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  • Trump’s words on January 6 were a clear and present danger

    The defense in Donald Trump’s second impeachment rested in large part on the assertion that his fiery words to protestors on January 6 were protected by the First Amendment. Republican senators used free speech—along with other pretexts—to ignore Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors. But they were wrong. Trump’s incitement was not protected speech. His words posed an unambiguous, clear and present danger.

  • Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were detained in Havre, Montana, by a Customs and Border Patrol agent for speaking Spanish

    Shopping while Spanish in Montana

    In 2018, Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were detained in Havre, Montana, by a Customs and Border Protection agent for speaking Spanish while buying groceries at a gas station convenience store. Both are US citizens, fluent in English and Spanish. Both lived in Havre at the time and had valid Montana drivers licenses. Yet CBP agent Paul O’Neill singled them out because, “you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here.”

  • The First Amendment, from North Carolina's copy of the original Bill of Rights

    Will the Supreme Court soon be policing your speech?

    Last week Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito delivered a politically-charged speech to the conservative Federalist Society. He denounced same-sex marriage, bemoaned the loss of religious freedom in America, complained that the Covid-19 pandemic gave government unprecedented control over our lives, and lashed out at experts influencing public policy. Justice Alito also reminded his sympathetic audience of the dangers to the First Amendment posed by the “growing hostility to the expression of unfashionable views” on campus or in the office. His one example: “You can’t say that marriage is the union between one man and one woman.”

    In June, Alito dissented from a Court opinion upholding the rights of gay and transgender employees. In a section of his dissent headed “Freedom of Speech,” he attacked laws and regulations targeting language discrimination, citing what he considered two blatant First Amendment violations: a New York City’s human rights law that makes ignoring someone’s pronoun a punishable offense; and unspecified college regulations that require the use of singular they or coined gender pronouns like xe, zie, and hir. These rules encourage the use of inclusive language, but Alito implied he would welcome litigation asserting the First Amendment defense, “You can’t make me say your pronouns.”

  • Pronoun backlash

    According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans have heard something about gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns, and one in five adults knows someone who uses such pronouns. As these pronouns gain currency, they’re also generating some backlash, especially on social media, where people feel free to say a lot of not nice things that may not always be carefully thought out.

  • House Joint Resolution 1, presenting what would become the 19th Amendment, passed June 4, 1919; ratified by the states Aug. 18, 1920; became law Aug. 26, 1920.

    There are no pronouns in the Nineteenth Amendment

    The Nineteenth Amendment reads, 

    The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

    It was ratified 100 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1920 – in time for more than eight million women to vote in the presidential election that year. 

    There are no pronouns in the Nineteenth Amendment. There are two reasons for this:

    1. The amendment, originally proposed in 1878, mirrors the language of the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which extended voting rights to African Americans, and which has no pronouns.
    2. Pronouns are ambiguous, especially gender pronouns, especially in the law.
  • Pronouns on TV: pop culture meets inclusive language

    You know that gender pronouns like hie and zie are a thing when they start showing up in TV dramas. If you haven’t noticed them, never fear, for I, your professor of pronouns, will now enlighten you.

    Let’s start with hen. It’s Swedish, not English, but be patient, because there’s an English tie-in at the end. 

  • Chicago Tribune headline, Mrs. Young invents pronoun . . . makes principals gasp

    Heer, hiser, himer: Pronouns in the news, 1912 edition

    On January 7, 1912, a headline in the Chicago Tribune breathlessly announced, “Mrs. Ella Young Invents Pronoun . . . Makes Principals Gasp.” Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, told the Tribune she thought up what she called the “duo-personal” pronouns he’er, his’er, and him’er as she walked to a meeting with school principals. The story went viral. Then it unraveled.

  • Cover of What's Your Pronoun? Beyond he and she.

    The oldest genderless pronouns are lo and zo, for French, and e, es, em, for English

    In 1765, Joachim Faiguet de Villeneuve invented two genderless third-person pronouns, lo (singular) and zo (plural), for an artificial language that he called Langue nouvelle, or ‘new language.’ English didn’t catch up until 1841, when Francis Augustus Brewster coined e, es, and em.

  • Cover of What's Your Pronoun? Beyond he and she.

