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Author Topic: The English Language & the study of languages  (Read 24642 times)
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« on: November 05, 2006, 09:07:49 AM »

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Published: November 5, 2006
When I got to John Simpson and his band of lexicographers in Oxford earlier this fall, they were working on the P?s. Pletzel, plish, pod person, point-and-shoot, polyamorous ? these words were all new, one way or another. They had been plowing through the P?s for two years but were almost done (except that they?ll never be done), and the Q?s will be ?just a twinkle of an eye,? Simpson said. He prizes patience and the long view. A pale, soft-spoken man of middle height and profound intellect, he is chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and sees himself as a steward of tradition dating back a century and a half. ?Basically it?s the same work as they used to do in the 19th century,? he said. ?When I started in 1976, we were still working very much on these index cards, everything was done on these index cards.? He picked up a stack of 6-inch-by-4-inch slips and riffled through them. A thousand of these slips were sitting on his desk, and within a stone?s throw were millions more, filling metal files and wooden boxes with the ink oftwo centuries, words, words, words.

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But the word slips have gone obsolete now, as Simpson well knows. They are treeware (a word that entered the O.E.D. in September as ?computing slang, freq. humorous?). Blog was recognized in 2003, dot-commer in 2004, metrosexual in 2005 and the verb Google last June. Simpson has become a frequent and accomplished Googler himself, and his workstation connects to a vast and interlocking set of searchable databases, a better and better approximation of what might be called All Previous Text. The O.E.D. has met the Internet, and however much Simpson loves the O.E.D.?s roots and legacy, he is leading a revolution, willy-nilly ? in what it is, what it knows, what it sees. The English language, spoken by as many as two billion people in every country on earth, has entered a period of ferment, and this place may be the best observation platform available. The perspective here is both intimate and sweeping. In its early days, the O.E.D. found words almost exclusively in books; it was a record of the formal written language. No longer. The language upon which the lexicographers eavesdrop is larger, wilder and more amorphous; it is a great, swirling, expanding cloud of messaging and speech: newspapers, magazines, pamphlets; menus and business memos; Internet news groups and chat-room conversations; and television and radio broadcasts.

The O.E.D. is unlike any other dictionary, in any language. Not simply because it is the biggest and the best, though it is. Not just because it is the supreme authority. (It wears that role reluctantly: it does not presume, or deign, to say that any particular usage or spelling is correct or incorrect; it aims merely to capture the language people use.) No, what makes the O.E.D. unique is a quality for which it can only strive: completeness. It wants every word, all the lingo: idioms and euphemisms, sacred or profane, dead or alive, the King?s English or the street?s. The O.E.D. is meant to be a perfect record, perfect repository, perfect mirror of the entire language.

James Murray, the editor who assembled the first edition through the final decades of the 19th century, was really speaking of the language when he said, in 1900: ?The English Dictionary, like the English Constitution, is the creation of no one man, and of no one age; it is a growth that has slowly developed itself adown the ages.? And developing faster nowadays. The O.E.D. tries to grasp the whole arc of an ever-changing history. Murray knew that with ?adown? he was using a word that could be dated back to Anglo-Saxon of the year 975. When John Updike begins his New Yorker review of the new John le Carr? novel by saying, ?Hugger-mugger is part of life,? it is the O.E.D. that gives us the first recorded use of the word, in 1529 (?... not alwaye whyspered in hukermoker,? Sir Thomas More) and 27 more quotations from four different centuries. But when The New York Times prints a timely editorial about ?sock puppets,? meaning false identities assumed on the Internet, the O.E.D. has more work to do.

The version now under way is only the ?hird edition. The first, containing 414,825 words in 10 weighty volumes, was presented to King George V and President Coolidge in 1928. Several ?supplements? followed, but not till 1989 did the second edition appear: 20 volumes, totaling 21,730 pages. It weighed 138 pounds. The third edition is a mutation. It is weightless, taking its shape in the digital realm. To keyboard it, Oxford hired a team of 150 typists in Florida for 18 months. (That was before the verb keyboard had even found its way in, as Simpson points out, not to mention the verb outsource.) No one can say for sure whether O.E.D.3 will ever be published in paper and ink. By the point of decision, not before 20 years or so, it will have doubled in size yet again. In the meantime, it is materializing before the world?s eyes, bit by bit, online. It is a thoroughgoing revision of the entire text. Whereas the second edition just added new words and new usages to the original entries, the current project is researching and revising from scratch ? preserving the history but aiming at a more coherent whole.

The revised installments began to appear online in the year 2000. Simpson chose to begin the revisions not with the letter A but with M. Why? It seems the original O.E.D. was not quite a seamless masterpiece. Murray did start at A, logically, and the early letters show signs of the enterprise?s immaturity. The entries in A tended to be smaller, with different senses of a word crammed together instead of teased lovingly apart in subentries. ?It just took them a long time to sort out their policy and things,? Simpson says, ?so if we started at A, then we?d be making our job doubly difficult. I think they?d sorted themselves out by. ...? He stops to think. ?Well, I was going to say D, but Murray always said that E was the worst letter, because his assistant, Henry Bradley, started E, and Murray always said that he did that rather badly. So then we thought, ??Maybe it?s safe to start with G, H. But you get to G and H, and there?s I, J, K, and you know, you think, well, start after that.?

So the first wave of revision encompassed 1,000 entries from M to mahurat. The rest of the M?s, the N?s and the O?s have followed in due course. That?s why, at the end of 2006, John Simpson and his lexicographers are working on the P?s. Their latest quarterly installment, in September, covers pleb to Pomak. Simpson mentions rather proudly that they scrambled at the last instant to update the entry for Pluto when the International Astronomical Union voted to rescind its planethood. Pluto had entered the second edition as ?1. A small planet of the solar system ... ? discovered in 1930 and ?2. The name of a cartoon dog ...? first appearing in 1931. The Disney meaning was more stable, it turns out. In O.E.D.3, Pluto is still a dog but merely ?a small planetary body.?

Even as they revise the existing dictionary in sequence, the O.E.D. lexicographers are adding new words wherever they find them, at an accelerating pace. Beside the P?s, September?s freshman class included agroterrorism, bahookie (a body part), beer pong (a drinking game), bippy (as in, you bet your ? ), chucklesome, cypherpunk, tuneage and wonky. Every one of these underwent intense scrutiny. The addition of a new word is a solemn matter.

?Because it?s the O.E.D.,? says Fiona McPherson, a new-words editor, ?once something goes in, it cannot ever come out again.? In this respect, you could say that the O.E.D. is a roach motel (added March 2005: ?Something from which it may be difficult or impossible to be extricated?). A word can go obs. or rare, but the editors feel that even the most ancient and forgotten words have a way of coming back ? people rediscover them or reinvent them ? and anyway, they are part of the language?s history.

