Monthly Archives: March 2012


Another One Bites the Dust

The magazine not for “unmarried women” but for “smart young women”

When it comes to gendered descriptors, we seem to invent new words for terms that once applied to only one sex or the other; but in cases where men and women traditionally received separate classifications, our tendency has been to eliminate. Thus we have “mail carrier” for both male and female bringers of mail, but “actor” (eliminating “actress”) for both male and female thespians. Mostly this way of neutralizing per…


The Bad Science Reporting Effect

The press coverage of the so-called “QWERTY effect” in early March left me somewhat worried that it is so easy to publish bad science, but absolutely appalled at the state of science reporting.

The alleged effect is that average scores on reported positivity or happiness associations are slightly higher for words having more letters from the right-hand side of the keyboard.

By late on March 8, Mark Liberman at Language Log had re-examined the relevant statistics, noting that the effect is extrem…


Old-Style Versus Lining Figures

Old-style figures work best in some contexts. (Photo by Duval Guillaume.)

Something you might or might not notice when you read a book or journal article is the style of any numerals that turn up in the text. If you don’t notice, that’s a good thing, and it is probably thanks to a professional graphic designer who put some thought into specifying the right style for that text.

The most basic choice is between old-style and lining (or modern) figures. Old-style figures are more elegant within a l…


That Way They Talk II

Jamie Oliver glottalizes. So do American young women. How come?

If you associate with American females in the age range of roughly 15-25, or if you are one yourself, I bet you have heard the word important pronounced in roughly this way: imPOR-unh.

I first started noticing this among my students a half-dozen years ago. My first thought was, why are young Mid-Atlantic Americans glottal stopping?–the glottal stop being a consonant-swallowing vocalization found many places around the world but mo…


Happy Birthday, OK!

Mark your calendar for Friday, March 23! On that day, be sure to take a moment to say a happy OK.

Chances are that on that day, as usual, you’ll say lots of OKs, happy or otherwise. But this will be a special day for OK. It’s OK’s 173rd birthday.

And OK deserves more recognition than it gets. It’s so familiar that we overlook its greatness. In fact, it’s America’s greatest linguistic invention and the world’s greatest word.

Don’t believe it? Well, you could read the book I recently wrote about O…


The Way They Talk Now

Paul Hoppe's illustration from a New York Times article shows the influence girl talk can have.

When I saw an article in The New York Times with the headline “They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrve,” my heart quickened.

I expected it that it would identify and illuminate a particular manner of speech adopted by many young women nowadays. I’d always viewed this in a Potter Stewart-y kind of way: I knew it when I heard it, but couldn’t precisely characterize the defining qualities, or …


American English in 3-D

It’s a great moment for expanding our knowledge of American English. The great Dictionary of American Regional English completed its run through the alphabet this month with the publication of 1,244-page Volume V, Sl-Z. And last December, a much smaller but likewise unprecedented book was published that manages to capture American English in three dimensions—without the need for special glasses.

This 3-D view is presented in the Oxford University Press book Speaking American: A History of Englis…


I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad

Recently I’ve been traveling by train through the Midwest. I’ve taken Amtrak plenty of times before, but mostly for short hops through the Northeast. But as frequent train riders know, trips in other parts of the country are far less expensive than along the Atlantic corridor. When you’re doing a book tour on a shoestring, riding the train from Lansing to Chicago or Joliet to St. Louis represents the best in comfortable budget travel. I’m struck, on these trains, by the polite, almost quaint lan…


Foreign Language Instruction, Part 3: Accentuating the Positive

Having published this post and this follow-up, I am still reflecting on what might be serious arguments in favor of modern language classes to be used when budget cuts are in the air (for language classes certainly are threatened within the University of California, where I used to work, and in Britain, where I work at the moment).

As a starting point for a positive view, I looked at the Vistawide World Languages and Cultures site, which offers 10 reasons for learning a foreign language. But ha…


When Style and Grammar Rules Elude You

Photo by Spencer Ritenour

Few things are as annoying as not being able to find something, especially when it was within sight only moments ago. But at least in most cases you know what you’re looking for—keys, dog, car—and you’re pretty sure it exists.

Searching for a style or grammar rule can be tougher. You don’t always know whether there actually is one, much less what it’s called, and those are serious impediments to figuring out where it might be hiding. In years of reading questions e-…