Yesterday, Benji Smith became the main character on Writer Twitter. It turns out that Mr. Smith has created a database of novels that he obtained through probably illegal means. Smith used this database in his Prosecraft project, which published statistics about each novel, such as its word count, the number of adverbs in each, and something called the “vividness” of the writing style (I’m not really sure what that means and Smith doesn’t provide a good definition). He was also using this database to promote his word processor program Shaxpir 4, which is why he’s almost certainly breaking the law.
But one of the other things that he claims to analyze is how many passive verbs are in the novels. And Smith has a very interesting (aka “bad”) definition of “passive voice”.
Content warning: This post is about harmful language and it contains words that are used to dehumanize people. Please take caution.
In April 2023, the Atlantic published a 2,500-word opinion piece complaining about language equity style guides. The attack on these guides is misleading, wrong, and harmful. It continually misrepresents the style guides. It shows a misunderstanding of the content and the point of them. It refuses to accept others and expresses contempt for anything that doesn’t fit the author’s narrow and outdated idea of language. And it gives fuel to the fascists in their culture war.
Is this dude about to mansplain mansplaining? Hoo boy. Here we go.
This is going to be a long post. I’ll go through each part of the article with my usual irreverence, but don’t be fooled. Thomas’s ideas about language are a real danger to women. So I’ll comment seriously on that as well. Let’s get to it.
tl;dr – Andrew Thomas is incredibly wrong about mansplaining. He cites no sources to back up his claim that men and women have different communication styles, except for one limited study from 40 years ago. Modern linguistic research disproves Thomas’s ideas, and in fact his ideas are about 50 years out of date. Mansplaining is one part of systematic discrimination that women face. Thomas tries to water down the meaning of mansplaining. Thomas’s ideas are dangerous because they will be used to silence and exclude women in society.
If you learn about attempts at spelling reform in English, you’re bound to come across Noah Webster’s suggestions. Webster is considered the grandfather of American English since he had such a profound influence on it in the early days. His Blue-backed speller (basically a school grammar book) went through 385 editions and sold 60 million copies. Holy cow! And his dictionary? Well, that old thing is still being updated and it still has his name on it.
Some of Webster’s spelling reforms stuck. He’s the reason US English doesn’t spell honor, color or neighbor with a u. But others not so much. He suggested spelling women as wimmin. I’m sure he meant well, but try saying that out loud and not sounding like a person who definitely doesn’t like women. He suggested korus for chorus and dawter for daughter. You can see the idea behind these suggestions – they simplify the relationship between sound and spelling. The only reason they look wrong or strange to us is because they didn’t catch on. We learned that daughter was spelled with “augh” instead of “aw” and so everything else looks rong (or “wrong”).
And that brings us to another one of Webster’s suggestions that didn’t catch on… or didn’t catch on yet! In a similar fashion to korus and dawter and honor and color, Webster suggested that we spell machine as masheen. Looks fine to me! But of course, we all know that no one spells it that way. And that’s because we’re still in the first century of the millennium. We’re going to have to wait another 500 years for the spelling of machine to change to masheen.
Because that’s exactly how it’s spelled in the movie Idiocracy. (Spoiler alert for a movie that came out over 15 years ago.) The plot takes place in the year 2505. At the end of the movie, the protagonist is taken to a theme park ride called the “Time Masheen”:
I’m sure the director Mike Judge was having fun here – or maybe he’s a lexicography buff and he was tipping his hat to ol’ Noah. I know that this spelling of masheen is supposed to show how stupid people have become in the future, but spelling reform is actually a good idea. Some argue that spelling reform will have to happen sooner or later in English, especially as we get further away from the current spelling of words due to sound shifts, so why not now? And there’s the fact that our antiquated spelling system makes learning unnecessarily difficult. But there are other problems associated with spelling reform, such as choosing which variety of English to base the spelling on when there are so many different varieties. Food for thought.
A New York Times article from 1977 article rolled across my screen recently (courtesy of Mark Harris). It concerns language change and boy is it a doozy. The article asked members of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel to give their comments on some recent developments in English. Let’s take a look.
(Or something more Star Wars-y. Sorry, I’m a different kind of nerd.)
You have to be careful out there with posts on the interwebs about grammar. Case in point: this Medium post that showed up when we were doing a search in class. It ties in to some of my recent posts. The post is called “Yes, Yoda’s Grammar is Technically Correct” and overall it’s correct. Yoda’s grammar is fine (if a bit stilted). The grammar in this post though… not so much.
In the episode 18 of the seventh season of the tv show The Flash, the main character said a very interesting thing:
That’s future us’s problem.
This line is said by the main character on the show, Barry Allen, who is also the superhero The Flash (played by Grant Gustin). It caught my eye right away because I wrote about something similar a couple of years ago. In that article, I discussed the genitive ’s being added onto prepositions at the end of a noun phrase, such as “The woman who I was just talking to’s mother is a famous author.”’ Microsoft Word doesn’t like it, but me and my students found some examples of it in movies, TV and online language use.
What’s happening here is that the genitive is being tacked onto a pronoun. That’s wild. I don’t know if this was in the script, but it seems like it could have been. I mean, this doesn’t seem like a line to improv, but I’m not an actor. This show has been on for 7 seasons, so maybe the actors are able to just wing it. Either way, I love this show even more now 😊
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) discusses the genitive ’s being put on pronouns (in Ch. 5, §16.6). They call it a phrasal genitive and they give some other examples:
the man opposite me’s facial expression
a friend of mine’s father
CGEL also says that these phrases show double case marking. In the example from The Flash, there is inner case marking on the pronoun us and outer case marking shown by ’s. Pronouns are the only part of speech that can show internal case marking in English.
In Brinton’s The Structure of Modern English, we get a little bit of history about what’s going on here. Brinton says:
Historically, this has not always been so: prior to the sixteenth century, such phrases had internal modification in the possessive, as in kings crown of England (=‘king of England’s crown’), which has the possessive ending –s on king. Then it became possible to add the possessive ending to an entire phrase, a construction called the “group genitive”. What precedes the possessive ending need not be a single-word compound but can be a phrase, as in my neighbor next door’s dog, or even a clause, as in a woman I know’s niece.
The line could be phrased in standardized English as something like “That’s a problem for us (to deal with) in the future”. But the phrasal genitive makes total sense, especially in a show that deals with time travel a lot. The characters are constantly running into their future or past selves.
NPR recently re-aired their interview with Sir Patrick Stewart and he makes some comments about language. These reminded me of some comments he made when he was on “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” Both of these are about Stewart’s regional variety (aka dialect or accent). So let’s hear Professor Jean-Luc X. Picard in his own words!