The new-words department, where that history rolls forward, is not to everyone?s taste. ?I love it, I really really love it,? McPherson says. ?You?re at the cutting edge, you?re dealing with stuff that?s not there and you?re, I suppose, shaping the language. A lot of people are more interested in the older stuff; they like nothing better than reading through 18thcentury texts looking for the right word. That doesn?t suit me as much, I have to say.? Cutting edge, incidentally, is not a new word: according to the O.E.D., H. G. Wells used it in its modern sense in 1916.


Page 2 of 4)

As a rule, a neologism needs five years of solid evidence for admission to the canon. ?We need to be sure that a word has established a reasonable amount of longevity,? McPherson says. ?Some things do stick around that you would never expect to stick around, and then other things, you think that will definitely be around, and everybody talks about it for six months, and then. ...?

Still, a new word as of September is bada-bing: American slang ?suggesting something happening suddenly, emphatically, or easily and predictably.? ?The Sopranos? gets no credit. The historical citations begin with a 1965 audio recording of a comedy routine by Pat Cooper and continue with newspaper clippings, a television news transcript and a line of dialogue from the first ?Godfather? movie: ?You?ve gotta get up close like this and bada-bing! you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.? The lexicographers also provide an etymology, a characteristically exquisite piece of guesswork: ?Origin uncertain. Perh. imitative of the sound of a drum roll and cymbal clash.... Perh. cf. Italian bada bene mark well.? But is bada-bing really an official part of the English language? What makes it a word? I can?t help wondering, when it comes down to it, isn?t bada-bing (also badda-bing, badda badda bing, badabing, badaboom) just a noise? ?I dare say the thought occurs to editors from time to time,? Simpson says. ?But from a lexicographical point of view, we?re interested in the conventionalized representation of strings that carry meaning. Why, for example, do we say Wow! rather than some other string of letters? Or Zap! Researching these takes us into interesting areas of comic-magazine and radio-TV-film history and other related historical fields. And it often turns out that they became institutionalized far earlier than people nowadays may think.?

When Murray began work on O.E.D.1, no one had any idea how many words were there to be found. Probably the best and most comprehensive dictionary of English was American, Noah Webster?s: 70,000 words. That number was a base line. Where were the words to be discovered? For the first editors it went almost without saying that the source, the wellspring, should be the literature of the language. Thus it began as a dictionary of the written language, not the spoken language. The dictionary?s first readers combed Milton and Shakespeare (still the single most quoted author, with more than 30,000 references), Fielding and Swift, histories and sermons, philosophers and poets. ?A thousand readers are wanted,? Murray announced in his famous 1879 public appeal. ?The later 16th-century literature is very fairly done; yet here several books remain to be read. The 17th century, with so many more writers, naturally shows still more unexplored territory.? He considered the territory to be large, but ultimately finite.

It no longer seems finite. ?We?re painting the Forth Bridge!? says Bernadette Paton, an associate editor. ?We?re running the wrong way on a travolator!? (I get the first part ? ?allusion to the huge task of maintaining the painted surfaces of the railway bridge over the Firth of Forth? ? but I have to ask about travolator. Apparently it?s a moving sidewalk.)

The O.E.D. is a historical dictionary, providing citations meant to show the evolution of every word, beginning with the earliest known usage. So a key task, and a popular sport for thousands of volunteer word aficionados, is antedating: finding earlier citations than those already known. This used to be painstakingly slow and chancy. When Paton started in new words, she found herself struggling with headcase. She had current citations, but she says she felt sure it must be older, and books were of little use. She wandered around the office muttering headcase, headcase, headcase. Suddenly one of her colleagues started singing: ?My name is Bill, and I?m a headcase/They practice making up on my face.? She perked up.

?What date would that be?? she asked.

?I don?t know, it?s a Who song,? he said, ?1966 probably, something like that.?

So ?I?m a Boy,? by P. Townshend, became the O.E.D.?s earliest citation for headcase.

Antedating is entirely different now: online databases have opened the floodgates. Lately Paton has been looking at words starting with pseudo-. Searching through databases of old newspapers and historical documents has changed her view of them. ?I tended to think of pseudo- as a prefix that just took off in the 60?s and 70?s, but now we find that a lot of them go back much earlier than we thought.? Also in the P?s, poison pen has just been antedated with a 1911 headline in The Evening Post in Frederick, Md. ?You get the sense that this sort of language seeps into local newspapers first,? she says. ?We would never in a million years have sent a reader to read a small newspaper like that.?

The job of a new-words editor felt very different precyberspace, Paton says: ?New words weren?t proliferating at quite the rate they have done in the last 10 years. Not just the Internet, but text messaging and so on has created lots and lots of new vocabulary.? Much of the new vocabulary appears online long before it will make it into books. Take geek. It was not till 2003 that O.E.D.3 caught up with the main modern sense: ?a person who is extremely devoted to and knowledgeable about computers or related technology.? Internet chitchat provides the earliest known reference, a posting to a Usenet newsgroup, net.jokes, on Feb. 20, 1984.
« Last Edit: March 19, 2012, 05:30:03 PM by Crafty_Dog » Logged
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« Reply #1 on: November 05, 2006, 09:08:26 AM »

Page 3 of 4)

The scouring of the Internet for evidence ? the use of cyberspace as a language lab ? is being systematized in a program called the Oxford English Corpus. This is a giant body of text that begins in 2000 and now contains more than 1.5 billion words, from published material but also from Web sites, Weblogs, chat rooms, fanzines, corporate home pages and radio transcripts. The corpus sends its home-built Web crawler out in search of text, raw material to show how the language is really used.

I?m too embarrassed to ask the lexicographers if they have a favorite word. They get that a lot. Peter Gilliver tells me his anyway: twiffler. A twiffler, in case you didn?t know, is a plate intermediate in size between a dinner plate and a bread plate. ?I love it because it fills a gap,? Gilliver says. ?I also love it because of its etymology. It comes from Dutch, like a lot of ceramics vocabulary. Twijfelaar means something intermediate in size, and it comes from twijfelen, which means to be unsure. It?s a plate that can?t make up its mind!?

Fiona McPherson gives me mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misheard lyric, as in, ?Lead on, O kinky turtle.? It is named after Lady Mondegreen. There was no Lady Mondegreen. The lines of a ballad, ?They hae slain the Earl of Murray,/And laid him on the green? are misheard as ?They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen.?

?A lot of people are just really excited by that word because they think it?s amazing that there is a word for that concept,? McPherson says. I have my own favorites among the newest entries in O.E.D.3. Pixie dust is, as any child knows, ?an imaginary magical substance used by pixies.? Air kiss is defined with careful anatomical instructions plus a note: ?sometimes with the connotation that such a gesture implies insincerity or affectation.?

Builder?s bum is reportedly Brit. and colloq., ?with allusion to the perceived propensity of builders to expose inadvertently this part of the body.?

