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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

tworobots

I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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Lollapalooza: a Modern Sockdolager

lolla-

A
t times the English language has seemed inadequate to express the expansiveness and exuberance of the American spirit … at times, that is, when the nation felt expansive and exuberant.

Words like expansive and exuberant wouldn’t do; they can be quite accurate in denotation, but too nicely tied to classical Latin roots to express this spirit.

No, for the American experience, a different kind of sesquipedalian nomenclature was needed. And in the early 19th century it emerged, breathing fire and…

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Love Me, Don’t Grade Me

nicklutzapologyletter

When my sons were beginning elementary school, they liked to while away a rainy Saturday afternoon playing school. They wanted me to play the teacher, but apparently I didn’t do it right. “You have to be meaner,” they’d say. “You have to yell a lot.”

I always wondered if their teachers really were shrieking meanies who toned it down when a parent appeared, or if they’d gotten this notion of the harridan-as-schoolteacher elsewhere. I’ve had a similar response to the recent case of the “gra…

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Back to the Real World

konstanz

I spent last week in Konstanz, Germany, on the shores of Lake Constance, at a small conference devoted to a theory of syntax called lexical-functional grammar (LFG). Among the attendees were two language engineers who attend almost every year: Ron Kaplan, co-developer of LFG (with the Stanford syntactician Joan Bresnan) and an industrial computational linguist since the 1980s, and Tracy Holloway King, a 1993 Stanford linguistics Ph.D. who also has a long career in Silicon Valley industrial rese…

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‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ Speaks!

Dare Image by Ellen

Chronicle illustration by Ellen Winkler

 

If you read my posts, you may be familiar by now with the grand six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2013, but continuing to live beyond that date in quarterly updates on the internet.

Now DARE  has come to life in another way. It’s not just in writing that the dictionary tells us about the different ways we talk in this vast country. DARE  is speaking up!

Now we can hear the recorded voices of some 1,800 people in 1,…

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Past Not-So-Perfect

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James Garfield

Sometimes I get tense about tenses. In the past, I’ve vented about writers’ overuse or abuse of the present tense, in general, and the historical present, in particular. (That’s the one where a historian interviewed on NPR says something like, “FDR is inaugurated on March 4 and almost immediately starts to enact the New Deal.”)

My new pet peeve is the past perfect, sometimes called the pluperfect. It’s used when referring to events that took place before past events that are under…

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Travel Ban

Ban.image001

When is a ban not a ban?

Executive Order 13780  (“Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”) and the White House’s stumbling pronouncements on the nature of travel restrictions leave many questions, none of which are clearly answered by the Supreme Court’s temporizing decision.

The word ban is related to banns, those public announcements of the intent to marry.

Banns date back to at least the 12th century, and offered the community an opportunity to object to th…

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Body of Punctuation

Question-Mark-Wrist-Tattoo-10

The 21st century has introduced new media for language. And it’s not just the modern electronic technology of the internet, carrying messages via email or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and the rest. It’s also carrying messages on something as primitive and ancient as human history — our bodies.

Well, not everyone’s bodies. But especially those of the millennials, who seem inclined to punctuate themselves with tattooed marks. And while the body punctuation often conveys the sam…

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The Notorious ‘Notorious’

Speak of the devil.

No sooner had I written about The New York Times’s unfortunate decision to cut back on copy editors than the sort of error appeared on the Times’s mobile feed that a good copy editor could have caught in his or her sleep. It’s in the slightly grayed-out subhead below:

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The error, as all good sticklers have already noted, is the use of the word notoriety to mean “fame,” when in actuality, notoriety is fame for doing one very bad thing or repeatedly doing moderately bad things….

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Why I Don’t Ask Students to Write the Thesis Statement First

thinkingwriting4cae69b8a905185b40745c6103a82381_400x400 In the well-intentioned effort to help college writers find strong theses, we as instructors can put the cart before the horse. Let me explain. I was reminded of this problem a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing an assignment sequence for a first-year writing course. The instructor had built in a lot of valuable process, where students would have the opportunity to get feedback on their ideas for the essay and then read drafts of each other’s essays in small workshop groups before turning…