blog postsHumans hardwired to use the passive voiceApr 1, 2014 12:00 am2201 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 pm754 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 pm2237 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 pm1262 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 pm926 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.Plain English: It’s the LawFeb 1, 2014 10:45 am1475 views In 1998 Pres. Bill Clinton sent a memorandum to federal agencies telling them "the Federal Government's writing must be in plain language." Twelve years later the plain language policy became the law. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 seeks “to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly,” and requires federal agencies to “use plain writing in every covered document of the agency that the agency issues or substantially revises.” Legislators could have said all that more clearly, with fewer words, and in the active voice, but they felt no need to follow the plain language guidelines the law calls for.On National Handwriting Day we celebrate handwriting because it’s no longer importantJan 23, 2014 7:11 pm953 views Once again it’s National Handwriting Day. The Romans had Carve on a Clay Tablet Day, Gutenberg had Paint on Papyrus Day, we have National Handwriting Day. That’s because, while writing remains important, handwriting is an obsolete technology worth remembering only once a year.Banning words for the new yearJan 19, 2014 12:21 pm1086 views In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions like quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, each January brings new calls to ban words, the linguistic equivalent of losing weight. . . . Instead of learn a new word every day, the New Year’s resolution of this crowd is ban a new word every day. This year’s banned words include selfie, twerk, and hashtag.The phrase of the year for 2013 is "invasion of privacy"Jan 2, 2014 10:30 am1314 views Peeping Toms, reporters, and door-to-door salesmen have always done it. The Stasi, the SAVAK, and the KGB were notorious for doing it. Photographers do it. So do hackers, identity thieves, and wearers of X-ray Specs. Employers and school principals see it as a normal part of their job. But now Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ, and the DGSE in France are doing it as well. And that’s why, thanks in part to Edward Snowden’s leaks, which technically invaded government privacy to expose the widespread practice of invading individual privacy, the phrase of the year for 2013 is invasion of privacy.The Word of the Year for 2013 is "marriage"Dec 20, 2013 11:00 am1231 views The Web of Language Word of the Year for 2013 is marriage. It’s a word that was redefined this year not by dictionaries, but by an even higher authority, the United States Supreme Court.High Times: Grimm's Law turns cannabis into hemp in four easy stepsDec 9, 2013 2:00 pm1015 views With Colorado set to legalize recreational marijuana on January 1, the Denver Post hired a marijuana editor, providing instant fodder for late-night comedians everywhere. But recreational pot is also serious business, and so the editor of Summa Sæculorum, the journal of the Boulder Philological Society, has printed a recipe for residents of Colorado, Washington state, Uruguay, and anyplace else about to legalize marijuana, for using Grimm's Law to turn cannabis into hemp in four easy steps.To Whom It May Concern: Today is National Letter Writing DayDec 7, 2013 11:30 am1193 views This letter is to inform you that today, Dec. 7, is National Letter Writing Day. To wit: email, tweets, and texts may be the communications media of choice in the present digital age, but compared to traditional forms of correspondence, that is to say, the letter, of which this present missive is an exemplar, they are impersonal. It is not these popular communication technologies, but only the letter, that is capable of transmitting personal sentiments unmediated by technology. Only said letter may be composed thoughtfully by hand, using the finest writing instruments created by skilled craftspeople and robotic machines, and the best papers, created in pollution-free factories on other continents by underpaid workers working twelve to sixteen hour shifts.A portrait of the selfieNov 24, 2013 4:45 pm2413 views Oxford Dictionaries has picked selfie as its 2013 Word of the Year (WOTY). Announcing your word of the year in mid-November guarantees a lot of attention from journalists and late-night TV comics, but it also suggests that not much is going to happen, linguistically, in the six weeks that remain in 2013. The Web of Language won’t make its annual WOTY pick until late December, and the American Dialect Society makes its announcement in early January. Nevertheless, judging from the attention it has gotten, selfie seems a good choice.On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's speech, will the real Gettysburg Address please stand up?Nov 16, 2013 1:45 pm1796 views Nov. 19, 2013, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Or, to put it another way, the best-known American speech is seven score and ten years old. Although it’s famous, familiar, and was often memorized by school children (schoolchildren in the North, that is), the text of the Gettysburg Address is uncertain: we all know the words, or many of them, but it turns out that there are many Gettysburg Addresses, not just one. There's just no one hundred percent accurate record, spoken or written, of exactly what Lincoln said that day.Will the real Gettysburg Address please stand up?Nov 16, 2013 1:45 pm173 views Nov. 19, 2013, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Or, to put it another way, the best-known American speech is seven score and ten years old. Although it’s famous, and was often memorized by school children (schoolchildren in the north, that is), the text of the Gettysburg Address is uncertain: we have no one hundred percent accurate record, spoken or written, of the words that Lincoln said that day.