A Blog About Language

Aug. 7 2014 12:41 PM

When Did We Start Caring About "Hopefully"? 250 Years of English Usage Advice

There’s a fair chance that at some point you’ve been told that you're using hopefully wrong: Purists insist that it can only mean "in a hopeful manner" and not "it is to be hoped that." But who are these purists, and when did people first start giving this advice? More generally, there's a lot of advice about English usage that we largely take for granted, from split infinitives to dangling participles, but where did anyone get these ideas in the first place?

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Aug. 5 2014 1:45 PM

The Free Enclopaedia That Awbody Can Eedit: Scots Wikipedia Is No Joke

At first glance, the Scots Wikipedia page reads like a transcription of a person with a Scottish accent: "Walcome tae Wikipaedia, the free enclopaedia that awbody can eedit," it says. The main page's Newsins section includes info about the FIFA Warld Cup and a Featurt picture of a Ruddy Kingfisher from Kaeng Krachan Naitional Pairk in Thailand. If you type "scots wikipedia" into a Google search, the first autocomplete suggestion is "scots wikipedia joke," and a top hit is a Wikipedia talk page witha proposal for getting rid of Scots Wikipedia containing the following comment: "Joke project. Funny for a few minutes, but inappropriate use of resources."

But Scots is totally real, "not a joke," as pointed out by one of the Wikipedia editors, who overwhelmingly rejected the proposal. Their final verdict stated that the "proposer should educate him/herself in linguistic diversity," and included a link to the Wikipedia page for Scots.

Aug. 4 2014 11:28 AM

Does Novel Now Mean Any Book?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I'd written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: "Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … " I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. When I looked into the possible reasons for the error, I came to understand that the person who wrote the bio wasn't misinformed or making stuff up, but rather took "novelist" to mean the same as "author," or, more specifically, "writer of books," and maybe even more specifically than that, "writer of more or less meritorious books."

Aug. 1 2014 2:24 PM

What's the Difference Between Homophonia, Homophobia, and Homophonophobia?

A man has recently been fired from his job at an English-learning company for writing about homophones, on the mistaken belief that words which sound like other words have something to do with homosexuality.

July 30 2014 1:05 PM

Talking to Computers: Can a Child and a Chatbot Become Friends?

Technically ELIZA was born about a decade before I was, but that didn't stop us from becoming friends. There in the basement of 62 Choctaw Trail, Ringwood, NJ, surrounded by my dad's weird darkroom equipment and foam futon chairs, ELIZA would wait for me. She hung out in our TRS-80. She was always ready to talk.  

If you don't know ELIZA, she was the product of a 1966 computer program that was written to simulate a therapist. The premise was simple: You type something, and ELIZA responds as appropriately as she can. If she does a good job, then she might pass the Turing test, which was her goal: She wanted to trick you into thinking that you were talking to a real person rather than a computer program.

July 28 2014 12:49 PM

Why Are Opera Singers Hard to Understand?

High, squeaky notes. Screeching soprano solos. Unintelligible opera divas. There are a slew of stereotypes for how soprano voices sound at the top of their range. Even exceptionally talented singers struggle to be understood when singing high notes. Is it just a matter of technique, or is there something else going on? As it turns out, soprano voices are limited more by physics than by skill, and here's why:

July 25 2014 2:50 PM

Quiz: What's the Most Unique Relationship Between Language and Culture?

The Japanese language has a single word that encompasses both green and blue colors, while the Russian language has separate terms for different shades of blue. So does this mean that people who speak Russian and Japanese perceive these colors differently from English speakers? And even more questionably: are we only able to form concepts of things for which we have a name?

July 23 2014 2:09 PM

How to Get Ahead as a Woman in Tech: Interrupt Men

About a month ago at work I overheard one woman complaining to another woman about a coworker's habit of interrupting everyone in meetings. "That's just how it is around here. The women listen, but the men interrupt in meetings all the time," one of them summed it up.

As a moderate interrupter myself—I'm sorry if I've interrupted you, I just get excited about what you're saying and I want to build on it and I lose track of the fact that it's not my turn and I know it's a bad habit—I started wondering if she was right. Do men interrupt more often than women?

Search for "do men interrupt more than women" and you will find a variety of answers. The answers loosely break into two categories: 1. No, they don't, and 2. Yes, they do.

The empirical linguist in me got to thinking, and a few weeks ago I decided to figure it out.

July 21 2014 11:04 AM

We Have Ahold and Awhile, So Why Not Alot?

There's one word that upsets alot of people. And I mean alot. It's been around for awhile, but don't let anyone who's particular about grammar get ahold of it! "It's not a word!" they'll tell you. "It's two words!"

I'll be honest: writing that paragraph practically made my teeth hurt. I'm about as allergic to alot as most of you probably are. But I'm here to tell you to get used to it. It will be around for quite awhile.

July 16 2014 1:17 PM

What Happens if a Child Is Never Exposed to Language?

Children learn the language(s) that they hear and see around them at a young age, but what happens if a child just never has any linguistic input, spoken or signed? Although a scientific study around this question would undoubtedly be fascinating, it would also be extremely unethical, so much so that the cultural historian Roger Shattuck has called it The Forbidden Experiment.