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  • You are the person of the year. One of you? Two of you? All of you?

    Time magazine has just announced that you are its person of the year for 2006.  One blogger faulted the magazine for not making clear whether you is singular or plural.  Since the magazine’s cover has a mirror – actually a bit of silvered paper impersonating a mirror – it seemed clear to me that you was singular. Calling you the person of the year, not the people of the year, suggested this as well.  Nonetheless, some ambiguity remains: many of the articles in the “Person of the Year” issue address a mass audience, users of the World Wide Web, you plural.   

    Whatever Time meant, it’s clear that when it comes to numbers, the English second person pronoun isn’t clear at all.  You can mean one, or two, or more than two.  That hasn’t always been the case.  Old English had separate second person pronouns for the singular, the dual (referring to two people), and the plural (for more than two).  The dual died out – after the Norman conquest the English decided that two was the loneliest number – but singular thee, thou and thy held on till well into the 17th century, with ye, you and your reserved in most cases for the plural. 

  • Yo! A new gender-neutral pronoun from, of all places, Baltimore

    Yo, a new gender-neutral pronoun, has been popping up in an unlikely spot, the hallways of a few Baltimore schools. Or maybe Maryland middle schools arent such unlikely incubators of new words after all, since theyre full of teen-agers whose linguistic inventiveness hasnt yet been beaten out of them by grammar lessons and standardized tests, teenagers who love to play with language and coin ever-newer words just to prove to adults that were never going to get it, never in a million years will be as cool as they are now. (What they dont know is that we invented cool, or our parents did, but hey, whatever.)

  • WTF? Swearing at work is good for business

    Bans on swearing in college sports have been making headlines in the last year or two as part of a concerted effort to enforce good sportsmanship among players and fans alike, both toward the opposing team and toward the refs, but a new study coming out of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School reports that, while swearing may cost you the game, on the plus side it does build team spirit.  Their research further suggests that turning the air blue on a regular basis may actually be good for business.

    The legendary American lawyer Clarence Darrow reportedly told one interviewer, “I don’t swear just for the hell of it” (at least the Darrow character in Inherit the Wind says this).  Now two business scholars, Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins, report in a recent issue of the Leadership and Organization Development Journal (vol. 28 [2007], pp. 492-507), that regular swearing at work creates a sense of community and reinforces social relationships. 

  • WTF is the 2010 Word of the Year

    WTF is the 2010 Word of the Year. Each December the Web of Language chooses one word or phrase which best exemplifies the spirit of the year gone by. It may be a new word, like "refudiate," chosen as word of the year this year by the Oxford American Dictionary, or an old one, like "austerity," Merriam-Webster's choice. It could be a word that lasts: "blog" and "information superhighway" were words of the year. But it could be an obscure word as well: "locavore," for example, which few people had a taste for, or worse yet, "plutoed," a word with the visibility of a very dim comet (neither word was Web of Language approved). Then there was "roadside bomb." That morbid phrase appeared in so many daily headlines about the War in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 that it was the Web of Language word of the year two years running.

  • Written Language Disorder: Medical researchers fear there's no cure for bad writing

    A group of Mayo Clinic researchers has found that almost 15 percent of otherwise normal school-aged children in Rochester, Minnesota, are suffering from Written Language Disorder. According to Dr. Slavica K. Katusic, while Written Language Disorder, or WLD, does not pose as great a threat as the H1N1 virus, it’s actually just as common in school children as reading problems, with boys twice as likely as girls to be symptomatic.

    Teachers and editors have long suspected that some people write better than others, and critics typically treat writing they don’t like as diseased. But bad writing wasn’t recognized by the medical profession as pathological until 1994, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, defined the syndrome, and psychiatrists suddenly began seeing it in many of their patients.

  • Words don't lie: semantic mapping of presidential debate shows what's really on candidates' minds

    With the global economy imploding and the United States mired in two wars of attrition, the presidential candidates met for their first debate Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi. By counting their words we can create a semantic map for each candidate, a map which shows just how skillfully Sens. McCain and Obama skirted these pressing issues.