    A grammar lesson for Justice Alito

    By a vote of 6-3 in Bostock v. Clayton County, on June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”

    But in a section in his dissent in the case headed “Freedom of Speech,” Justice Samuel Alito warns that the Bostock decision not only opens up bathrooms and locker rooms to sexual predators, it runs afoul of the First Amendment by forcing people to use gender pronouns against their will.  

    Justice Alito is wrong about pronouns, and so here’s a little grammar lesson for him. 

  • La Marianne, symbol of the French Revolution

    The French Academy wants you to remember, this virus is feminine

    With millions around the world getting sick and dying from a pandemic virus, the French Academy wants you to know that the virus is feminine: la covid 19, not le covid 19. Young and old, previously healthy or immuno-compromised, recently arrived from abroad or never been out of the hexagon, breaking quarantine or sheltering in place, it seems that the French have been treating the pandemic as masculine. But the rule makers at the French Academy want to put a stop to all that. 

  • Cover of What's Your Pronoun? Beyond he and she.

    Verbing pronouns

    Nonbinary singular they has become so normal that people now want to know the rules for how to use it. Which is right, they is or they are? Is the reflexive themself or themselves? Even if your answer is, “Wait, what rules? There are no rules,” the fact that anybody’s asking is all the proof we need that English pronouns are continuing to change. Here’s the latest change: as we see in this tweet from the British writer and gender activist, Shon Faye, nonbinary singular they has become a verb:

    A trans man described his period of identifying as nonbinary to me the other day as “I was they/themming at the time.”

  • what's your pronoun? cover

    It’s National Grammar Day. I can’t even, and you shouldn’t either.

    National Grammar Day is March 4 because it’s the only day of the year that’s a complete sentence. It’s a command, March forth, right? Verb plus adverb, if you’re being pedantic. 

    Except that National Grammar Day is the Day of Purism, not to be confused with Purim, which is actually a week later. And purists believe—forgive me for stereotyping—that a noun can’t become a verb. March, the month, is a noun. March, the command, is a verb. So if a purist is to be consistent, their belovèd National Grammar Day is based on a lie. 

  • Cover what's your pronoun

    From they to tey to te: pronoun mansplaining in the 1970s

    In 1971, Casey Miller and Kate Swift coined the gender-neutral pronouns tey, ter, and tem. Writing in the preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Miller and Swift called their creation “the human pronoun” which would help women to be recognized “as full-fledged members of the human race.” Three years later, Warren Farrell came up with te, tes, and tir, barely acknowledging Miller and Swift's coinage, but explaining in great detail why his "human pronouns" were superior. 

  • A sample of pretty perfect 18th-century handwriting, evenly space and leaded, otherwise called English Roundhand, from George Bickham’s Universal Penman, 1743.

    It’s National Handwriting Day: there’s an app for that

    Now that we keyboard everything from novels to shopping lists and texting on our phones has become the main way to reach out and touch someone, the digital age has stirred a nostalgia for the good old days when everything was writ by hand (apparently no one wants to bring back making actual phone calls). And so we have National Handwriting Day, January 23, the supposed birthday of John Hancock, who penned the signature heard round the world. It may seem ironic, but the only way to find out about National Handwriting Day is to go online.

    That’s not the only problem with National Handwriting Day. It’s sponsored by the makers of pens and pencils, and not surprisingly their message is a commercial one: writing with a pen is personal and typing on a machine is anything but. But even though we still buy pens and pencils, no one actually wants to re-learn handwriting, which was nobody’s idea of fun. For some of us it was actually torture. 

    Enter, a start-up that will turn keyboarded text into a personalized note so you don’t have to. 

  • Will the Word Pedometer make babies smarter?

    It’s the giving season, and the most intellectually woke gift for that underprivileged infant on your list is the Word Pedometer®. Just attach its voice-activated mic to a bit of clothing and the pedometer counts every word the baby hears. People will want to talk to the baby just so they can watch the the baby’s daily word-count soar. Because according to the manufacturer, hearing lots of words before age five is the key to success in school and later in life—it’s even better than Mozart for developing the infant brain. So increasing the number of words a baby hears will make that baby smarter, especially if they are from a poor or minority family that normally can’t afford extra words. 

    At least that’s the theory behind what is essentially a Fitbit for Words. But the theory is wrong. It perpetuates the long-discredited belief that economically deprived minorities are also linguistically deprived. Talk is cheap, so give them words, not food stamps, and babies will succeed. Yes, babies need to be talked to, but metering the words they hear won’t make them baby Einsteins.