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The Government Does Not Control Your Grammar

By Dennis Baron

Despite the claims of mass murderers and freepers, the government does not control your grammar. The government has no desire to control your grammar, and even if it did, it has no mechanism for exerting control: the schools, which are an arm of government, have proved singularly ineffective in shaping students’ grammar. Plus every time he opened his mouth, Pres. George W. Bush proved that the government can’t even control its own grammar.

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Monthly Gleanings: January 2011

By Anatoly Liberman

I have collected many examples about which I would like to hear the opinion of our correspondents. Perhaps I should even start an occasional column under the title “A Word Lover’s Complaint.”

Hanging as. Everybody must have seen sentences like the following: “…as the president, our cares must be your concern.” This syntax seems to be acceptable in American English, for it occurs everywhere, from the most carefully edited newspapers to essays by undergraduate students. The idea of the sentence given above is obvious: “you, being the president…” or “since you are the president…” but doesn’t the whole sound odd? Don’t we expect something like “as the president, you should (are expected to)….”

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Monthly Gleanings: December 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

This is the last time I go gleaning in 2010. We are snowed in in the American Midwest (but so is everybody else), and, while looking for linguistic crumbs, I feel like the girl in the fairy tale who was sent by her evil stepmother to the forest in the middle of winter to return with a basket of wild strawberries. She met Father Frost (January). The old man, who had often seen the girl before, was touched by her sweet meekness and asked his brothers to help her. For one hour January gave way to his younger brothers, and “in May” the girl gathered the berries and returned home with a full basket and wearing a dress of incomparable beauty. Father Frost is around, the berries are on display in supermarkets, May will certainly come, and in the meantime I’ll go ahead and comment on the questions still unanswered in the previous twelve months.

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When a Language Dies

By David Crystal
There’s a language dying out somewhere in the world every two weeks or so. It’s a far greater crisis, proportionately speaking, than the threat of extinction facing plants and animals. Half the world’s languages are so seriously endangered that they are likely to disappear this century. That’s 3000 languages, maybe.

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The Noun Game – A Simple Grammar Lesson Leads to a Clash of Civilizations

By Dennis Baron

Everybody knows that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. It’s one of those undeniable facts of daily life, a fact we seldom question until we meet up with a case that doesn’t quite fit the way we’re used to viewing things.

That’s exactly what happened to a student in Ohio when his English teacher decided to play the noun game. To the teacher, the noun game seemed a fun way to take the drudgery out of grammar. To the student it forced a metaphysical crisis. To me it shows what happens when cultures clash and children get lost in the tyranny of school. That’s a lot to get from a grammar game.

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Monthly Gleanings: November 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

Many thanks for the letters, questions, and corrections. I am especially grateful to Benjamin Slade for calling my attention to the post on rum (beverage) in his blog and to Michael Quinion, who grappled with dilemna long before me, came to similar conclusions, and cited 18th-century examples of this horrific spelling. It seems to be ineradicable, and the sad thing is that some teachers insist on writing -mn- in this word, to the despair of their literate charges and the charges’ parents. It is also a pleasure to receive irrelevant personal letters telling me, for example, about a visit of a fox in the correspondent’s garden (in connection with my post on foxglove). Guilty of what Shakespeare in Sonnet 62 called the sin of self-love, I particularly relish letters that begin with introductions like: “I enjoy reading your blog.” I enjoy writing it, but aging actors need constant encouragement. So now that Thanksgiving is behind, thank you all very much.

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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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All hail goddess English?

By Dennis Baron
Global English may be about to go celestial. A political activist in India wants the country’s poorest caste to improve its status by worshipping the English language, and to start off he’s building a temple to Goddess English in the obscure village of Bankagaon, near Lakhimpur Khiri in Uttar Pradesh.

