Sad React

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Over the past few years, students have kept me informed about how texting (and instagramming and facebooking and snapchatting and the like) is changing both written and spoken English. As I have written about before, I am not concerned that these kinds of electronically mediated communication (or “fingered speech,” as John McWhorter calls it) are ruining the language, either spoken or written. I am much more interested in the inventiveness of the usage in these new registers, from punctuation a…


The Rise of the Restrictive Comma


The Major League home-run champion, Giancarlo Stanton. A comma is needed because he’s the only ML home-run champion. (Image courtesy

This message came over the transom the other day:

Hi Ben! I often refer friends or colleagues to an article you wrote about “The Most Comma Mistakes.” I sometimes feel I get on my high horse about when commas before/after names should or shouldn’t be used, but I’m stumped this time. I hope you don’t mind me asking you a question to get your opinion.

I’m tr…


Dear Right-Handed People


Remember jacks? It’s one of those rare games that lasted a couple of generations. My mother played jacks as a girl, and so did I. I still would, if I could find anyone to play with me. And I’d play it the way I always have: left-handed.

Left-handedness has a long history of being vilified, including its being sufficient evidence to condemn a person of witchery. Even today, 150 years after the first theories emerged on brain lateralization, we use left-handed to describe actions that are clumsy,…


On the Ropes at Radio London

St. Mary-le-Bow Church, London

The phone rings during breakfast, and it’s the BBC. They want me on Radio London’s Breakfast Show, hosted by Vanessa Feltz, for a few minutes just after 9 a.m. According to two trashy tabloids (The Sun and the Daily Mail, September 29) BBC TV viewers are complaining about the speech of an announcer, Russell Evans. And it turns out interesting: Feltz is a feisty one, spoiling for a fight.

Russell Evans speaks the ordinary vernacular of the London area rather than th…


The Subtle Art of English Ethnic Slurs


Ryanair, a cut-price airline, made serious managerial errors in predicting pilots’ leave time this fall, and had to cancel scores of flights. Here’s how the story was introduced, under the headline “Ryanair chief forced to grovel over cancellations,” in the tabloid newspaper Metro (front page, September 19):

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has promised compensation after the airline decided to cancel flights for up to 400,000 passengers over the next six weeks.

The Irishman made a frank apology ye…


Doddering Dotards

quote-fly-dotard-fly-with-thy-wise-dreams-and-fables-of-the-sky-alexander-pope-61-22-89You know something’s amiss when American social media wax gleeful over a North Korean dictator’s chosen insult for the American president. Last week, Kim Jong-un’s choice of the word dotard to describe Donald Trump prompted a moment of confusion followed by a rush to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter feed had a field day.

Before we get to etymology, it’s worth observing some cultural background. On the one hand, Korean culture puts great emphasis on respect for one’s elders, for whom one…


Farewell, ‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ — but Keep in Touch


Frederic Cassidy (right), first editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, with students who helped compile it by recording Americans in the field. (Photo courtesy of U. of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, 1965)

During half a century of painstaking research that gradually brought the Dictionary of American Regional English into being, its staff, friends, and benefactors have found many occasions to celebrate its progress, volume by volume starting in 1985 and ending just a few years ago w…




Sarah Huckabee Sanders

It’s a four-letter word familiar to readers of tabloids and crawlers.

Spox is an abbreviation for spokesperson, which is itself a gender-neutral formation of the historically dominant spokesman. It’s neither an acronym, like Potus or Flotus, nor an initialism, like CIA. It’s just a shortened form.

We hear from many such individuals, whose task is almost always to neutralize negative reactions to something done by a group or an administration.

The White House spox is a famo…


When Will ‘They’ Ever Learn?


By now Lingua Franca readers should know the position of Lingua Franca bloggers on the OK-ness of singular they, otherwise known as the epicene pronoun. (“Everyone who wants to go to the party should wear their best clothes.”) Anne Curzan, Lucy Ferriss, Geoff Pullum, and I have all laid out why we think the usage is grammatical, nonambiguous, unclumsy, generally better than such alternatives as he, she, or he or she (much less s/he!), and possessed of an impressive literary pedigree. It’s alrea…


Our Alt-Universe


A year ago, on the day after April Fools’ Day, the Associated Press announced that soon internet would no longer begin with a capital letter. No fooling.

This was the announcement:

“We will lowercase internet effective June 1, when the 2016 Stylebook launches.”

And they explained:

“. . . the lowercase spelling is in line with the public utility aspect of the net, just as radio and television are spelled down as generic terms in mass communications.”

When the AP changed its internet style, other…