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The highest dictionary in the land?

By Dennis Baron
Perhaps the highest-profile cases to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this term are the two involving the definition of marriage. U.S. v. Windsor challenges the federal definition of marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman” (Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], 1 USC § 7), and Hollingsworth v. Perry seeks a ruling on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage which reads, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

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” :) when you say that, pardner” – the tweet police are watching

By Dennis Baron
Last Spring the New York Times reported that more and more grammar vigilantes are showing up on Twitter to police the typos and grammar mistakes that they find on users’ tweets. According to the Times, the tweet police “see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette,” and some of them go so far as to write algorithms that seek out tweets gone wrong (John Metcalfe, “The Self-Appointed Twitter Scolds,” April 28, 2010).

Twitter users post “tweets,” short messages no longer than 140 characters (spaces included). That length restriction can lead to beautifully-crafted, allusive, high-compression tweets where every word counts, a sort of digital haiku. But most tweets are not art. Instead, most users use Twitter to tell friends what they’re up to, send notes, and make offhand comments, so they squeeze as much text as possible into that limited space by resorting to abbreviations, acronyms, symbols, and numbers for letters, the kind of shorthand also found, and often criticized, in texting on a mobile phone.

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Technology Update: Flying Books Can Be Dangerous

One of the big news stories this week was about JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who famously unleashed an expletive-ridden rant over his plane’s PA system, then pulled emergency-evacuation chute lever and made a dramatic sliding exit onto the JFK tarmac. It is only appropriate, I think, that we take this moment to consider the intersection between e-readers and airplane safety. Please pull your desk chairs into the full, upright position and enjoy the following musings from Dennis Baron.

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Who cares about National Grammar Day? Or is it whom?

By Dennis Baron
March 4 is National Grammar Day. According to its sponsor, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG, they call themselves, though between you and me, it’s not the sort of acronym to roll trippingly off the tongue), National Grammar Day is “an imperative . . . . to speak well, write well, and help others do the same!”

The National Grammar Day website is full of imperatives about correct punctuation, pronoun use, and dangling participles. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, it points out

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But the dictionary says…

By Dennis Baron
The Supreme Court is using dictionaries to interpret the Constitution. Both conservative justices, who believe the Constitution means today exactly what the Framers meant in the 18th century, and liberal ones, who see the Constitution as a living, breathing document changing with the times, are turning to dictionaries more than ever to interpret our laws: a new report shows that the justices have looked up almost 300 words

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New words are great for back to school

By Dennis Baron
It’s back to school, and that means it’s time for dictionaries to trot out their annual lists of new words. Dictionary-maker Merriam-Webster released a list of 150 words just added to its New Collegiate Dictionary for 2011, including “cougar,” a middle-aged woman seeking a romantic relationship with a younger man, “boomerang child,” a young adult who returns to live at home for financial reasons, and “social media” — if you don’t know what that means, then you’re still living in the last century.

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That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.

By Dennis Baron
Matthew Engel is a British journalist who doesn’t like Americanisms. The Financial Times columnist told BBC listeners that American English is an unstoppable force whose vile, ugly, and pointless new usages are invading England “in battalions.” He warned readers of his regular FT column that American imports like truck, apartment, and movies are well on their way to ousting native lorries, flats, and films.

Engel’s tirade against the American “faze, hospitalise, heads-up, rookie, listen up” and “park up” got several million page views

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Computers remember so you don’t have to

By Dennis Baron
A research report in the journal Science suggests that smartphones, along with computers, tablets, and the internet, are weakening our memories. This has implications not just for the future of quiz shows–most of us can’t compete against computers on Jeopardy–but also for the way we deal with information: instead of remembering something, we remember how to look it up. Good luck with that when the internet is down.

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Are laws requiring English signs discriminatory?

By Dennis Baron
English on business signs? It’s the law in New York City. According to the “true name law,” passed back in 1933, the name of any store must “be publicly revealed and prominently and legibly displayed in the English language either upon a window . . . or upon a sign conspicuously placed upon the exterior of the building” (General Business Laws, Sec. 9-b, Art. 131).

Failure to comply is technically a misdemeanor, but violations

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The linguistic impact of 9/11

By Dennis Baron

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened ten years ago, and although everybody remembers what they were doing at that flashbulb moment, and many aspects of our lives were changed by those attacks, from traveling to shopping to going online, one thing stands out: the only significant impact that 9/11 has had on the English language is 9/11 itself.

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Content-free prose: The latest threat to writing or the next big thing?

By Dennis Baron

There’s a new online threat to writing. Critics of the web like to blame email, texts, and chat for killing prose. Even blogs—present company included—don’t escape their wrath. But in fact the opposite is true: thanks to computers, writing is thriving. More people are writing more than ever, and this new wave of everyone’s-an-author bodes well for the future of writing, even if not all that makes its way online is interesting or high in quality.

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Resistance may be futile: Are there alternatives to Global English?

By Dennis Baron
English is a world language. Once an insignificant set of immigrant dialects on an obscure island in the rainswept North Sea, English is now the de facto language of multinational business, of science and technology, and of rock ‘n’ roll. Non-English speakers around the globe seem to be learning English as fast as they can. Plus there are more than three times as many English articles in Wikipedia as there are German, the second-biggest language of the online encyclopedia. When it comes to the global domination of English, resistance may be futile.

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Learning not to curse in Arizona

By Dennis Baron
The Arizona State Senate is considering a proposal to fire teachers who swear. SB 1467 bans their use of any words that would violate FCC regulations against obscenity, indecency, and profanity on broadcast radio and television. A teacher would be suspended without pay after the first offence, fired after the third. Employers would also have the option of dismissing an instructor at the first curse.

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Computers read so you don’t have to

By Dennis Baron
Machines can grade essays just as well as human readers. According to the New York Times, a competition sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation produced software able to match human essay readers grade for grade, and a study of commercially-available automatic grading programs showed that computers assessed essays as accurately as human readers, but a whole lot faster, and cheaper, to boot. But that’s just the start: computers could lead to a reading-free future.

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Grammar sticklers may have OCD

By Dennis Baron
It used to be we thought that people who went around correcting other people’s grammar were just plain annoying. Now there’s evidence they are actually ill, suffering from a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder/oppositional defiant disorder (OCD/ODD). Researchers are calling it Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome, or GPS.

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