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  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • Grammar-shaming Trump

    Donald Trump is torturing the English language. Says New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, the president “is as inept at English as he is at governing,” adding, “He’s oxymoronic: a nativist who can’t really speak his native tongue.” What got Bruni riled up was not just the nonstop alt-right ravings, but also Trump’s constant misspellings, his oddball capitalization and bizarre punctuation, and his word-manglings like hamberder and covfefe. 

    Berating someone for making language mistakes is called "grammar shaming." Grammar shaming ordinary people doesn’t work: their English still won't meet your expectations and they'll resent your superior attitude. And there’s no point grammar shaming Trump because he’s incapable of feeling shame....