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  • Grammar sticklers may have OCD

    It used to be we thought that people who went around correcting other people’s grammar were just plain annoying. Now there’s evidence they are actually ill, suffering from a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder/oppositional defiant disorder (OCD/ODD). Researchers are calling it Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome, or GPS.

    Maybe you’ve heard of the grammar gene—its technical name is the FOXP2 gene—which may be responsible for a variety of grammatical ills, such as the inability to construct compound/complex sentences or to effectively deploy the passive voice. Now there’s evidence that a variant of that gene, FOXP2.1, may actually cause us to obsessively correct other people’s grammar, or should that be, to correct their grammar obsessively? The discovery of this gene, alongside new evidence from fMRI scans of brains exposed to real-time grammatical errors, has led some scientists to predict that soon we may be able to find a cure for GPS, for many sufferers a debilitating, off-putting, sociopathic syndrome.

  • The Noun Game -- a simple grammar lesson leads to a clash of civilizations

    Everybody knows that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. It's one of those undeniable facts of daily life, a fact we seldom question until we meet up with a case that doesn't quite fit the way we're used to viewing things.

  • The gender-neutral pronoun: after 150 years still an epic fail

    Every once in a while some concerned citizen decides to do something about the fact that English has no gender-neutral pronoun. They either call for such a pronoun to be invented, or they invent one and champion its adoption. Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for a century and a half, all to no avail. Coiners of these new words insist that the gender-neutral pronoun is indispensable, but users of English stalwartly reject, ridicule, or just ignore their proposals.

  • A spelling reformer writes to Mr. Lincoln

    In 1859, a Methodist minister named A. B. Pikard wrote two letters to former senator Abraham Lincoln -- Lincoln had lost his seat to Stephen Douglas in 1858 -- protesting the inhumanity of the fugitive slave laws. Its no surprise to find a northern abolitionist minister opposing the return of runaway slaves to the masters theyd escaped. But a minister who uses the phonetic alphabet to argue that the practice is both immoral and unconstitutional, well that is unusual.

  • Defending the language with bullets: If you can read this in English, thank a soldier

    "It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

    Barack Obama

    The bumper sticker on the back of a construction worker’s pickup truck caught my eye: "If you can read this, thank a teacher . . . ."

    This homage to education wasn't what I expected from someone whose bitterness typically manifests itself in vehicle art celebrating guns and religion, but there was more: "If you can read this in English, thank a soldier."

  • Speak the language of your flag

    America’s War on Language

    It's the centennial of America's entry into World War I, time to take a closer look at one of its offshoots, America's little-known War on Language

    The United States declared war on Germany on April 7, 1917. In addition to sending troops to fight in Europe, Americans waged war on the language of the enemy at home. German was the second most commonly-spoken language in America, and banning it seemed the way to stop German spies cold. Plus, immigrants had always been encouraged to switch from their mother tongue to English to signal their assimilation and their acceptance of American values. Now speaking English became a badge of patriotism as well, a way to prove that you were not a spy.

    The war on language was fought on two fronts, one legal, the other, in the schools. Its impact was immediate and long-lasting. German was the target, but the other “foreign” tongues suffered collateral damage. Immigrant languages in America went into decline, and there was a precipitous drop in the study of foreign languages in US schools as well. 

  • This post contains adult themes and ideas about language that readers may find disturbing. That's not a warning, it's a promise.

    Language lessons: It's time for English teachers to stop teaching that the earth is flat

    When I asked a class of prospective teachers to discuss the impact on students of prescriptive rules like "Don't split infinitives," "Don't end sentences with prepositions," and "Don't use contractions," one student ignored the descriptive grammar we had been studying and instead equated correctness in language with intelligent design:

  • Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker, February 28, 1977

    Literally has always been figurative

    Literally means ‘figuratively.’ Like it or not, that’s the way it is in English, and despite the recent uproar on Reddit and Buzzfeed over dictionaries recognizing the usage, it’s not new—literally has always been figurative.

  • 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.

  • Singular they is word of the year

    Singular they is word of the year for 2015. A common-gender third-person pronoun, singular they has been popular in English speech and writing for over 650 years. Although frequently classified by purists as ungrammatical, its use seems undiminished, and it may even be on the rise because it fills an important linguistic niche. In recent years, more and more English speakers have sought a gender-neutral alternative to pronouns that express the traditional male/female binary, turning either to invented pronouns like xe and zie, or to that old stand-by, singular they. Because singular they has witnessed a dramatic rehabilitation over the past year, the Web of Language Distinguished Usage Panel unanimously chose to honor it as word of the year for 2015.

  • Speak English, get out of jail free

    A Pennsylvania judge has sentenced three Spanish-speaking men to learn English or go to jail. The three, who pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery, will remain free on parole for a year, then take an English test. If they fail, then according to Judge Peter Paul Olszewski, Jr., it’s go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. And they’ll stay in jail for the remaining 20 months of their two-year prison term.

  • "Yes, we want" -- Who owns global English?

    A 1.8 million euro advertising campaign for Madrid's new Spanish-English public schools is being ridiculed for its slogan "Yes, we want," which critics are calling bad English. English is what the chanters of "Yes, we want," want to learn, because English is the new global language. The ads, which evoke Barack Obama's "Yes, we can," have appeared on Spanish television, radio, billboards, and buses, prompting complaints that the Education Ministry should be promoting its bilingual public elementary and high schools in correct English if it wants pupils to pick them.

  • 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.

  • The highest dictionary in the land? The Supreme Court and the definition of "marriage"

    Perhaps the highest-profile cases to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this term are the two involving the definition of marriage. U.S. v. Windsor challenges the federal definition of marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman” (Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], 1 USC § 7), and Hollingsworth v. Perry seeks a ruling on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage which reads, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Both cases concern who gets to write the definition of marriage, and what that definition says. The high court may check dictionary definitions in deciding these cases. It could defer to state laws defining marriage. Or it could simply write its own definition of marriage, because courts, like dictionaries, are in the business of telling us what words mean. The highest court in the land is poised to become the highest dictionary in the land.

  • 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.