English started on the long path to deification back in the colonial age, and in many former British colonies English has become both an indispensable tool for survival in the modern world and a bitter reminder of the Raj. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay recommended to fellow members of the India Council that the British create a system of English-language schools in the colony to train an elite class of civil servants, “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” who would help the British rule the subcontinent.

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Monthly Gleanings: September 2010

By Anatoly Liberman
Is Standard English pronunciation a viable concept? I think it is, even if only to a point. People’s accents differ, but some expectation of a more or less leveled pronunciation (that is, of the opposite of a broad dialect) in great public figures and media personalities probably exists. Jimmy Carter seems to have made an effort to sound less Georgian after he became President. If I am not mistaken, John Kennedy tried to suppress some of the most noticeable features of his Bostonian accent. But perhaps those changes happened under the influence of the new environment. In some countries, the idea of “Standard” has a stronger grip

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My BFF just told me “TTYL” is in the dictionary. LMAO.

It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. New words, senses, and phrases have been added to the New Oxford American Dictionary! I’m not going to list every addition, but here’s a sampling I think you’ll all find interesting…. BFF, Big Media, Bromance, Carbon Credit, Cloud Computing and Eggcorn.

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How Old is the Parasite “Like”?

By Anatoly Liberman
When did people begin to say: “I will, like, come tomorrow” and why do they say so? It may seem that the filler “like”, along with its twin “you know”, are of recent date, but this impression is wrong. It is, however, true that both became the plague in recent memory. Occasionally an etymologist discovers a word that was current in Middle or early Modern English, disappeared from view, and then seemingly resurfaced in the modern language. One wonders whether this is the same word…

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The gender-neutral pronoun: 150 years later, still an epic fail

Every once in a while someone decides to do something about the fact that English has no gender-neutral pronoun. They either call for such a pronoun to be invented, or they invent one and champion its adoption. Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for over a century and a half.

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Good grammar leads to violence at Starbucks?

Apparently an English professor was ejected from a Starbucks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for–she claims–not deploying Starbucks’ mandatory corporate-speak. The story immediately lit up the internet, turning her into an instant celebrity. Just as Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who couldn’t take it anymore, became the heroic employee who finally bucked the system when he cursed out nasty passengers over the intercom and deployed the emergency slide to make his escape, Lynne Rosenthal was the customer who cared so much about good English that she finally stood up to the coffee giant and got run off the premises by New York’s finest for her troubles. Well, at least that’s what she says happened.

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Is it “Ms.” or “Miss”?

By Dennis Baron
A rare occurrence of “Ms.” in 1885 suggests that the term is an abbreviation of “Miss.” Ever since “Ms.” emerged as a marriage-neutral alternative to “Miss” and “Mrs.” in the 1970s, linguists have been trying to trace the origins of this new honorific. It turns out that “Ms.” is not so new after all. The form goes back at least to the 1760s, when it served as an abbreviation for “Mistress” (remember Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly?) and for “Miss,” already a shortened form of “Mistress,” which was also sometimes spelled “Mis.”

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QUIZ: How well do you know your -nyms?

By Alexander Humez
Do you fancy yourself to be a grammarian extraordinaire? Prove it and take THIS QUIZ! Now is the opportunity to dazzle your friends and confound your enemies with a test of your –nym knowledge. The test consists of a list of ten words, each beginning with the letter k, each serving as an example of a –nym that you are asked to identify from a set of choices. Immediate feedback is provided for each choice, and you can display your final score when you’re done.

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Bouncy-ball-ectomies, God complex-ectomies and Other Suffix Surgeries

I’m no doctor, but Facebook-ectomy is a helluva creative word, and it occurs to me that I’ve been taking -ectomy for granted as a wild and wooly word-producer. Well, I haven’t completed ignored it, as my nonce-word blog has included ponytail-ectomy, butthole-ectomy, homework-ectomy, and who-knows-what-ectomy. My favorite finds are right-side-of-my-head-ectomy and alien-head-ectomy. I’m pretty sure either surgery would qualify as an ouchie…

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