Monthly Archives: July 2016


The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.


I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …


Is Something the Matter With ‘Black Lives Matter’?

Cartoon by Kris Straub

Cartoon by Kris Straub


There are many things I like about the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (which I’ll abbreviate here as BLM). Most important, it addresses what to me is at the very root of racism and therefore of many of our social problems: a deep, usually unexamined feeling among the dominant group, in this case whites, that members of the oppressed group, in this case blacks, are in some way less important, less normal, than they are.

This feeling is the opposite of “white privilege.” It’s…


Words Fail

I have been thinking a lot about the ways language isn’t sufficient — or feels insufficient — when we’re facing the kinds of tragic, horrifying, and deeply troubling events we’ve been facing this past week in the United States.

“Words fail,” we say.

Or, “There are no words.”

We cannot stop there. And I think we know it. Language has its limits, but language is also one of our most powerful tools for connection and for change.

There is good reason to measure our words. Language can hurt in powerf…


The Worst Form of Government


Robert Briffault

The British people’s referendum vote on June 23 proposed (by a slim majority of 51.9% to 48.1%) that the country should leave the world’s largest single market and embark on an unpredictable standalone future for which there had been no political or economic planning. A Churchillian remark crossed my mind immediately: the one about democracy being the worst form of government apart from every other one that had ever been tried.

The country’s politics fell apart straight away. As…


Adviser Advisory

Letterpress StyleThe mark of a real journalist, I learned long ago, is knowing the proper spelling of adviser.

It stands out because until stepping into journalism, most neophytes have learned the other spelling. In high school, clubs and activities have advisors.  In college, more of the same, usually with academic progress monitored by a faculty advisor.

Against that background, adviser seems, er, a little undignified. But it’s an ironclad rule in journalism. The entry for the word in The Associated Press Styl…


The Safe Space

one-hundred-years-of-solitude-coverIt has become a recurrent motif in academic parlance in the United States to talk about security, not as a discipline but in existential terms. This isn’t surprising given the superabundance of bloodshed today. Campus is frequently called a “safe space.” Violence — physical, emotional, and verbal — has no place in it.

The premise behind this concept is sound, though it sometimes verges on sanctimony. It envisions the classroom as Robinson Crusoe’s island, where it is possible to start from scrat…


Being an Auxiliary


“It has been proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers.” Where is the ownership in that sentence?

Lieselotte Anderwald’s new book Language Between Description and Prescription, out this week (from Oxford University Press, New York), embarks on an interesting project, and incidentally turns up evidence that several grammarians of the early 1800s were (to be candid) completely nuts. Bonkers. Out of their pointy heads.

The project is to compare the statements in 19th-century grammars with…


Verb-Forming for Fun and Profit

static.playbill.comI recently heard that a gay acquaintance of mine has gotten divorced. I mention his sexual orientation certainly not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s relevant to the matter of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls “two-part back-formed verbs,” aka 2pbfVs. Zwicky has been cataloguing examples of these, at Language Log and on his own website, since 2008, when he wrote about the verb form gay marry, which he had just encountered in a quote on someone else’s blog: “I did an in…


Capital Capitals

Capital letters, as my Lingua Franca colleague Bill Germano noted recently, aren’t very welcome on the internet. I SAID, CAPITAL LETTERS ARE NOT VERY WELCOME. Get it?

It doesn’t matter what you say. Any message at all,  like the one above, is annoying when delivered in capitals. Even complimentary and loving messages become irritants when capped: YOU ARE SO SMART, I JUST LOVE THE WAY YOU LOOK, I’M YOURS FOREVER.  Stop shouting! I can’t hear you through the noise!

If you’re old enough, you can re…


Going Forward

Union Jack umbrella 2It is, let us agree, a semantically pointless Briticism: “Going forward, we will develop integrated, cross-platform systems that will respond to uncertain markets.” This is not a sentiment distinct from “We will develop integrated, cross-platform systems that will respond to uncertain markets.” But going forward sounds as if it adds something — a frame, a launch pad, a directional indicator, and a mark of authority. The decision has been well thought out.

Mark Seacombe wrote about the phrase in