It is clear that the English of the O.E.D. is no longer the purely written language, much less a formal or respectable English, the diction recommended by any authority. Gilliver, a longtime editor who also seems to be the O.E.D.?s resident historian, points out that the dictionary feels obliged to include words that many would regard simply as misspellings.

No one is particularly proud of the new entry as of December 2003 for nucular, a word not associated with high standards of diction. ?Bizarrely, I was amazed to find that the spelling n-u-c-u-l-a-r has decades of history,? Gilliver says. ?And that is not to be confused with the quite different word, nucular, meaning ?of or relating to a nucule.? ? There is even a new entry for miniscule; it has citations going back more than 100 years. Yet the very notion of correct and incorrect spelling seems under attack. In Shakespeare?s day, there was no such thing: no right and wrong in spelling, no dictionaries to consult. The word debt could be spelled det, dete, dett, dette or dept, and no one would complain.

Then spelling crystallized, with the spread of printing. Now, with mass communication taking another leap forward, spelling may be diversifying again, spellcheckers notwithstanding. The O.E.D. so far does not recognize straight-laced, but the Oxford English Corpus finds it outnumbering strait-laced. Similarly for just desserts.

To explain why cyberspace is a challenge for the O.E.D. as well as a godsend, Gilliver uses the phrase ?sensitive ears.?

?You know we are listening to the language,? he says. ?When you are listening to the language by collecting pieces of paper, that?s fine, but now it?s as if we can hear everything said anywhere. Members of some tiny English-speaking community anywhere in the world just happen to commit their communications to the Web: there it is. You thought some word was obsolete? Actually, no, it still survives in a very small community of people who happen to use the Web ? we can hear about it.?

In part, it?s just a problem of too much information: a small number of lexicographers with limited time. But it?s also that the O.E.D. is coming face to face with the language?s boundlessness.The universe of human discourse always has backwaters. The language spoken in one valley was a little different from the language of the next valley and so on. There are more valleys now than ever, but they are not so isolated. They find one another in chat rooms and on blogs. When they coin a word, anyone may hear.

Page 3 of 4)

The scouring of the Internet for evidence ? the use of cyberspace as a language lab ? is being systematized in a program called the Oxford English Corpus. This is a giant body of text that begins in 2000 and now contains more than 1.5 billion words, from published material but also from Web sites, Weblogs, chat rooms, fanzines, corporate home pages and radio transcripts. The corpus sends its home-built Web crawler out in search of text, raw material to show how the language is really used.

I?m too embarrassed to ask the lexicographers if they have a favorite word. They get that a lot. Peter Gilliver tells me his anyway: twiffler. A twiffler, in case you didn?t know, is a plate intermediate in size between a dinner plate and a bread plate. ?I love it because it fills a gap,? Gilliver says. ?I also love it because of its etymology. It comes from Dutch, like a lot of ceramics vocabulary. Twijfelaar means something intermediate in size, and it comes from twijfelen, which means to be unsure. It?s a plate that can?t make up its mind!?

Fiona McPherson gives me mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misheard lyric, as in, ?Lead on, O kinky turtle.? It is named after Lady Mondegreen. There was no Lady Mondegreen. The lines of a ballad, ?They hae slain the Earl of Murray,/And laid him on the green? are misheard as ?They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen.?

?A lot of people are just really excited by that word because they think it?s amazing that there is a word for that concept,? McPherson says. I have my own favorites among the newest entries in O.E.D.3. Pixie dust is, as any child knows, ?an imaginary magical substance used by pixies.? Air kiss is defined with careful anatomical instructions plus a note: ?sometimes with the connotation that such a gesture implies insincerity or affectation.?

Builder?s bum is reportedly Brit. and colloq., ?with allusion to the perceived propensity of builders to expose inadvertently this part of the body.?

It is clear that the English of the O.E.D. is no longer the purely written language, much less a formal or respectable English, the diction recommended by any authority. Gilliver, a longtime editor who also seems to be the O.E.D.?s resident historian, points out that the dictionary feels obliged to include words that many would regard simply as misspellings.

No one is particularly proud of the new entry as of December 2003 for nucular, a word not associated with high standards of diction. ?Bizarrely, I was amazed to find that the spelling n-u-c-u-l-a-r has decades of history,? Gilliver says. ?And that is not to be confused with the quite different word, nucular, meaning ?of or relating to a nucule.? ? There is even a new entry for miniscule; it has citations going back more than 100 years. Yet the very notion of correct and incorrect spelling seems under attack. In Shakespeare?s day, there was no such thing: no right and wrong in spelling, no dictionaries to consult. The word debt could be spelled det, dete, dett, dette or dept, and no one would complain.

Then spelling crystallized, with the spread of printing. Now, with mass communication taking another leap forward, spelling may be diversifying again, spellcheckers notwithstanding. The O.E.D. so far does not recognize straight-laced, but the Oxford English Corpus finds it outnumbering strait-laced. Similarly for just desserts.

To explain why cyberspace is a challenge for the O.E.D. as well as a godsend, Gilliver uses the phrase ?sensitive ears.?

?You know we are listening to the language,? he says. ?When you are listening to the language by collecting pieces of paper, that?s fine, but now it?s as if we can hear everything said anywhere. Members of some tiny English-speaking community anywhere in the world just happen to commit their communications to the Web: there it is. You thought some word was obsolete? Actually, no, it still survives in a very small community of people who happen to use the Web ? we can hear about it.?

In part, it?s just a problem of too much information: a small number of lexicographers with limited time. But it?s also that the O.E.D. is coming face to face with the language?s boundlessness.The universe of human discourse always has backwaters. The language spoken in one valley was a little different from the language of the next valley and so on. There are more valleys now than ever, but they are not so isolated. They find one another in chat rooms and on blogs. When they coin a word, anyone may hear.

(Page 4 of 4)

Neologisms can be formed by committee: transistor, Bell Laboratories, 1948. Or by wags: booboisie, H. L. Mencken, 1922. But most arise through spontaneous generation, organisms appearing in a petrie dish, like blog (c. 1999). If there is an ultimate limit to the sensitivity of lexicographers? ears, no one has yet found it. The rate of change in the language itself ? particularly the process of neologism ? has surely shifted into a higher gear now, but away from dictionaries, scholars of language have no clear way to measure the process. When they need quantification, they look to the dictionaries.

?An awful lot of neologisms are spur-of-the-moment creations, whether it?s literary effect or it?s conversational effect,? says Naomi S. Baron, a linguist at American University, who studies these issues. ?I could probably count on the fingers of a hand and a half the serious linguists who know anything about the Internet. That hand and a half of us are fascinated to watch how the Internet makes it possible not just for new words to be coined but for neologisms to spread like wildfire.?

It?s partly a matter of sheer intensity. Cyberspace is an engine driving change in the language. ?I think of it as a saucepan under which the emperature has been turned up,? Gilliver says. ?Any word, because of the interconnectedness of the English-speaking world, can spring from the backwater. And they are still backwaters, but they have this instant connection to ordinary, everyday discourse.? Like the printing press, the telegraph and the telephone before it, the Internet is transforming the language simply by transmitting information differently. And what makes cyberspace different from all previous information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions, narrowcasting to groups, instant messaging one to one.

