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  • 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.

  • How to save an endangered language

    There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken around the globe today. Five hundred years ago there were twice as many, but the rate of language death is accelerating. With languages disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks, in ninety years half of today's languages will be gone. Mostly it's the little languages, those with very few speakers, that are dying out, but language death can hit big languages as well as little and mid-sized ones. And it can hit those big languages pretty hard. Sure, languages like Degere and Vuna are disappearing in Kenya, Jeju in Korea, Manchu in China. And sure, Nigerians complain that Yoruba is fast giving way to English. But language-watchers warn that English itself may have entered a steep and potentially irreversible decline in both its native and its adoptive country.

  • 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.

  • Facebook multiplies genders but offers users the same three tired pronouns

    For years Facebook has allowed users to mark their relationship status as “single,” “married,” and “it’s complicated.” They could identify as male or female or keep their gender private. Now, acknowledging that gender can also be complicated, the social media giant is letting users choose among male, female, and 56 additional custom genders, including agender, cis, gender variant, intersex, trans person, and two-spirit.

    Facebook users now have so many gender choices that a single drop-down box can’t hold them all. And they’re free to pick more than one. But to refer to this set of 58 genders Facebook offers only three tired pronouns: he, she, and they. A Facebook user can now identify as a genderqueer, neutrois, cis male, androgynous other, but Facebook friends can only wish him, her, or them a happy birthday.

  • In this holiday season, Hallmark wants you to ditch your gay apparel and don your fun apparel

    Is "gay apparel" gay?

    Hallmark—“when you care enough to send the very best”—has caused a stir by taking the “gay” out of Christmas. One of Hallmark’s new Keepsake tree ornaments for 2013, the Holiday Sweater, revises a line from the well-known carol, “Deck the Halls.” The company ditched the traditional, “Don we now our gay apparel,” because in many contexts, gay means ‘homosexual,’ replacing it with “Don we now our fun apparel,” which it felt would be more acceptable to a general audience that includes prudish adults, impressionable children, and fundamentalists.

  • 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.

  • Dirty words you can say on television: WTF as the newest cable channel?

    Whether you're a dedicated couch potato or only an occasional channel surfer, I'm sure you've noticed that swearing on prime-time television is on the rise.

  • 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.

  • How a bill becomes a law 2.0: A high-tech president renews the Patriot Act by autopen

    Because he was traveling in Europe when it came time for him to approve the extension of several key parts of the USA Patriot Act, Pres. Obama signed the bill, not in person, but long distance, with the stroke of an autopen.

  • Webster's banned for too much sex

    Why ban a word when you can ban the whole dictionary? That's the attitude of one southern California school district, which pulled Merriam-Webster's "Collegiate Dictionary" from school shelves after a parent complained that its definition of "oral sex" was too explicit.

  • No laptops: classroom bans on digital devices are spreading

    Banning laptops in the classroom

    The new semester is starting, and a colleague proudly announced on Facebook that he is banning laptops, tablets, and cell phones in his classes because students are using them to go on Facebook. Other colleagues, who seem always to be trumpeting their support for the digital revolution on their own Facebooks, promptly “commented” their own plans to institute classroom bans on these attention-sapping devices. So much for the myth that professors trend left. 

  • The government does not control your grammar

    Despite the claims of mass murderers and freepers, the government does not control your grammar. The government has no desire to control your grammar, and even if it did, it has no mechanism for exerting control: the schools, which are an arm of government, have proved singularly ineffective in shaping students' grammar. Plus every time he opened his mouth, Pres. George W. Bush proved that the government can't even control its own grammar.

  • Top ten language stories of 2010

    2010 was a year rich in stories about language, not the uplifting kind that celebrate effective, poetic communication, but stories about attempts to regulate language, stifle it, even kill it off outright. Here are the top 10 language stories of the year, in no particular order.

  • Don't make English official, ban it instead

    It's International Mother Language Day, and once again, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Supporters of the measure say that English forms the glue that keeps America together. They deplore the dollars wasted translating English into other languages. And they fear a horde of illegal aliens adamantly refusing to acquire the most powerful language on earth.

    I would like to offer a modest alternative: don’t make English official, ban it instead.



  • Webster's lays down the law

    The Supreme Court is using dictionaries to interpret the Constitution. Both conservative justices, who believe the Constitution means today exactly what the Framers meant in the 18th century, and liberal ones, who see the Constitution as a living, breathing document changing with the times, are turning to dictionaries more than ever to interpret our laws: a new report shows that the justices have looked up almost 300 words or phrases in the past decade. According to the New York Times, last week alone Chief Justice Roberts consulted five dictionaries.

    Even though judicial dictionary look-ups are on the rise, the Court has never commented on how or why dictionary definitions play a role in Constitutional decisions. That’s further complicated by the fact that dictionaries aren’t designed to be legal authorities, or even authorities on language, though many people, including the justices of the Supreme Court, think of them that way. What dictionaries are, instead, are records of how some speakers and writers have used words. Dictionaries don’t include all the words there are, and except for an occasional usage note, they don’t tell us what to do with the words they do record. Although we often say, “The dictionary says…,” there are many dictionaries, and they don’t always agree.