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Results for "November, 2006"

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  • Defining civil war, or, the current unpleasantness in Iraq

    It’s not often that lexicographers get to weigh in on matters of national policy.  But since the war in Iraq has now been dubbed a civil war by the news media, and not-a-civil-war by the president, it might be useful to see how the dictionary-makers deal with civil war.

    While our public figures argue over the elements needed for civil war – formal battles between uniformed armies, explicit political agendas, struggle over control of government, requisite number of casualties –our lexicographers have no trouble agreeing on a definition.  

    In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson specifies civil war as internal, not foreign. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of 1913 elaborates on this: civil wars are conflicts between different sections or parties of the same country or nation, a definition that continues to appear today in Webster’s Third.  Pretty much on the same page, the great American post-Civil War Century Dictionary calls civil war “a war between different factions of a people or between different sections of a country.”  And the Oxford English Dictionary agrees that civil wars “occur among fellow-citizens or within the limits of one community.” 

  • A new pronoun. Again?

    There’s a new gender-neutral pronoun in town.  Hu – an epicene replacement for he and shehas been in the news, but so far it’s not on many people’s tongues, and while hu has appeared in print, it’s not likely to catch on any time soon.  

    Most of our pronouns are gender-neutral: I, you, we,they, me, our, them, us,it.  But there are two exceptions: he and she.  Normally this is not a problem, since he and she are incredibly useful words.  But sometimes the lack of an epicene third-person pronoun causes us to produce sentences like these:  

    (1)  Everyone loves his mother.

    (2)  Everyone loves their mother.

    (3)  Everyone loves his or her mother.

  • Guide to America's English-only towns and cities

    Taneytown, Maryland. Farmers Branch, Texas. Pahrump, Nevada. Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Bogota, New Jersey. These towns have just passed or tried to pass laws making English their official language. According to the AP, more than fifty other municipalities have recently considered English-only ordinances. It wont be long before Michelin publishes its Guide to Americas English-only towns and cities.

  • In Pahrump, speak English or get out of town

    At a raucous meeting on Nov. 14, the officials of Pahrump, Nevada voted to make English their official language. The town also banned the flying of foreign flags and denied benefits to illegal immigrants.

  • The Laws of English usage

    In my last post I introduced you to three of Barons laws of English usage. But there are more than three. I call these the ten laws of English usage (you will note, of course, that there are actually twelve of them, which is why I teach English, not math).

  • What's wrong with English?

    A columnist in the Christian Science Monitor recently expressed surprise over the fact that meaning sometimes trumps grammatical agreement in English.   She worries that editors are allowing sentences like, A number of people find this appalling, even though number, which is singular, should take the singular verb finds.   Another writer in the Hartford Courant rails against imprecise grammar.  He doesn’t like it when reporters call people in the news actors – for example, The  politicians were key actors in the passage of the bill.     

    And educators and amateurs alike have reacted in alarm to suggestions that students in Scotland and New Zealand may be allowed to use textspeak, or txtspk, on standardized tests. 

  • Speak English in Arizona, or I'll see you in court

    On election day, while the rest of the country was busy charting the nation’s future, Arizonans took time out from the pressing business of war and the economy to overwhelmingly approve an amendment to the state’s constitution making English their official language.  Framed as Proposition 103 on the ballot, the amendment requires state officials to “preserve, protect and enhance” the role of English, to avoid “any official actions that ignore, harm or diminish the role of English as the language of government,” and to protect “the rights of persons in the state who use English.” It was passed by 74% of Arizona’s voters, which according to the 2000 Census is exactly the same percentage of Arizonans who speak only English. 

    These monolingual voters clearly see that English, a language spoken very well by over 88% of Arizona’s residents and spoken not so well by another 11%, is in danger. 

  • Size matters: Bilinguals have bigger brains

    Dartmouth College neuroscientists have detected more activity in the brains of people who switch between two languages than in those who speak only one.  Using new imaging technology, the researchers found that monolinguals use only the speech areas of their left brains, while bilinguals exercise speech areas in both their left and right hemispheres and show increased left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activity as well.

    Put more simply, the bilingual test subjects used more brain when speaking than their English-only peers did.  Announcing their findings in Atlanta at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Dartmouth scientists proclaimed this increased use of the “neural landscape . . . a very good thing.”