So anyone can be an O.E.D. author now. And, by the way, many try. ?What people love to do is send us words they?ve invented,? Bernadette Paton says, guiding me through a windowless room used for storage of old word slips. Will you put the word I have invented into one of your dictionaries? is a question in the FAQ. All the submissions go into the files, and until there is evidence for some general usage, that?s where the annabes remain.

Don?t bother sending in FAQ. Don?t bother sending in wannabes. They?re not even particularly new. For that matter, don?t bother sending in anything you find via Google. ?Please note,? the O.E.D.?s Web site warns solemnly, ?it is generally safe to assume that examples found by searching the Web, using search engines such as Google, will have already been considered by O.E.D. editors.?
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« Reply #2 on: December 07, 2006, 01:22:52 AM »

Language Guardian
An online journal fights for clear, expressive English.

Thursday, December 7, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

If there is a better losing cause than the fight against slovenly language, I am unaware of it. The first rule of language is change, but why, those of us who have signed up for the fight never cease wondering, does 80 or so percent of this change seem to be for the worse?

Why, for example, do we need the word "icon" to describe hugely successful performers in show business, sports and elsewhere? We began with "star," which was replaced with "superstar"; and when it was discovered that too many superstars were floating around, icon was called in. After icon is used up, we shall, no doubt, have to go straight to "god."

I am myself writing a little book on Fred Astaire for a series of books called American Icons. When I reported this to a witty friend, adding that "icon" was of course a vastly inflated word, itself part of the vocabulary of hype, he, without losing a stroke, replied: "Whaddya mean? What about Ike and Tina Turner?"

In recent years I have written brief essays attacking the overuse and dopey imprecision of the words "icon," "multitasking" and "focus." The success of my attacks can be measured by the vastly increased use over the years of all three words. Cleaning up the language is a herculean job; unlike Hercules' assignment of cleaning up the Augean Stables, here it must be done with the animals still in them. It's a full-time job.

A man who has taken it on is Robert Hartwell Fiske, who runs an online monthly journal called the Vocabula Review (, which, as Mr. Fiske writes, "battles nonstandard, careless English and embraces clear, expressive English," and hopes to encourage its readers to do likewise. Vocabula means "words" in Latin, and words are the name of Mr. Fiske's game. Read the Vocabula Review, and you will be convinced that the battle ought to be yours, too.

Mr. Fiske is the latest--and let us hope not the last--in a line of language guardians that goes back, in English, to Jonathan Swift and has been continued, closer to our time, by H.L. Mencken, H.W. Fowler, George Orwell, F.L. Lucas and Sir Ernest Gowers. About the decay of language, Mr. Fiske is earnest without being humorless, strict without being scornful, and elevated without being snobbish.
The third Sunday of every month, Mr. Fiske publishes a number of articles about "some aspect of the language and its effect on society." Running the operation out of his house in Rockport, Mass., he asks a $25 subscription fee from language lovers (renewing subscribers pay $15), of which--no great surprise here--there are all too few. The Vocabula Review had a high circulation figure of 1,400, but the number is now down to fewer than a thousand.

Mr. Fiske is on the job 24/7, a phrase I feel confident he would, rightly, loathe. Along with running his online magazine, he has produced three useful books--the Dictionary of Concise Writing, the Dimwit's Dictionary, and the Dictionary of Disagreeable English--and an anthology of pieces from the Vocabula Review called "Vocabula Bound."

Each issue of the Vocabula Review (of which there are now 87--one every month since September 1999) is a miscellany of articles on English as it is used in America ("Singular They: The Pronoun That Came In From the Cold"), controversies of the day such as the teaching of English to immigrants ("José, Can You See?"), and various columns and departments, among them Shibboleths, Bethumped With Words, Scarcely Used Words, Clues to Concise Writing, Grumbling About Grammar, and letters from some of the language fanatics who are among Mr. Fiske's subscribers.

I read the Vocabula Review for amusement and as a prophylactic against falling into sloppiness in my own writing. The Vocabula Review is run on the prescriptivist principle that there are correct and incorrect uses of words; the descriptivists hold that any language used by the majority is automatically acceptable English. "Whatever!" might be the descriptivists' motto; "Not in my house you don't" that of the prescriptivists.

The Vocabula Review, in fact, has two mottoes: "A society is generally as lax as its language" and "Well spoken is half sung." Mr. Fiske believes that honest language is elegant language. His online magazine is neither a forum for prescriptivism nor for his prejudices, but deals extensively with the endless oddities and richness of language.

Mr. Fiske's own characteristic tone is perhaps best caught in his Dimwit's Dictionary. In that 400-page work a vast body of words and phrases are shown up for the linguistic ciphers they are. He has established a number of categories for "Expressions That Dull Our Reason and Dim Our Insight." These included grammatical gimmicks, which are expressions (such as "whatever," "you had to be there") that are used by people who have lost their powers of description; ineffectual phrases ("the fact remains," "the thing about it is," "it is important to realize") used by people to delay coming to the point or for simple bewilderment; infantile phrases ("humongous," "gazillions," "everything's relative"), which show evidence of unformed reasoning; moribund metaphors ("window of opportunity") and insipid similes ("cool as a cucumber"); suspect superlatives ("an amazing person," "the best and the brightest"), which are just what the category suggests; torpid terms ("prioritize," "proactive," "significant other"), which are vapid and dreary; not to mention plebeian sentiments, overworked words, popular prescriptions, quack equations, and wretched redundancies.

Behind Mr. Fiske's continuing project is the idea that without careful language there can be no clear thought. Politicians, advertising copywriters, swindlers of differing styles and ambitions know this well and put it to their own devious uses. The rest of us too easily tend to forget this central truth. All words and phrases, to fall back on what I hope isn't a plebeian sentiment, are guilty until proved innocent.
Bad language is viral; it's in the atmosphere, and we all pick it up. Mr. Fiske diagnoses it and tells us, in the Vocabula Review and in his books, how to get well. His aim is a higher standard of linguistic health through the clear and precise use of language. A subscription to Vocabula Review is the intellectual equivalent of a monthly flu shot. A shame we cannot write the cost of his excellent service off to Blue Cross or Medicare.

Mr. Epstein is the author of "Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide" (Atlas Books).
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« Reply #3 on: February 16, 2007, 06:30:57 PM »

Time to Put English First
by Newt Gingrich

Posted: 02/12/2007
One of the most frequent complaints I hear when I'm out traveling and speaking to groups is the lack of importance given to English as the language of success in the United States today. Whether it's the government's printing election ballots in other languages or bilingual education, Americans are concerned about the future of English as a unifying bond in our country.

