The Web of Language

blog navigation

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

blog posts

  • The Song of Singular they

    When the singer Sam Smith announced on Instagram that their pronouns were they, them—which got more than half a million likes in less than a day—the Oscar and Grammy winner acknowledged “there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try.”

    Smith was correct that there would be some misgendering. In reporting the story, CNN, the BBC, and the Guardian all referred to Smith as “they,” but over the course of a 5-sentence story the Associated Press called Smith “he” and “his” seven times.


  • The right to read

    It’s been a bad few weeks for reading.

    First a South Carolina police union pressured a high school to drop two books from its summer reading list. The problem? The books depicted cops as violent racists. The union defended its foray into censorship because, “when people don’t like the books their kids are asked to read, they call the police.”

    Then, as if the book police wasn’t bad enough, a Detroit federal judge ruled that there is no constitutional right to read. Guns, yes. Books, no.

  • Will the real Gettysburg Address please stand up?

    Nov. 19, 2013, is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Or, to put it another way, the best-known American speech is seven score and ten years old. Although it’s famous, and was often memorized by school children (schoolchildren in the north, that is), the text of the Gettysburg Address is uncertain: we have no one hundred percent accurate record, spoken or written, of the words that Lincoln said that day.

  • Ghostwriters . . . who ya gonna call?

    The New York Times reports that people are turning to ghostwriters to help them write text messages, dating profiles, and status updates, the kind of personal writing that most of us used to do for ourselves along with our shopping lists, thank you notes, and diary entries. . . .

    But now that the internet has turned us all into writers, ordinary people are calling ghostwriters to help them post online. . . .

    The internet began as a free-wheeling, we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-rules space that would democratize writing. Turning everyone with a keyboard into a writer would take writing out of the hands of specialists. Along the way, you could ditch those school rules. Upper case, lower case? Who cares? Spelling and punctuation? No, thank you. Subject-verb agreement? It’s for losers. No teacher was going to cover that email in red ink; no boss was going to send that .pdf back for revision.

    But that’s not what happened. . . .


  • The new digital censorship: Writers blocking readers

    In a new form of censorship, social media lets writers block their readers.

    I found out recently, and quite by accident, that a writer whose work I’ve read from time to time had blocked me on Twitter. It’s a digital first: never since the invention of letters have writers had the option of preventing readers from accessing their work. 

    I’m not talking about private diaries, personal letters, or eyes-only top secret communiqués. I mean writers who write for the public. These writers—who used to be grateful that anyone was willing to glance at their work let alone read it all the way through—now have the power to say, “My words are for everybody else, but they’re not for you.”

  • International Pronouns Day

    October 17 is International Pronouns Day, a whole day devoted to a part of speech that comes with its own website and a dedicated hashtag, #PronounsDay. Since it’s the first-ever pronouns day, many people are not sure how to celebrate, and so the organizers offer some suggested activities: tell people your pronouns; ask people their pronouns; have a pronoun party.

    A party? Pronouns, a part of speech that probably made your eyes glaze over in English class, are now highly-contested, high-profile symbols in the ongoing struggle for human rights. Maybe not worth a pronoun party. Certainly worth a #PronounsDay.

  • Charlie Hebdo shows there’s always some speech that isn’t free

    On January 7, 2015, terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve, including the editor and several cartoonists. Much of the world denounced this brutal attack. French president François Hollande expressed outrage over the murder of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, and millions of ordinary people rallied at the Place de la République in Paris, in the squares of other French cities, and in cities abroad as well, to reassert their commitment to free speech. Je suis Charlie became the chant of the day. 

    But Charlie fever proved all too brief. On January 11, the same world leaders who were chanting “Je suis Charlie” called for increased police powers to spy on the internet activities and mobile phones of terrorists, suspected terrorists, people who might one day become terrorists, and for good measure, just about everybody else on the planet, including cartoonists. There was little outrage that this surveillance, calculated to protect everyone’s speech, could actually wind up suppressing speech. And by the time the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre published a new issue on January 14, with a cover of Muhammad shedding a tear and holding a sign that says, “Je suis Charlie,” many of those who had condemned the murder of cartoonists now said, free speech is important, but insulting religion invites serious consequences. 

  • Marriage equality, guns, health care, and the myth of judicial objectivity

    In Bread and Jam for Frances, a children’s book about a family of badgers, Frances’s best friend, Albert, eats his lunch bit by bit so that the sandwich, the pickle, the egg, and the milk come out even. Supreme Court decisions are a bit like that. In decisions on marriage equality, health care, and the Second Amendment, the justices interpreted the facts of each case and chose their arguments to make their decision come out right.

  • "She" -- Chelsea Manning and the first-ever court-ordered pronoun

    In what could be the first-ever case of a court-ordered pronoun, a U.S. Army tribunal has ordered prison officials to use a feminine pronoun when referring to Chelsea Manning, who has changed her gender identity from male to female. . . . In plain English, the Army doesn’t have to call her Chelsea, but it does have to call her ‘she.'


  • Dictionaries are trending

    When people don’t understand something in the news, they no longer wait for the Sunday talk shows to tell them what it means, or the next issue of Time, or even the Daily Show. With just a click, they look it up in the dictionary.

  • The internet of things? More like the internet of snitches.

    We call it the internet of things, but it’s really the internet of snitches, because snitches reveal things about us we might prefer to keep under wraps. These devices in our cars, refrigerators, and DVRs regularly track and report not just their status, but our status as well: what we’re doing with the devices, and where. It’s an indirect report, to be sure, but it erodes our privacy all the same. Now, two new web-enabled gadgets— a TV and a doll—directly record and report what we say, which is the very definition of snitching, and our ebook readers, which have been around a bit longer, can even peek inside our heads to expose what we think.

  • Can a Swedish pronoun cure sexism?

    Can a coined gender-neutral pronoun reduce sexism? A recent study by Margit Tavits and Efrén O. Pérez published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is optimistic that it can. According to Tavits and Pérez, now that the new, ungendered Swedish pronoun hen is official, Swedes will be more open to women in public life and more likely to support the rights of LGBT people. Only hen is not really official in any meaningful sense, and Sweden was already socially progressive decades before hen gained prominence.

  • <CTRL>, <ALT>, and especially <DELETE>: Proposed Cybersecurity Act gives president power to unplug the internet

    On April 1 (that date may be no accident), Sen. Jay Rockefeller and his co-sponsors introduced the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 (S.B. 773) with companion legislation creating the office of Cybersecurity Advisor to the president (S.B. 778). 

    One blogger warns that if these bills pass, the president will have the authority to unplug the internet and federalize private computer networks.

  • Forget Rees-Mogg, Fowler, and Strunk & White, the arbiter of English today is Autocorrect

    Jacob Rees-Mogg, the foppish MP newly-appointed Leader of Britain’s House of Commons and sometimes called the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century, has issued a no-nonsense style guide for all writing done by his staff. Like any set of language do’s and don’ts, Rees-Mogg’s guide to utterly correct if somewhat outdated English, prepared some years ago for use in his Somerset constituency office and now to be used in the leader’s new office, includes rules to be followed and words to be banned.

    But all style guides are doomed to fail--except maybe Autocorrect, whose decisions prove difficult to reverse.

  • Trump University’s plagiarism policy

    Apparently Trump University had no plagiarism policy, because, when Melania Trump addressed the Republican National Convention Monday night, she copied several sentences from Michelle Obama’s 2008 “First Lady” speech. Initial responses to Ms. Trump’s speech were positive, but shortly afterwards the plagiarism came to light, and the Republican Convention got the dose of show biz Donald Trump had promised.