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  • Stood the course, now what? Favorite Bush slogan is retired

    George Bush is looking for a few good slogans.  His mission in Iraq accomplished, he stood the course till Aug. 31, the last time he used the phrase “stay the course” in public, according to White House press secretary, Tony Snow.  

    Faced with dwindling support for the war at home, throughout the world, and worst of all, in Iraq itself, not to mention fading Republican hopes for the midterm election, the president did what all good advertising executives do when their campaigns go south, he cut and ran.

    Of course he can’t say that, not out in the open.  So Snow explained to reporters that stay the course “left the wrong impression about what was going on.”

  • I found it on Wikipedia, the eBay for facts

    You can kind find anything you want to buy on eBay, a site where anybody with something to sell can put up an ad. And you can find any information you want on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia where anyone can write or edit any article, no matter how much or how little they know about the subject. Wikipedia is the new eBay for facts.

  • 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.”

  • 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. 

  • 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. 

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.” 

  • Commas gone wild, or, punctuation bares all

    Its hard to imagine commas in the news, but thats exactly whats been happening. Lets call our first story, The Comma goes to War. In September, President George Bush said on CNN that when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look just like a comma. The Japan Times, editorializing that the president had literally lapsed into a comma, joined the legion of critics of who read into this presidential punctuation mark evidence that Bush was trivializing the human cost of war.

  • A roadside bomb exploding in Baghdad

    Roadside bomb: Word of the Year for 2006

    The most prominent word to come out of the war in Iraq isn't "insurgent" (an Iraqi who wants the Yanks to go home), "sectarian violence" (translation: 'not civil war'), or "Green Zone" (a name which gives environmental protection a whole new meaning). It's roadside bomb, the phrase that I've selected as Word of the Year for 2006.

  • "War on Terror" ends in England. Will U.S. stay the course?

    The British government has decided to drop the phrase "war on terror" from its official vocabulary list.  Prime Minister Tony Blair hasn't said "war on terror" since June, and the Foreign Office has told cabinet ministers to find a way to deal with terrorism both at home and in the Middle East without further alienating the growing body of disaffected British Muslims, not to mention the entire Islamic world (apparently the British war on terror never targeted the IRA).  

    Responding to Britain's rhetorical draw down, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department insisted that the war on terror, a trademark of the George W. Bush presidency, remains alive and well: "It's the president's phrase, and that's good enough for us."    

  • Teaching grammar stops violence

    Teaching grammar stops violence.  French Minister of Education Gilles de Robien insists that his new initiative to improve grammar teaching in French schools will actually avert a repeat of the riots that took place in the fall of 2005, when immigrant teenagers ran through the streets night after night looting stores, attacking police, and burning thousands of cars.

  • 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.