Casting the first ice pick

This tweet by Prof. Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School came across my feed last night.

Teachers, don’t make fun of your students. It’s not funny. It’s shitty.

Besides that, the distinction between its and it’s is so insignificant that only people who don’t know much about language would cling to it like it’s some ancient secret. Arguing about its/it’s (or picking on your students over it) is like arguing over who the best Robin was, Dick Grayson or Tim Drake*.

As it turns out, Ammon Shea (the author of Reading the OED, which you should totally read) did some digging and found out that Prof. Danny mistakenly used it’s for its in his dissertation. Because of course he did.

I wonder how he’d feel if his supervisor joked on twitter dot com about stabbing him with an icepick.

* If you didn’t get this reference, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. Just like misusing its/it’s doesn’t matter. If you did get this reference, then you know the answer is Tim Drake**.

** Fight me.


@ is a verb now

Ok, it’s been a verb for a while now. It’s not the first preposition to become a verb (there’s also out*), but it’s a recent addition and it’s very interesting. First, according to all of my students, the verb is spelled “@”. I’m willing to bet that not everyone follows this though. I don’t have much to say about @ as a verb, or nothing that you don’t already know, but I checked a few dictionaries to see if they had an entry for it. The results and links are below. Enjoy!

Dictionary Has an entry for @?
Merriam-Webster No, but there is a blog post
Macmillan Yes
OED No (but there’s an entry for the @ sign)
Oxford Dictionaries Yes
Cambridge Learner’s No
American Heritage Yes
Wiktionary Yes
Urban Dictionary Of course (Obvs, NSFL. Tread lightly)


* Ok, technically speaking, out as a verb is oooooold. I mean, Old English old. That’s old old.


Every kind of language has rules

Yes, even the ones that you don’t like. Here’s a quote from Spoken Soul by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford (2000: 92). It’s perfect in expressing the point that all language varieties have rules:

Every human language studied to date – whether loved or hated, prestigious or not – has regularities or rules of this type [i.e. conventional and systematic ways of pronouncing, modifying, and combining words]. A moment’s reflection would show why this is so. Without regularities, a language variety could not be successfully acquired or used in everyday life, and this applies to Spoken Soul, or Ebonics, as much as to the “Received Pronunciation,” or “BBC English,” of the British upper crust. Characterizations of the former as careless or lazy, and of the latter as careful or refined, are subjective social and political evaluations that reflect prejudices and preconceptions about the people who usually speak each variety.

That is so good. The book that it appears in is about Black English (also called African American Vernacular English), so of course Rickford and Rickford had to address the (uninformed) idea that Black English is just “English without rules.” It’s not and it never was.

You don’t get to claim that some specific group(s) of people don’t have any rules to the way they speak. Because if you claim that, it will say more about your judgment of those people than it will about your assessment of their language. (Well, it will also say that you’re not very good at making assessments about language.)

Every language variety follows systematic rules. Every single one. Not some. Not most. All of them. They may not follow the same rules as each other, but they follow rules nonetheless.

Call them what they want

There was an op-ed by Abigail Shrier in the Wall Street Journal (it’s paywalled, but no need to click, I’ve copied the relevant bits below) on August 29, 2018. It’s about what a terrible thing it is to make public employees use the preferred pronouns of the public individuals that they are serving. Basically, it’s about how people should be able to call others “he” or “she” even if the person that they are talking to prefers a different pronoun, such as “they”.

I only want to point out two problems with this person’s argument. First, the writer says:

Typically, in America, when groups disagree, we leave them to employ the vocabularies that reflect their values. My “affirmative action” is your “racial preferences.” One person’s “fetus” is another’s “baby boy.” This is as it should be; an entire worldview is packed into the word “fetus.” Another is contained in the reference to one person as “them” or “they.” For those with a religious conviction that sex is both biological and binary, God’s purposeful creation, denial of this involves sacrilege no less than bowing to idols in the town square. When the state compels such denial among religious people, it clobbers the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, lending government power to a contemporary variant on forced conversion.

But that’s not how it works. If you work for the government and you want to use slurs to refer to people, too bad. You can’t do that. I’m sure Richard Spencer (the head racist du jour) or David Duke (your parents’ racist du jour) would argue that it is part of their “worldview” to call black and brown and gay people all the horrible things that they call them. But fuck that nonsense. We don’t let them use the words that they want. We shun them for it. And if they work for the government, we penalize them for it (yeah, I know, things are pretty bad right now, but if you’re arguing that the racists currently in the US government should be allowed to keep on being racist, then you’re wrong).

Second, the writer backs up a linguistic argument* by referencing Locke. Philip Locke, you ask? The linguist who wrote University Grammar: A University Course? Haha. No. John Locke, the [checks notes] philosopher from the [checks notes again] 17th century. I wonder if anything has changed in linguistics since then. Guess not!

