A Blog About Language

Oct. 21 2014 1:36 PM

Single Quotes or Double Quotes? It’s Really Quite Simple.

If you are an American, using quotation marks could hardly be simpler: Use double quotation marks at all times unless quoting something within a quotation, when you use single. It's different in the greater Anglosphere, where they generally use singles in books and doubles in newspapers. It's still pretty simple, but nothing so straightforward as here.

Yet some of us don't seem happy with what we've got. For several years now in teaching writing classes to college freshmen, I’ve noticed some students adopt another rule: double quotes for long quotations, single quotes for single words or short phrases. They'll quote a long passage from Measure for Measure accurately, but when they want to quote one of Shakespeare's words, a cliché, or some dubious concept like "virtue," they'll go with single quotes.

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Oct. 20 2014 1:00 PM

Back-to-the-Future Tense: How Does Time Travel Affect Grammar?

A recent episode of The Big Bang Theory shows Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard watching Back to the Future, Part II and discussing the appropriate tense to use when talking about something that happened in an alternate past timeline. So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar: How realistic is this back-to-the-future tense?

Oct. 17 2014 1:57 PM

“Y” So Creative? A Very Adjective-y Letter

This all went down in the last month:

  • Facebook comment: "As I know from my rednecky upstate second hometown. ... "
  • Email from a friend: "This morning I was thinking that my hairdresser is getting so Jesus-y with me."
  • Headline from the Baltimore City Paper: "College Guys, Stop Being So Rapey."
What the examples have in common, obviously, is an unfamiliar adjective made by putting a Y at the end of a noun or verb. I hasten to say that I'm not claiming this is in any way a new phenomenon. 

Oct. 16 2014 1:20 PM

A Course on Understanding People in Ipswich: Is the Course in Ipswich, or the People?

ARTHUR: Actually, I think he might.

MARTIN: No, Arthur, he won’t.

ARTHUR: Hmm. The thing is, though, Skip, with all due respect, but what I’ve got that you haven’t is that Mum sent me on a course on understanding people in Ipswich.

MARTIN (slowly): And if I ever want the people of Ipswich understood, you’ll be the first person I call. Meanwhile…

This is a bit of dialogue from the highly entertaining BBC radio drama, Cabin Pressure, in this case pitting Arthur, the clueless flight attendant, against Martin, the not-especially-captain-y captain. But what I'm really interested in here is where the humor comes from in this passage: The funny business going on around "people in Ipswich" is an excellent illustration of a linguistic phenomenon called structural ambiguity.

Oct. 14 2014 1:42 PM

Which English You Speak Has Nothing to Do With How Smart You Are

How can linguists and educators work together to help maintain the linguistic voices of the next Zora Neale Hurston or Albert Einstein while at the same time support students on the Common Core, SATs, GREs, and LSATs?

In classrooms across the U.S., there are kids who speak a wide variety of types of English. Even though it's historical accident that anyone considers "isn't" better than "ain't" or "wash" better than "warsh," those kids who just axed a question may feel dumb and be treated as if they're dumb by the people around them. And it starts young: Even by the end of kindergarten, many students have absorbed messages that their language is wrong, incorrect, dumb, or stigmatized.

For example, when I studied the language patterns of four- and five-year-old African American children in several U.S. cities, many of them were worried that just talking with me would somehow cause them to be held back a grade if they did not do well in the conversations. You can see how these feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and apprehension when communicating—what the linguist William Labov calls linguistic insecurity—would make it disheartening to try and learn higher skills like math and reading when you're told you’re wrong as soon as you even open your mouth.

But where does this idea that certain varieties of English are worse come from, does it have any basis in reality, and what can teachers—and all of us—do about it?

Oct. 13 2014 2:37 PM

They Helped the Pilgrims—and Regretted It. How the Wampanoag Brought Their Language Back.

We Still Live Here - Âs Nutayuneân is an inspiring documentary about the revival of the Wampanoag language in Southeastern Massachusetts. To quote the film description: "Their ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims—and lived to regret it. Now they are bringing their language home again."

Oct. 8 2014 1:23 PM

Should You Talk to Your Child in a Different Language?

New parents face a lot of pressures. Until I became a parent myself, I didn’t realize the sea of conflicting advice that besieges parents on everything from feeding strategies to whether you need a baby Jacuzzi.

One of the more important decisions is what language bilingual parents will speak to their child. It’s natural to want the best for one’s child, and also to draw on one’s own childhood in parenting, but what if you speak a second language less fluently, one that you learned as an adult? Is it worth speaking your less fluent second language to your kid?

Oct. 6 2014 1:45 PM

Are "Definitely" and "Totally" the New "Literally"?

The oft-maligned hyperbolic extension of literally is nothing new—it's been around since the 1700s—but do other adverbs behave in the same way? Recent uses of definitely and totally suggest that the linguistic development of literally is not an isolated incident, but a trend.http://blog.dictionary.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gif

A quick review of the development of literally: In the late 1600s, literally was being used as an emphatic adverb, and the earliest known uses of the figurative literally date from the 1700s. A possible scenario: the stress put on the emphatic sense of literally soon carried over to the ironic sense; the latter, as linguists remind enraged masses, was used by the likes of Alexander Pope and Charles Dickens generations before any of us were born.

To a certain extent, definitely and totally can be seen to parallel the linguistic development of literally, from literal to emphatic to ironic. Because the ironic uses of definitely and totally are still very new, we'll look to language innovators such as teens, twenty-somethings and techies for some insight on the use of these terms.

Oct. 3 2014 11:13 AM

Can "Y'all" Mean Just One Person?

"Y'all" is the most identifiable feature of the dialect known as Southern American English. It simply and elegantly fills out the pronoun paradigm gap that occurs in dialects that have only "you" for both singular and plural. Even people who don't speak the dialect, who sometimes look down on its other features, have a soft spot for "y'all." It's as American as can be, and it embodies our ideal national self-image: down-to-earth, charming, and useful. But there is also a mysterious side to "y'all," and for over a century, a controversy has been brewing over what might be called the Loch Ness Monster of dialect study: the elusive singular "y'all." There are a few who claim to have seen it in the wild, and many who denounce such claims as nonsense. Does it exist?

Oct. 2 2014 1:05 PM

What's Wrong With "America's Ugliest Accent"

Gawker is running a competition, tournament style, to see which accent will be crowned "America's Ugliest." In the running are 16 cities in the US, and readers get to vote. As a linguist, I'm not so thrilled about it.

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