Monthly Archives: May 2012


‘Change Mustn’t Be a Burden’

I discovered this intriguing comment in the readers’ responses to my colleague Geoffrey Pullum’s brief note in Language Log, responding in its own way to the news from Slate that a significant number of Swedes have been attempting to get the neologism hen accepted as an alternative for han and hon, or he and she.

The debate on this subject seems endless and traverses gender references in languages as diverse as French and Mandarin. As I am neither a linguist nor versed in non-European languages,…


Lying About Language

People are surprisingly free with barefaced lies when the topic is language. A commenter in The Washington Post, purportedly commenting on an article about hopefully (though flagrantly off-thread) asserted:

If usage determines correctness, then the split infinitive is now correct. I have not seen a “whole” infinitive in years, particularly from “journalists.”

Not a single unsplit infinitive, in years? I browsed a few other articles from that day’s Post, and found that journalists in news stories…


Book Indexing, Part 3: Tips for Do-It-Yourselfers

Photo by Hans Gerhard Meier

If after reading Parts 1 and 2 of this series you’ve decided that a computer isn’t competent to index your book and that hiring a professional isn’t an option, and if you’ve never written an index before, you might appreciate some advice. Here are some answers to questions I frequently hear from writers contemplating the DIY solution.

Q. How elaborate an index should I make?

A. Browse through the book and put yourself in the place of a reader or teacher or student and…


Beliefs About Grammar and Extraterrestrials

U.S.S.R. postage stamp of extraterrestrial satellite; grammar understanding and textbooks are similarly last century.

The vast number of books, pamphlets, articles, columns, blogs, and other study aids on English grammar are virtually all afflicted with a single problem. Using loose, mushy, meaning-related notions, they make statements that are (i) stated in essentially identical terms everywhere (it resembles mass plagiarism), and (ii) almost universally accepted, especially by educated people,…


Book Indexing, Part 2: Infinite Loops and Easter Eggs

Photo by Philip Dean

Last week when I listed various reasons why you should not allow a computer to write the index for your monograph, I failed to mention one: That is, you might want to do it yourself because it’s potentially a lot of fun.

I say “potentially” because it is also potentially infuriating, but never mind that for now. Today we’re all about fun.

Many readers are unaware of the mischief book indexers get up to, because few of us read through indexes from beginning to end. Rather, we…


A Word With Issues

Long before Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent Brainstorm post for The Chronicle attacking the discipline of black studies (the controversy over which seemed to reach some closure yesterday), I’d been thinking about racists. The word, that is, not the people. Certainly, the word was heavily represented in the reaction to Riley. A contributor over at the Innovations blog, Marybeth Gasman, called Riley’s post “uninformed, dismissive, and downright racist.” And Brainstorm’s Laurie Essig wondered, “Is Br…


A Shindy for ‘DARE’

Unless you have several hundred dollars to spare, and a foot of shelf space for five 8¾-by-11¼-inch volumes of a close to a thousand pages each, you aren’t likely to own a copy of the Dictionary of American Regional English. But you might find it worth your while to visit your local public or university library to take a look at the 60,000 rare and unusual words inside.

DARE reached a milestone this spring: publication of Volume V, completing the alphabet A through Z of words used differently in…


Language & Politics in Peshawar

Spending a couple of weeks in Pakistan, especially in areas near to the tribal belt and the Khyber Pass toward Afghanistan, is bound to be enlightening at this moment in history. I was in Lahore and Peshawar for two weeks in April, researching background material for a novel, and learned more about disparities in culture than years of reading books had taught me. Only a handful of these insights bear directly on language, but I’ll take advantage of this post to note them in brief.

•Linguae Fra…


Disjoined at the Hip

Illustration by Nan Lawson

Many words belong to all speakers of a language. But some are differentiated by region, ethnic group, social class, gender, age group, occupation—or by generation.

In their book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, published more than 20 years ago but still largely on target with its observations, William Strauss and Neil Howe proposed that each generation has distinctive attitudes, different from the generations before and after. Here are Straus…


People Who Love Words Hate Words

A new parlor game has emerged thanks to Ben Greenman and his colleagues at The New Yorker, who recently initiated a Twitter-based game called “Questioningly.” They began by asking people to suggest a word that might be eliminated from the English language, on the theory that we have (at least) one word too many. The results of their contest were hilarious, not only because of the variety of reasons for nixing a word—triteness, political correctness, ugly sound, superfluity, misuse, sledgehamme…