The Web of Language

blog navigation

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

blog posts

  • 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.

  • Entry for 'thon' in Webster's Second New International Dictionary, 1934

    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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • "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.

  • 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.

  • Take the National Grammar Day Quiz

    National Grammar Day rolls around again on March 4. It's a time for rejoicing, when everybody goes out and tells someone else what's wrong with their speech or writing. Wear good sneakers, and be prepared to run away really, really fast. Last year I worried whether anybody cared about National Grammar Day. I mean, I'm not observant, but there are plenty of people who believe there's only one true way to parse a sentence and who can't wait to celebrate this day of obligation by reading the dictionary (yes, there is only one dictionary, and if you're really orthodox you may only read it facing in the direction of Oxford, or maybe if you're American Orthodox, Springfield, Massachusetts), after which you may go out to photograph three public signs with errors in them and then post them on the internet.

  • Too old to multitask? The author texting while writing on a laptop and listening to tunes

    Multitasking: learning to teach and text at the same time

    Most of my students belong to the digital generation, so they consider themselves proficient multitaskers. They take notes in class, participate in discussion, text on their cell phones, and surf on their laptops, not sequentially but all at once. True, they're not listening to their iPods in class, and they may find that inconvenient, since they like a soundtrack accompanying them as they go through life. But they're taking advantage of every other technology they can cram into their backpacks. They claim it helps them learn, even if their parents and teachers are not convinced.