  • Words don't lie, part IV: Candidates debate role of plumbers in the White House

    Although the candidates did occasionally discuss substantive issues like school vouchers, abortion, and the principles they might use in selecting Supreme Court justices, the most riveting part of last night's third and final presidential debate, held at Long Island's Hofstra University, came when John McCain looked straight into the camera and asked the American people, "Why can't you ever get a plumber when you need one?"

  • Words don't lie, part III: Campaign rhetoric gives way to campaign linguistics

    Language has taken on a special prominence in the 2008 presidential election. It's customary for each side to malign the opposition for using words that are vague or deceptive, and even for lying outright nothing new there. But this time around it's Language with a big "L" that's also coming under scrutiny, the use of language as a whole, not just individual words unfairly spun or improperly deployed.

  • Words don't lie, part II: Perception Analyzer reveals no Jack Kennedys at vice presidential debate

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  • Without a net: Judges tell jurors with smart phones, "No surfing allowed"

    According to the New York Times, jurors around the country have been triggering mistrials by using their iPhones to research the cases they’re deciding, or worse yet, by Twittering trial updates. Judges traditionally instruct jurors not to read about or discuss the case outside the courtroom. Now they’ve added prohibitions against surfing or talking about the case online as well, because more and more are googling plaintiffs and defendants and the finer points of the law on their web-enable cell phones, or posting trial trivia on Facebook.

    It won't be long before Law and Order runs an episode on this new kind of jury tampering – L and O's unaccredited but fully-functional Hudson University School of Law has already worked getting juries offline into its curriculum – but real-life attorneys fear that web-savvy jurors are undermining the criminal justice system and they want the internet out of court.

  • Will the real Gettysburg Address please stand up?

    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.

  • Will the iPad change your life?

    Launching Apple's long-awaited iPad, Steve Jobs promised that his "magical" device will not just let us surf the web, play games, videos, and tunes, and check our email, it will also do for reading what the iPod did for listening to music. Like writing, and the printing press, and the personal computer, it will change our lives.

  • The day I took this screenshot there were more than 9.4 million entries in Wikipedia's multilingual database. In addition to more than 3.2 million articles in English and close to a million in French, there were over 1,000 articles in Nahuatl, a language with 1.3 million speakers, and 100 or more articles in languages like Tok Pisin (4 million speakers) and Aymara (2.4 million speakers).

    Wikipedia: write first, ask questions later

    Admit it, we all use Wikipedia. The collaborative online encyclopedia is often the first place we go when we want to know a fact, a date, a name, an event. We don't even have to seek out Wikipedia: in many cases it's the top site returned when we google that fact, date, name, or event. But as much as we've come to rely on it, Wikipedia is also the online source whose reliability we most often question or ridicule.

  • Wichita's English-only school sued for discrimination

    In the Fall of 2007, St. Anne Catholic School in Wichita, Kansas, instituted an English-only policy for students: no language except English in class, in the halls, at lunch, or on the playground.  Adam Silva, a sixth-grader whose native language is English, and who had attended St. Anne’s since kindergarten, refused to sign the required English-language loyalty oath because he wanted to speak Spanish sometimes too, so he was expelled (the school insists that Silva left voluntarily).  

    Now Silva, his parents, and three other students and their families, are suing St. Anne’s in federal court for discrimination.  They seek an end to the foreign-language ban, along with Silva’s readmission, monetary damages, and court costs.

  • Why we misread

    Shortly after 10 a.m. EDT on June 28, FOXNews and CNN erroneously reported that the US Supreme Court had invalidated the Affordable Care Act. Simultaneously, Scotusblog, which was live-blogging the last Supreme Court session of the 2011 term, correctly announced that the Court had upheld most of the ACA.

    The networks that rushed to judgment were widely criticized for failing to read far enough into the 59-page opinion before reporting it. Their error initially led many, including Pres. Obama, to think that the health care bill was dead. Granted the health care opinion is long and intricate (the opinion, concurrences, and dissents fill 193 pages), but we find out in the middle of page two that the ACA is “affirmed in part and reversed in part.” That should have been a clue.