blog postsWhy is National Grammar Day different from all other days?Mar 3, 2015 5:45 pm1295 views Today is National Grammar Day, otherwise known as the Feast of Purism. It is the holiest day of the Purist calendar. It is the day all foolish children ask, why is National Grammar Day different from all other days? On all other days, you tell the foolish child, “It is different because I said so.” But on National Grammar Day, you must make the foolish child listen to yet another endless retelling of the story of our liberation from the tyranny of prescriptive grammar.Don't make English official, ban it insteadFeb 21, 2015 2:15 pm927 views It's International Mother Language Day, and once again, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Supporters of the measure say that English forms the glue that keeps America together. They deplore the dollars wasted translating English into other languages. And they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth. I would like to offer a modest alternative: don’t make English official, ban it instead. 2015's word of the year is "autocorrect"Dec 31, 2014 1:00 am788 views The word of the year for 2015 is autocorrect. It may seem strange declaring the word of the year for a year that is only just starting. We’ve just named 2014’s word of the year, after all, and it is torture, because 2014 had plenty of that. But even though we tend to look back at the end of the year to the events that shaped it—the top ten news stories of the year, the films most annoying to North Korea, the best countries that have been invaded, the most significant airbag failures, the grammar rule most honored in the breach—at the end of the year we also start making predictions about the year to come: will politicians continue cozying up to white supremacists or will they be too busy smoking Cuban cigars? Will film makers see that featuring dictators in low brow comedies may put studio mainframes at risk, but it’s great for box office? Will dictators release their own annoying films depicting unpleasant things that might happen to Hollywood directors? Plus, autocorrect represents a highly-refined, first-world kind of torture, and considering what 2014 was like, some correction seems in order.Noah Webster’s Word of the Year for 1828 was torture, tooDec 19, 2014 2:30 pm1941 views It’s December, and time to choose the Word of the Year, the word or phrase that represents the very best of 2014. That’s a heavy burden for a year full of very worsts, from ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Pakistani Taliban to Ebola, Hands up! Don’t shoot, and I can’t breathe. The promising Arab Spring has faded, not so gracefully, into the Arab Winter, and the umbrella protests in Hong Kong this Fall did little to improve the climate of democracy in China. Speaking of winter, December brought enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, back into our vocabulary. This euphemism for torture resurfaced with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA detention and questioning of terror suspects. Coming as it does at the end of a year of one bad thing after another, torture is my choice for the 2014 Word of the Year: it’s the epitome of what went wrong, not just with counterterrorism, but with everything.Post on Facebook, go directly to jail?Dec 3, 2014 4:00 pm563 views Can a Facebook post land you in jail? When is a threat a threat, and when is it just good, clean fun, or even art? If you write a song about killing your spouse, but you haven’t killed them, at least not yet, will the First Amendment protect you from prosecution? These are some of the questions that the U.S. Supreme Court considers as it decides the case of Elonis v. United States.Can you touch a fish? A fisherman says you can’t.Nov 5, 2014 12:00 am956 views Can you touch a fish? One fisherman says that you can’t. John Yates, the ex-captain of a fishing boat, was convicted under a law that makes it illegal to destroy records, documents, or tangible objects in order to impede a federal investigation, and he’s asking the United States Supreme Court to reverse that conviction because fish aren’t “tangible objects.” He ought to know; he catches them for a living. America’s War on LanguageSep 3, 2014 6:30 pm10228 views 2014 is the centennial of World War I, time to take a closer look at one of its offshoots, America's little-known War on Language In April, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. In addition to sending troops to fight in Europe, Americans waged war on the language of the enemy at home. German was the second most commonly-spoken language in America, and banning it seemed the way to stop German spies cold. Plus, immigrants had always been encouraged to switch from their mother tongue to English to signal their assimilation and their acceptance of American values. Now speaking English became a badge of patriotism as well, a way to prove that you were not a spy. The war on language was fought on two fronts, one legal, the other, in the schools. Its impact was immediate and long-lasting. German was the target, but the other “foreign” tongues suffered collateral damage. Immigrant languages in America went into decline, and there was a precipitous drop in the study of foreign languages in US schools as well. The right to be forgottenAug 24, 2014 10:30 pm1446 views The internet is a place where, without even trying, words achieve immortality. Once posted, even the most frivolous thoughts are automatically copied, archived, and indexed. To be sure, the web can be ephemeral. Studies show that much online information is short-lived, with up to eighty-five percent disappearing within a year. And we’ve all had the frustration of failing to find something that we read online just the week before. But words do have permanence. Back in the first century BCE, the Roman poet Horace advised young writers not to put their words out into the world too soon: nescit vox missa reverti, ‘the word, once sent, can never be recalled.’ Today that advice would be, 'an email once sent . . . .' There is simply no “undo.” Horace 2.0 would warn, ‘The internet never forgets.’ But a recent decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) tries to do just that, make the internet forget, because, according to the Court, everyone has the right to be forgotten.Thanks to Facebook, “Like” just means, “Uh-huh”Aug 8, 2014 5:00 pm1493 views Like has a new meaning. The word used to mean ‘feel affection for,’ ‘take pleasure in,’ or ‘enjoy.’ Now, thanks to Facebook, like can also mean, “Yes, I read what you wrote,” or just a noncommital “uh-huh.” My birthday word is "gobbledygook," the perfect gift for a writerMay 9, 2014 6:00 pm1764 views The Oxford English Dictionary has an app that lets you find your birthday word: a word that entered English the month and year you were born. My birthday word is gobbledygook. The perfect gift for any writer.Humans hardwired to use the passive voiceApr 1, 2014 12:00 am2225 views The human brain is hardwired to prefer the passive voice. A definite predilection for passive constructions has been found by a team of neuroscientists led by Elaine Bao Weiss and W. Strang-Ng, postdoctoral researchers at Cornell University’s Neurosyntax Imaging Laboratory. “This was totally unexpected,” Bao Weiss said of the findings. “Generations of writers have been advised to prefer the active to the passive, but that’s not how the brain works.”Is there free Wi-Fi? The Web @25Mar 11, 2014 12:30 pm767 views The World Wide Web turns 25 this week. On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a short paper called “Information Management: A Proposal” that invented the web. Berners-Lee was prompted to do this by the need to make things more efficient at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) atom smasher where he worked. The complexity of projects, combined with frequent staff turnover and general human inefficiency, meant that things got lost. Large-scale experiments were difficult to coordinate, files hard to find, information, sometimes, just plain gone. As a result, work had to be repeated and atoms resmashed, sometimes more than once. To fix this, Berners-Lee sketched a non-hierarchical system of files stored on linked computers. Anybody could access any file, any time, or jump from file to file, not following predetermined pathways, but in any order. The system would be open and unregulated, and since the goal was to share information, not hide it, Berners-Lee didn’t care that much about locking-up the data or protecting intellectual property: [C]opyright enforcement and data security…are of secondary importance….information exchange is still more important than secrecy. Berners-Lee initially called his system “the Mesh.” He later changed that to the World Wide Web, a name which stuck. It took a couple of years for the web to leap off the page and become an actual information storehouse. CERN’s first web site went live in 1991. Before the decade ended, the web had become indispensable, not just to atomic scientists, but to everyone.Take the National Grammar Day QuizMar 3, 2014 2:30 pm2306 views Once again it’s National Grammar Day, a day when ordinary citizens grab red pens and correct other people’s grammar (they correct spelling on Dictionary Day, punctuation on National Punctuation Day, and pronunciation on Talk Like a Pirate Day). Even if you celebrated National Grammar day last year or in 2010, you must celebrate it again today. Most important, or most importantly, if you live in a state that is adopting the Common Core, you are required to take the National Grammar Day Quiz today. If you took the National Grammar Quiz in 2011, you must retake it, because those scores are no longer valid.Facebook multiplies genders but offers users the same three tired pronounsFeb 28, 2014 4:15 pm1599 views For years Facebook has allowed users to mark their relationship status as “single,” “married,” and “it’s complicated.” They could identify as male or female or keep their gender private. Now, acknowledging that gender can also be complicated, the social media giant is letting users choose among male, female, and 56 additional custom genders, including agender, cis, gender variant, intersex, trans person, and two-spirit. Facebook users now have so many gender choices that a single drop-down box can’t hold them all. And they’re free to pick more than one. But to refer to this set of 58 genders Facebook offers only three tired pronouns: he, she, and they. A Facebook user can now identify as a genderqueer, neutrois, cis male, androgynous other, but Facebook friends can only wish him, her, or them a happy birthday.Nobody likes a whistleblower, wrayer, snitch, narker, denunciator, quadruplator, or emphanistFeb 23, 2014 5:45 pm1087 views A law firm that specializes in defending whistleblowers has started a petition on change.org to persuade dictionaries and thesauruses to ditch their derogatory synonyms for whistleblower in favor of positive terms: [W]histleblowers are increasingly stepping forward on behalf of the public good. Yet that old school-yard mentality of “nobody likes a snitch” persists. It's high time for a change. The lawyers want the definers of English to replace negative synonyms like betrayer, fink, and snitch with uplifting ones like watchdog, truthteller, and fraud-buster. All these negatives “mean fewer people coming forward to protect us when they see something wrong.” And that, in turn, means fewer whistleblowers fired, disciplined, or fleeing to Russia, which equals fewer clients for the firm.