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  • The Noun Game -- a simple grammar lesson leads to a clash of civilizations

    Everybody knows that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. It's one of those undeniable facts of daily life, a fact we seldom question until we meet up with a case that doesn't quite fit the way we're used to viewing things.

  • The gender-neutral pronoun: after 150 years still an epic fail

    Every once in a while some concerned citizen decides to do something about the fact that English has no gender-neutral pronoun. They either call for such a pronoun to be invented, or they invent one and champion its adoption. Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for a century and a half, all to no avail. Coiners of these new words insist that the gender-neutral pronoun is indispensable, but users of English stalwartly reject, ridicule, or just ignore their proposals.

  • A spelling reformer writes to Mr. Lincoln

    In 1859, a Methodist minister named A. B. Pikard wrote two letters to former senator Abraham Lincoln -- Lincoln had lost his seat to Stephen Douglas in 1858 -- protesting the inhumanity of the fugitive slave laws. Its no surprise to find a northern abolitionist minister opposing the return of runaway slaves to the masters theyd escaped. But a minister who uses the phonetic alphabet to argue that the practice is both immoral and unconstitutional, well that is unusual.

  • Defending the language with bullets: If you can read this in English, thank a soldier

    "It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

    Barack Obama

    The bumper sticker on the back of a construction worker’s pickup truck caught my eye: "If you can read this, thank a teacher . . . ."

    This homage to education wasn't what I expected from someone whose bitterness typically manifests itself in vehicle art celebrating guns and religion, but there was more: "If you can read this in English, thank a soldier."

  • This post contains adult themes and ideas about language that readers may find disturbing. That's not a warning, it's a promise.

    Language lessons: It's time for English teachers to stop teaching that the earth is flat

    When I asked a class of prospective teachers to discuss the impact on students of prescriptive rules like "Don't split infinitives," "Don't end sentences with prepositions," and "Don't use contractions," one student ignored the descriptive grammar we had been studying and instead equated correctness in language with intelligent design:

  • 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.

  • Speak English, get out of jail free

    A Pennsylvania judge has sentenced three Spanish-speaking men to learn English or go to jail. The three, who pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery, will remain free on parole for a year, then take an English test. If they fail, then according to Judge Peter Paul Olszewski, Jr., it’s go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. And they’ll stay in jail for the remaining 20 months of their two-year prison term.

  • John Boehner speaks to reporters about HR 401, a new law that would ban Spanish texting.

    House Passes H.R. 401, a Bill to Ban Texting in Spanish

    Special to the Web of Language Washington, D.C., April 1, 2011. The House of Representatives passed a bill today to ban text messages in Spanish. The bill, known as the "Text in English Act of 2011" (H.R. 401), amends the Telecommunications Act of 1996 by prohibiting text messages in Spanish. It is sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), and is co-sponsored by thirty-seven other Republican members of the House. The bill would go a long way toward protecting English, which is becoming an endangered language in the United States, Speaker of the House John Boehner told reporters after the bill's passage. The bill bans texting in other languages besides Spanish, but it protects texting in Native American languages such as Navajo and Wampanoag, Boehner said. Democrats opposing the measure pointed out that no one has spoken Wampanoag since the British banned the language in Massachusetts after King Philip's War in the 1760s.

  • Speak the language of your flag

    America’s War on Language

    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. 

  • "Yes, we want" -- Who owns global English?

    A 1.8 million euro advertising campaign for Madrid's new Spanish-English public schools is being ridiculed for its slogan "Yes, we want," which critics are calling bad English. English is what the chanters of "Yes, we want," want to learn, because English is the new global language. The ads, which evoke Barack Obama's "Yes, we can," have appeared on Spanish television, radio, billboards, and buses, prompting complaints that the Education Ministry should be promoting its bilingual public elementary and high schools in correct English if it wants pupils to pick them.

  • Bus No. 66 requires French as well as exact change

    Montreal bus driver celebrates 40 years of official bilingualism by throwing English-speaking passenger off her bus

    After a passenger asked her for the time in English, a Montreal bus driver called the police and ordered all twenty passengers to get off her bus. Her supervisors defended the action because, while English and French have been Canada's two official languages for exactly forty years, French and French alone is the official language of the province of Quebec.

  • Hwaet, the first word of the Old English poem, Beowulf

    The great language change hoax

    Deniers of global warming, the big bang, and evolution have a new target: language change. Arguing that language change is just a theory, not a fact, they’re launching efforts to remove it from the school curriculum. To support their efforts, they’re citing a new report, “The Myth of Language Change,” presented last month at the annual conference of the Society for Pure English in Toronto.

  • Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker, February 28, 1977

    Literally has always been figurative

    Literally means ‘figuratively.’ Like it or not, that’s the way it is in English, and despite the recent uproar on Reddit and Buzzfeed over dictionaries recognizing the usage, it’s not new—literally has always been figurative.

  • That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.

    Matthew Engel is a British journalist who doesn't like Americanisms. The Financial Times columnist told BBC listeners that American English is an unstoppable force whose vile, ugly, and pointless new usages are invading England "in battalions." He warned readers of his regular FT column that American imports like truck, apartment, and movies are well on their way to ousting native lorries, flats, and films.

  • Teaching commas won't help

    A new rant in Salon by Kim Brooks complains, “My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay,” and asks the perennial question, “Is it time to rethink how we teach?”

    While it’s always time to rethink how we teach, teaching commas won’t help.

    Teachers like Brooks commonly elevate the lowly comma to a position of singular importance. But documents in which a misplaced comma can mean life or death, or at least the difference between a straightforward contract and a legal nightmare of Bleak House proportions, are myths, just like the myth that says Eskimo has twenty-three words for snow (twenty-eight? forty-five?). More to the point: understanding commas does not guarantee competent writing.