Of course, don't expect to hear a lot of discussion of this topic in Washington. When was the last time you heard a politician talking about the fact that the Rasmussen poll reported that support for English as the official language was 85 percent? Or that the Zogby poll had it at 84 percent? With overwhelming public support like this, you would expect that promotion of English to be on the agenda of every elected official. But it's not. Instead, talking about English as a unifying bond -- and about learning English as the essential precondition for success in America -- is taboo. Why? Because the left labels anyone who talks about the importance of learning English as bigoted against immigrants.

Not 'English Only.' English First.

When the left and the elite media are done with it, any expression of support for emphasizing the importance of English is turned into a lack of support for welcoming new Americans. Those who support "English first" -- that is, those who believe that English should be the language of government, but other languages are perfectly fine in communities and commerce -- are portrayed routinely as supporters of "English only" -- that is, advocates of outlawing all languages other than English.

But historically, nothing could be further from the truth. English is not and never has been the only language in America. My wife's grandmother came to the United States as a young woman speaking only Polish. She learned English quickly, but her children grew up speaking both Polish and English.

For much of our history, the U.S. has absorbed waves of immigrants by helping newcomers assimilate into our culture. After all, there's no such thing as a genetic U.S. citizen. To become an American means becoming an American in values, culture and historic understanding.

Our one nation under God grows and prospers by embracing and welcoming the newly arrived and helping them to adjust properly.

Most Americans support continuing this welcoming tradition. But to do so successfully, we have to ensure that English remains our language of government and public discourse. In fact, to be pro-English and pro-assimilation into American culture is to be pro-legal immigration. If we fail to properly assimilate newcomers into the United States, the American people won't long support continuing immigration.

Australia Switches From Multiculturalism to Citizenship

You don't have to look far to see other countries who have experimented with failing to assimilate their immigrants and lived to regret it.

The Canadian government is currently taking another look at its policy of allowing dual citizenship for immigrants.

In Australia, they recently renamed their Ministry for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Ministry for Immigration and Citizenship. What's in a name change? Plenty. The change marks a shift by the Australians from a policy of government enforced multiculturalism -- encouraging immigrants to cluster in the same communities and schools and retain the culture of their old countries -- to a policy of assimilation. The reason for the change wasn't politics, it was profoundly practical. Their policy of multiculturalism had led to the creation of a closed and violent ghetto of Lebanese Muslims.

Instead of making Australia a more culturally rich and vibrant place, failing to assimilate new immigrants had the opposite effect and made the country a more violent place. Congratulations to the Howard government for having the courage to believe in their Australian cultural values and national identity.

English is the Language of American Success and Cultural Identity

We need a similar kind of courage here in America.

English is the language of American success and provides the basis for American cultural unity.

As a part of any comprehensive immigration reform, we should renew our commitment to our cultural values by teaching legal immigrants to speak and read the English language, educating them about U.S. citizenship based upon U.S. history and giving them an understanding of the Founding Fathers and the core values of American civilization. We should continue to encourage those who want to become U.S. citizens, but it is important that we grant citizenship to only those individuals who also want to embrace and assimilate into the culture of the United States.

Action Agenda to Promote the English Language

What can we do to make English the language of government and civic discourse? Three action items top the list:

President Bush should end multilingualism in federal documents. The requirement that federal documents be printed in different languages was created by executive order. President Bush should repeal this executive order.

Make English the language of U.S. citizenship. Return to English language ballots, to a focus on English language literacy as a prerequisite of citizenship, and to an insistence that U.S. dual citizens vote only in the United States and give up voting in their birth nations. These were principles widely understood and accepted for most of American history, and they enabled us to absorb millions of immigrants and assimilate them and their children into an American civilization.

Replace bilingual education with intensive English instruction. We should have a National Program for Intensive English Instruction that would provide highly intensive English and U.S. history and civics training for new immigrants so that they can have the practical skills to become successful U.S. citizens.
It's the Right Thing to Do.

We can be dramatically more successful in helping those who want to embrace American values and culture, and become citizens, to assimilate far more effectively. As we work to reform our immigration policies, especially citizenship reform measures, we must never lose sight of the self-evident truths affirmed at our founding. That we are all created equal -- citizen and non-citizen alike -- because we recognize that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If we are to live out these truths, then we must recognize that every person has an inherent human dignity that must be respected. And that these truths morally bind us to create a workable immigration solution -- founded upon English as the official language of government and patriotic integration as the fundamental model of citizenship for new Americans.

Your friend,

Newt Gingrich
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« Reply #4 on: March 19, 2007, 04:52:32 PM »

>   The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational once again asked readers to
> take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or
> changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are this year's
> winners:
 1. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until  you realize it was your money to start with.

 2. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
 3. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops
 bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows
 little sign of breaking down in the near future.
 4. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of
 getting laid.
 5. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the
 subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.
 6. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

 7. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the
 person who doesn't get it.
 8. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
 9. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.
 10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
 11. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off these bad
 vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a
 serious bummer.
 12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day
 consuming only things that are good for you.
 13. Glibido: All talk and no action.
 14. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when
 they come at you rapidly.
 15. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after
 you've accidentally walked through a spider web.
 16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into
 your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.
 17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in
 the fruit you're eating.
 And the pick of the literature:
 18. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.
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« Reply #5 on: November 28, 2007, 12:50:25 PM »


English-Only Showdown
Does Nancy Pelosi really object to a common language in the workplace?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

Should the Salvation Army be able to require its employees to speak English? You wouldn't think that's controversial. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding up a $53 billion appropriations bill funding the FBI, NASA and Justice Department solely to block an attached amendment, passed by both the Senate and House, that protects the charity and other employers from federal lawsuits over their English-only policies.

The U.S. used to welcome immigrants while at the same time encouraging assimilation. Since 1906, for example, new citizens have had to show "the ability to read, write and speak ordinary English." A century later, this preference for assimilation is still overwhelmingly popular. A new Rasmussen poll finds that 87% of voters think it "very important" that people speak English in the U.S., with four out of five Hispanics agreeing. And 77% support the right of employers to have English-only policies, while only 14% are opposed.

But hardball politics practiced by ethnic grievance lobbies is driving assimilation into the dustbin of history. The House Hispanic Caucus withheld its votes from a key bill granting relief on the Alternative Minimum Tax until Ms. Pelosi promised to kill the Salvation Army relief amendment.

Obstructionism also exists on the state level. In California, which in 1998 overwhelmingly passed a measure designed to end bilingual education, the practice still flourishes. Only 29% of Latino students score proficient or better in statewide tests of English skills, so seven school districts have sued the state to stop English-only testing. "We're not testing what they know," is how Chula Vista school chief Lowell Billings justifies his proposed switch to tests in Spanish.

