding “maybe.”

    That “maybe” comes in the case of Elonis v. United States. Anthony Elonis wrote some violent-sounding posts on Facebook detailing what he’d like to do to his ex-wife, an FBI agent, assorted police officers, and a local but unnamed kindergarten. The words seemed threatening, and so Elonis was arrested and convicted for sending threats across state lines in violation of the Interstate Communications Act.

  • So how do dictionaries define marriage, anyway?

    During oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice Roberts wondered whether making same-sex marriage legal would nullify traditional dictionary definitions of marriage:

    Every definition that I looked up, prior to about a dozen years ago, defined marriage as unity between and man and a woman as husband and wife. Obviously, if you succeed, that core definition will no longer be operable.

    The Chief Justice can relax: new definitions of marriage won’t replace older ones, and expanding the legal scope of marriage won’t invalidate or discourage heterosexual unions. As Justice Ginsberg observed,

    You’re not taking away anything from heterosexual couples. They would have the very same incentive to marry, all the benefits that come with marriage that they do now.

    So just how do dictionaries define marriage?

  • What if printed books went by ebook rules?

    I love ebooks. Despite their unimaginative page design, monotonous fonts, curious approach to hyphenation, and clunky annotation utilities, they’re convenient and easy on my aging eyes. But I wish they didn’t come wrapped in legalese.

    Whenever I read a book on my iPad, for example, I have tacitly agreed to the 15,000 word statement of terms and conditions for the iTunes store. It’s written by lawyers in language so dense and tedious it seems designed not to be read, except by other lawyers, and that’s odd, since these Terms of Service agreements (TOS) are all about books that are designed to be read.