A Blog About Language

Oct. 30 2014 10:26 AM

What Ghostbusters Tells Us About the Hidden Rules of Conversation

This scene from the Halloween classic movie Ghostbusters helps set up the rivalry between childish parapsychologist Dr. Venkman and uptight bureaucrat Walter Peck. But it’s also a great example of one of the hidden rules of conversation—and how utterly obnoxious it is when someone breaks them.

Dr. Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.
Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!
Mayor: Is this true?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it's true.
Dr. Peter Venkman: This man has no dick.

What's so obnoxious about Venkman’s reply?

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Oct. 28 2014 1:38 PM

What Do You Call the Night Before Halloween?

If you're like the majority of Americans, you don't have a special term for the night before Halloween, and it may not even have occurred to you that anyone does. But for a substantial minority of people, around 25 percent of respondents to the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, the night before Halloween most certainly does have a name. They just can't agree on what it is.

Oct. 27 2014 1:48 PM

What Exactly Is “Cerise”? The Complicated History of Color Definitions.

When you spend all your time in a book, you think you know it. All the editors at Merriam-Webster know Webster's Third Edition, but now that we're undertaking a revision of the beast, we're ears-deep in it, drowning in stuffy single-statement definitions. Each of us breathes a bit shallower when we start futzing around with Philip Babcock Gove's defining style, waiting for his ghost to dock our pay or perhaps cuff us upside the head as we sully his great work. Add to this the fact that, it's true, familiarity does breed contempt. At least once a batch, I look at a perfectly constructed definition, accurate and dispassionate to the point of inhumanity, and wish I could add a wildly inappropriate example sentence just to liven things up a bit, like <Doctors suggest you eat kale until your pee is neon green with excess micronutrients.> So you may understand why, while I was slogging my way through a B batch, I was delighted to run across this:

begonia n … 3 : a deep pink that is bluer, lighter, and stronger than average coral (sense 3b), bluer than fiesta, and bluer and stronger than sweet william—called also gaiety

Oct. 24 2014 11:09 AM

4 Features From Other Languages That We Wish English Had

If you were redesigning English, and you could make it do anything that any other language in the world does, what would you change? In the video below, YouTuber Tom Scott talks about four fantastic features in other languages that he wishes were found in English.

Oct. 23 2014 10:30 AM

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

There are two famous riddles about chickens. One investigates the reasoning behind the chicken’s desire to cross the road (“to get to the other side”), while the other poses the ontological quandary: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

We shan’t attempt to answer the question in a philosophical or biological manner, but we can answer it lexicographically. And, looking in the Oxford English Dictionary, we can reveal that the answer is … not conclusive.

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.

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?