Yet the public is ready for leadership that will forthrightly defend reasonable assimilation. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won plaudits when he said last June that one way to close the Latino learning divide was "to turn off the Spanish TV set. It's that simple. You've got to learn English." Ruben Navarette, a columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune, agreed, warning that "industries such as native language education or Spanish-language television [create] linguistic cocoons that offer the comfort of a warm bath when what English-learners really need is a cold shower."

But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that last year filed over 200 lawsuits against employers over English-only rules, has a different vision. Its lawsuit against the Salvation Army accuses the organization of discriminating against two employees at its Framingham, Mass., thrift store "on the basis of their national origin." Its crime was to give the employees a year's notice that they should speak English on the job (outside of breaks) and then firing them after they did not. The EEOC sued only four years after a federal judge in Boston, in a separate suit, upheld the Salvation Army's English-only policy as an effort to "promote workplace harmony." Like a house burglar, the EEOC is trying every door in the legal neighborhood until it finds one that's open.
In theory, employers can escape the EEOC's clutches if they can prove their policies are based on grounds of safety or "compelling business necessity." But most companies choose to settle rather than be saddled with the legal bills. Synchro Start Products, a Chicago firm, paid $55,000 to settle an EEOC suit against its English-only policy, which it says it adopted after the use of multiple languages led to miscommunication. When one group of employees speak in a language other workers can't understand, the company said, it's easy for personal misunderstandings to undermine morale. Many companies complain they are in a Catch-22--potentially liable to lawsuits if employees insult each other but facing EEOC action if they pass English-only rules to better supervise those employee comments.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who authored the now-stalled amendment to prohibit the funding of EEOC lawsuits against English-only rules, is astonished at the opposition he's generated. Rep. Joe Baca (D., Calif.), chair of the Hispanic Caucus, boasted that "there ain't going to be a bill" including the Alexander language because Speaker Pelosi had promised him the conference committee handling the Justice Department's budget would never meet. So Sen. Alexander proposed a compromise, only requiring that Congress be given 30 days notice before the filing of any EEOC lawsuit. "I was turned down flat," he told me. "We are now celebrating diversity at the expense of unity. One way to create that unity is to value, not devalue, our common language, English."

That's what pro-assimilation forces are moving to do. TV Azteca, Mexico's second-largest network, is launching a 60-hour series of English classes on all its U.S. affiliates. It recognizes that teaching English empowers Latinos. "If you live in this country, you have to speak as everybody else," Jose Martin Samano, Azteca's U.S. anchor, told Fox News. "Immigrants here in the U.S. can make up to 50% or 60% more if they speak both English and Spanish. This is something we have to do for our own people."

Azteca isn't alone. Next month, a new group called Our Pledge will be launched. Counting Jeb Bush and former Clinton Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros among its board members, the organization believes absorbing immigrants is "the Sputnik challenge of our era." It will put forward two mutual pledges. It will ask immigrants to learn English, become self-sufficient and pledge allegiance to the U.S. It will ask Americans to provide immigrants help navigating the American system, the chance to eventually become a citizen and an atmosphere of respect.

This is a big challenge, but Our Pledge points out that the U.S. did it before with the Americanization movement of a century ago. It was government led, but the key players were businesses like the Ford Motor Company and nonprofits such as the YMCA, plus an array of churches and neighborhood groups.

The alternative to Americanization is polarization. Already a tenth of the population speaks English poorly or not at all. Almost a quarter of all K-12 students nationwide are children of immigrants living between two worlds. It's time for people of good will to reject both the nativist and anti-assimilation extremists and act. If the federal government spends billions on the Voice of America for overseas audiences and on National Public Radio for upscale U.S. listeners, why not fund a "Radio New America" whose primary focus is to teach English and U.S. customs to new arrivals?
In 1999, President Bill Clinton said "new immigrants have a responsibility to enter the mainstream of American life." Eight years later, Clinton strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville are warning their fellow Democrats that the frustration with immigrants and their lack of assimilation is creating a climate akin to the anti-welfare attitudes of the 1990s. They point out that 40% of independent voters now cite border security issues as the primary reason for their discontent.

In 1996, Mr. Clinton and a GOP Congress joined together to defuse the welfare issue by ending the federal welfare entitlement. Bold bipartisan action is needed again. With frustration this deep, it's in the interests of both parties not to let matters get out of hand.
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« Reply #6 on: January 14, 2008, 09:18:13 AM »

Me, Myself and I
January 14, 2008; Page A13

After months of presidential primary debates, town-hall meetings and cable talkathons, I hate myself. And I mean that in the most old-fashioned way.

For all the rhetorical flourish on display, many of the presidential candidates still don't have a grip on the King's English. That great American personal pronoun, the first person singular, which adorns nearly every sentence of candidate discourse, is still too slippery for many of this year's White House aspirants.

Speaking on Social Security, Democrat hopeful Barack Obama boasted that "here's an area where John (Edwards) and myself were actually quite specific." A few minutes later, Bill Richardson wondered, "What is wrong with having been like myself -- 14 years in the Congress, two Cabinet positions?"

Campaigning is certainly exhausting in a primary homestretch, which may explain this gem from Mitt Romney: "It is going to take a person who is himself an innovator like myself who has the experience to bring change to Washington." Republican contender Ron Paul noted proudly that "We have a lot of similarities . . . Barack Obama and myself, because our campaigns are made up of young people."

The new verbal tic is part trend and part defensive posture. Since the Me Generation, "I" and "me" have become increasingly tangled up as Americans have looked for ways around tricky constructions. As sportswriter Red Smith once put it, "Myself is the foxhole of ignorance, where cowards take refuge, because they were taught that me is vulgar and I is egotistical." In the same spirit, "myself" has become the campaign's de rigueur grammar cop-out, substituted for I or me when the candidate isn't sure which is accurate -- or worse, assumes Americans will see proper English as elitist.

Yet grammar still matters to a lot of Americans. Potential employers often report they are put off by job applicants who display bad spelling or grammar -- taking it as a sign of sloppiness, inattention to detail or lack of IQ. Why shouldn't voters hold the next leader of the free world to similar standards? Especially since, as Richard Lederer, former usage editor of the Random House Dictionary points out, when candidates "chicken out and use 'myself'" in place of I or me, "it shows an inability to take a stand" -- and isn't that something voters should care about?

The stakes are high, and the wrong pronoun can even change the meaning of a sentence. In his New Hampshire victory speech after the New Hampshire primary, John McCain told a cheering crowd, "Enjoy this. You have earned it more than me." (When he presumably meant, you have earned it more than I have.)

The misuse of "I" took its own toll on Bill Clinton in 1992. Running against then incumbent President George H. W. Bush, Gov. Clinton famously said: "If you want a spring in your step and a song in your heart, give Al Gore and I a chance to bring America back." The mistake spawned a pretty good media lashing, as it should have. New York Times columnist William Safire wrote in his language column, "Between you and me -- never you and I . . . the best answer is 'Give I a break.'"

By the time the 1996 debates came around, the president learned his lesson and dumbed it down. At the podium, Mr. Clinton remarked on the "big differences between Sen. Dole and myself."