Here’s what it boils down to: you don’t get to call anyone anything you want without any repercussions. Sorry! (not sorry) Can’t bring yourself to use a person’s preferred pronoun because of your bigoted worldview? Change your worldview. Or just call them by their name FFS. This isn’t that difficult and you don’t need to write an op-ed about it, Abigail.

Ok, one final point. The writer says:

In most contexts, I would have no problem addressing others in any manner they chose.

That sounds an awful lot like “I’m not a racist, but…”


*Sure, the argument is about culture and worldviews and society – but wrapped up in all of that is language. And the article is specifically about words.

Wonder Woman speaks a creole

The Amazon princess’s first language (probably) evolved from a mixture of Hellenistic, Afro-Asiatic and Slavic languages.

So, what language does Wonder Woman speak as an L1? What’s the language she spoke growing up on Paradise Island, aka Themyscira? That’s a good question and The World’s Greatest Detective™ is on the case: Continue reading “Wonder Woman speaks a creole”

Patriotic grammar scolds puh-lease

A recent article (blog post?) by Mary Wilson in Slate discusses the language used by the Russian trolls who were indicted for subverting the 2016 US presidential election. But perhaps unsurprisingly in an online article about grammar, the writer gets grammar totally wrong. Let’s take a look at the grammar “mistakes” that the writer points out.

One political ad placed online by the Russians apparently read, “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” Just a Satan, not the? Is there a class of Satans of which Hillary was just one example? If so, why capitalize the S? [italics original]

1. “a Satan”. Fine, but Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. Sorry, I meant to write the Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. See how weird that sounds? That’s because proper nouns do not usually take any articles. In fact, adding the definite article is what would make this construction seem like there is a class of satans. Compare: That’s not the Satan I was referring to. Maybe that’s what Wilson was going for, but I doubt it.

In one email to a Trump campaign official, a disguised Russian agent reportedly wrote: “We gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected.” Is a huge lot a Walmart-size amount? Costco? Not to mention the awkwardly deployed somehow.

2. I agree huge lot is not a common construction, but what is grammatically wrong with it? Not to mention “the awkwardly deployed somehow” has nothing to do with grammar.

As noted in the Washington Post last year, “A revealing characteristic of the Russian language, the absence of the definite and indefinite article, is evident in statements such as ‘out of cemetery’ and ‘burqa is a security risk.’” But, the article goes on to say, these mistakes are harder to take notice of given how sloppily written the average social media discourse is.

3. This whole paragraph. A revealing characteristic of the Russian language is the Russian language. The sentence should read “a revealing characteristic of English mistakes made by people whose L1 does not have articles is the misuse of articles in English. Russian is one such language, but there are thousands more.” This one is also on the Washington Post. The next sentence describes social media discourse as “sloppily written”. This is a bunch of shit. Language written online isn’t supposed to follow standard English norms. That’s part of what makes it funner than standard written English. People know that they don’t have to follow the rules of standard English when they write online, so they don’t. But somehow – somehow! – they are still understood. Could it be that the rules of standard English aren’t as important to clarity and understanding as grammar scolds would have us believe?

The Mary Wilson tells us that these grammar “mistakes” imply “that we were wrong to ever let it become uncool to fixate on bad grammar and slack syntax, no matter what the venue”. If it’s uncool to fixate on bad grammar, that’s because many of the grammar scolds don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. They’ve commandeered the word grammar to mean “any stylistic feature that I internalized in high school, in either speech or writing, and have decided to apply system-wide across the language”. It’s a catch-all condemnation for people who want to point out their superiority. Don’t believe the hype.

Wilson ends the post by saying that paying attention to sentence fragments and dangling participles is “patriotic”. I wonder why she didn’t mention sentence fragments and dangling participles in her scolding of the Russian trolls. Is it because sentence fragments and dangling participles are not part of grammar? It is.

How do I like this language stuff?

A funny story about the Labov book, Dialect Diversity in America, which I just reviewed. When my parents were visiting last summer, my mom was looking through my bookshelf for something to read. I first gave her The 1% and the Rest of Us (or maybe Nickle and Dimed) and she burned right through it because she’s even more of a socialist than I am. Then I gave her Labov’s book. I know she has a passing interest in language and that she has read other linguistics books aimed at the general public. But while I was in the other room, and she was sitting at the table with my wife, this is what I hear:

My mom: I don’t know how Joseph likes this stuff. Phonetics…?

My wife: Yeah, but he loves it.

My mom: Yes, he does. It’s tough to get through though.


My wife and my mom: We know!


My mom read the whole book and she ended up enjoying the final chapters – which deal with history, politics, and social change – more than she did the earlier ones. She couldn’t stop talking about those chapters. I was like, “But Mom, what about that (ING) variable and that Northern Cities Shift?!”