Not that the 2008 candidates can't find support from the more flexible sort of grammarian for their innovative usage of "myself." One school of lexicographer holds that proper English is however people use it. So, though the classically-approved usage of "myself" is as an intensive ("I myself feel that way") or reflexive ("I hurt myself"), several dictionaries approve its "informal use" as an all-purpose substitute for "I" or "me." What's next, ketchup on hot dogs?

Defenders of heterodoxy say the casual usage has been around for centuries, finding mention in dusty old texts of Chaucer and other reputable English and American writers. But its growing use is intensely controversial among grammarians. "People who are shaky in their grammar think of "myself" as a safe usage," says Bryan Garner, former editor of Oxford's Dictionary of Modern American Usage, "but to a real snoot, it's bothersome."

To handle the skirmish, dictionaries now include tortured "Usage notes" on the casual version. The 2006 American Heritage Dictionary, referring to its in-house advisers, points out that "a large majority of the Usage Panel disapproves of the use of -self pronouns when they do not refer to the subject of the sentence."

One imagines a lot of furniture being broken up by American Heritage's more liberal experts. The dictionary goes on to say, "Seventy-three percent (of panel members) reject the sentence 'He was an enthusiastic fisherman like myself.'" The Panel is even less tolerant of compound usages. Eighty-eight percent find this sentence unacceptable: 'The boss asked John and myself to give a brief presentation.'"

Ahem, candidates.

Despite the excessive presence of "myself" in the current race, its emergence in political campaigning is not recent. John F. Kennedy used "myself" awkwardly once in his debate with Richard Nixon on Oct. 7, 1960, remarking on "the issue between Mr. Nixon and myself." Jimmy Carter used "myself" once in his October 1976 debate with President Gerald Ford, noting that "I think that we'll have good results on November the second for myself and I hope for the country."

Presidential campaigns have been dotted with stories of candidates maligned for misspellings and malapropisms memorable enough to define a political career. (See former Vice President Dan Quayle, whose misspelling of potato(e) in the days before spell-checkers turned him into a national punch line.) The most notorious of these has probably been President George W. Bush. So in the pronoun sweepstakes, he must be the worst offender of all, right?

He's not. Referring to his own grammatical quirks in a debate with Al Gore, the then Texas governor's usage was impeccable. "Well, we all make mistakes," he said, "I've been known to mangle a syllable or two myself."

Ms. Levy is a senior editorial writer at the Journal, based in Washington.
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« Reply #7 on: February 22, 2008, 08:45:30 AM »

Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location
 Cary Conover for The New York Times
Neil Neches, on a No. 5 train, underneath the placard that has earned him plaudits for his proper use of the semicolon.
Published: February 18, 2008
Correction Appended

It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard exhorting subway riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they get off the train.

“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”

Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period, much less in exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.

Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without, as style books advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma.

“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. “Old age is more like a semicolon.”

In terms of punctuation, semicolons signal something New Yorkers rarely do. Frank McCourt, the writer and former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, describes the semicolon as the yellow traffic light of a “New York sentence.” In response, most New Yorkers accelerate; they don’t pause to contemplate.

Semicolons are supposed to be introduced into the curriculum of the New York City public schools in the third grade. That is where Mr. Neches, the 55-year-old New York City Transit marketing manager, learned them, before graduating from Tilden High School and Brooklyn College, where he majored in English and later received a master’s degree in creative writing.

But, whatever one’s personal feelings about semicolons, some people don’t use them because they never learned how.

In fact, when Mr. Neches was informed by a supervisor that a reporter was inquiring about who was responsible for the semicolon, he was concerned.

“I thought at first somebody was complaining,” he said.

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

But the rules of grammar are routinely violated on both sides of the law.

People have lost fortunes and even been put to death because of imprecise punctuation involving semicolons in legal papers. In 2004, a court in San Francisco rejected a conservative group’s challenge to a statute allowing gay marriage because the operative phrases were separated incorrectly by a semicolon instead of by the proper conjunction.

Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, pronounced the subway poster’s use of the semicolon to be “impeccable.”

Lynne Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” called it a “lovely example” of proper punctuation.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, praised the “burgeoning of punctuational literacy in unlikely places.”

Allan M. Siegal, a longtime arbiter of New York Times style before retiring, opined, “The semicolon is correct, though I’d have used a colon, which I think would be a bit more sophisticated in that sentence.”

The linguist Noam Chomsky sniffed, “I suppose Bush would claim it’s the effect of No Child Left Behind.”

New York City Transit’s unintended agenda notwithstanding, e-mail messages and text-messaging may jeopardize the last vestiges of semicolons. They still live on, though, in emoticons, those graphic emblems of our grins, grimaces and other facial expressions.

The semicolon, befittingly, symbolizes a wink.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 19, 2008
An article in some editions on Monday about a New York City Transit employee’s deft use of the semicolon in a public service placard was less deft in its punctuation of the title of a book by Lynne Truss, who called the placard a “lovely example” of proper punctuation. The title of the book is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” — not “Eats Shoots & Leaves.” (The subtitle of Ms. Truss’s book is “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”)

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« Reply #8 on: February 22, 2008, 11:04:05 AM »

David Gordon kindly reminds me of this:
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« Reply #9 on: April 16, 2008, 12:08:19 PM »

Enlarging the Anglosphere
April 16, 2008; Page A19


When Winston Churchill met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the deck of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales in 1941, he spoke of the common bonds between Britain and America: "The same language . . . the same hymns . . . more or less, the same ideals." As he implied, the special relationship should be forged not merely by formal ties between governments, but by widening and deepening understanding and contact between people.

So, I want to suggest how our Atlantic relationship – which has always been rooted in something far more fundamental and lasting than our common interests or even our common history and common language – can be renewed and extended into new areas for a new generation.

First, I am proposing moving cooperation between our universities at a far higher level.

Members of my cabinet benefited from time at U.S. universities, Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and the Marshall and Fulbright scholarships have been bringing U.S. and U.K. students into each other's countries for decades. But I want many more British and American university students to have the chance to study across the Atlantic.

Already some universities are planning to require all of their students to spend some time abroad as part of their degree. The principal of King's College in London and the president of New York University will convene a group to examine how cooperation between U.K. and U.S. institutions can be intensified, starting with the potential for expanding faculty and research exchanges. And I can give a commitment that British students who need financial support to pay the travel costs of taking up a term of study in the U.S. will receive that support.

Second, I am proposing cooperation on enterprise, so that young business leaders in each country regularly conduct exchanges and learn from each other. "Make Your Mark" – which champions entrepreneurship among young people in Britain – is linking up with the Kauffman Foundation in the U.S. to organize this November the first Global Entrepreneurship Week.

Third, I am proposing that – in the spirit of Andrew Carnegie – British and U.S. charities come together to discuss projects where working in common we can make a difference. The Hunter Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York have agreed to host a convention of U.S. and U.K. philanthropic charitable organizations, with participants including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And regulators on both sides of the Atlantic will discuss how rules governing donations to charities can help U.K. and U.S. charities work more closely together – in particular to make it clear how to register a charity here in Britain and qualify for tax benefits.

Fourth, building on well-established traditions of U.K.-U.S. collaboration – from Crick and Watson to the Human Genome Project – I am proposing that we strengthen even further our cooperation in health research. The Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research U.K. are working with the U.S. and other international partners to compile a comprehensive catalog of cancer mutations, in order to give us an even better chance of fighting this often-deadly disease. And as part of the planning for Europe's largest medical research center at St. Pancras, London, Prof. Sir Paul Nurse will bring together experts from America and Britain to increase our understanding of cancer, and improve treatment and rates of cure.

Fifth, by working together our two countries could make a huge difference in dealing with the impact of climate change. Britain's new Energy Technologies Institute – set up to do path-breaking, low-carbon research and development – is ready to link up with U.S. environmental research efforts.

Sixth, in an Internet age young people can, of course, talk to each other across continents. I want them to be able to meet each other, too.

Last month, the British Council launched the Transatlantic 2020 initiative to bring together young leaders from America, the U.K. and Europe. And Britain's "V" organization – which harnesses the energies of young people in community service – will build on their links with similar programs in America to explore ways in which our young people can volunteer in each other's countries.

Each of these initiatives offers a modern means of expressing our special relationship in the 21st century – bringing people together, increasing understanding, and realizing the potential for the greater good when our two nations work together. And they reflect today's more connected society, in which thousands of people who communicate across multimedia channels will now be able to visit, meet face to face, and gain knowledge and understanding that will benefit them, and both our countries.

In the last half-century the English language has become not only the language of Shakespeare and Twain, of J.K. Rowling and Cormac McCarthy, but of science, commerce, diplomacy, the Internet and travel.

So, finally, I propose that together Britain and America strive to make the international language that happens to be our own far more freely available across the world. I am today asking the British Council to develop a new initiative with private-sector and NGO partners in America, to offer anyone in any part of the world help to learn English.

America and Britain are separated by the thousands of miles of the Atlantic, and by our differing and always evolving national cultures. Yet there is still far more that unites us than can ever divide us. I believe that the future of our relationship can, if we choose, deliver far more even than it has achieved in its past. Not just for both our nations, but for the world.

Mr. Brown is Britain's prime minister.

See all of today's editorials and op-eds, plus
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« Reply #10 on: May 30, 2008, 09:42:15 PM »

National Spelling Bee
Brings Out Protesters
Who R Thru With Through
Rewriting the P's and Q's Is Quest
Of Group That Prefers Phonetics
May 30, 2008; Page A1

A fyoo duhzen ambishuhss intelectchooals, a handful ov British skool teechers and wuhn rokit siuhntist ar triing to chang the way we spel.

They are the leaders of the spelling-reform movement, a passionate but sporadic 800-year-old campaign to simplify English orthography. In its long and failure-ridden history, the movement has tried to convince an indifferent public of the need for a spelling system based on pronunciation.


Read arguments for and against simplified spelling as far back as the 15th century.

Review the 300 simplified spellings President Roosevelt designated for use in government documents in August 1906.Reformers, including Mark Twain, Charles Darwin and Theodore Roosevelt, argued that phonetic spellings would make it easier for children, foreigners and adults with learning disabilities to read and write. For centuries, few listened, and the movement, exhausted by its own rhetoric and disputes within its ranks, sputtered out. It's back.

Spelling reform is currently enjoying a renaissance in the U.S. and Britain. At a time when young people are inventing their own shorthand for email and text messages, the reformers see a fresh opportunity 2 convert people 2 the cause.

In recent years, the ranks of Britain's Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council have swelled from a few stalwart members to more than 500, which in this effort is a lot. Reformers are energized: Some are writing to dictionary editors urging them to include simplified spellings in new editions. Others are organizing academic conferences, including one on June 7 in Coventry, England, on "The Cost of Spelling." The American Literacy Council just allocated $45,000 of its $250,000 private endowment to develop a series of DVDs using simplified spelling to teach English to international students. The Spelling Society has hired its first publicist.

Getty Images 
Pierce Dageforde of Omaha, Neb., misspelled his word Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.
And in their most effective initiative to date, reformers organize a protest every year outside the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which ends today.

Still, no one is particularly optimistic.

"It probably won't happen," says Edward Rondthaler, the father of the modern American spelling-reform movement, chairman emeritus of the ALC and a founder of the International Typeface Council. Mr. Rondthaler is 102 years old and lives on the bank of the Croton River in New York, in a Sears Roebuck house he bought for $7,000 in 1941. After a lifetime spent at the helm of a movement that has made no significant progress, he is still an advocate of spelling reform.

"I have always known it would not happen, but I worked for it anyway, because it should happen," he says. "We have 42 different sounds in English, and we spell them 400 different ways. Isn't that a rather silly thing to do?"

Dream Scenario

About 30 million Americans are functionally illiterate, meaning they lack basic written communications skills, according to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The reformers believe Byzantine word spellings that evolved from the English language's Latin, Greek, French, German and Scandinavian roots are to blame. In their dream scenario, a sik person wud cof, a hapee person wud laf, and no American child wud ever spend his free time studeeing for a speling bee.

But even as Americans struggle to learn to read, popular culture celebrates master spellers. At least three major films about spelling have been made in recent years: "Bee Season," the documentary "Spellbound," and "Akeelah and the Bee." The hit Broadway musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" closed in January after 1,136 performances. Such is the interest in competitive spelling these days that Disney's ABC television network will air the final two hours of the National Spelling Bee live in prime time tonight.

The spelling reformers are trying to capitalize on the moment. Every year, a group travels to the Bee site, the Grand Hyatt in Washington, to hold a protest on the sidewalk outside. They hand out pamphlets and pins that say "I'm Thru with Through." Some dress as bumblebees. Last year, the protesters spent much of the $1,500 budget allotted to them by the American Literacy Council, to hire a Benjamin Franklin impersonator to articulate for children, television cameras and other passersby the Founding Father's advocacy of spelling reform. They stress that they are protesting the words themselves, not the children who are competing.

The Bee protest was the brainchild of Alan Mole, president of the ALC and a rocket scientist -- an aerospace stress analyst -- in Colorado. It is organized every year by Elizabeth Kuizenga, a California teacher of English-as-a-second-language and the mother of the actress Rebecca Romijn (pronounced romaine). Ms. Kuizenga says she became interested in spelling reform as a child, when she mispronounced the word "ignorance" and her parents laughed at her.

Many other languages have undertaken spelling reforms in the 20th century, including French, Greek, Spanish, Swedish, Irish, Japanese and Hebrew. In 1996, four German-speaking countries agreed on a comprehensive spelling reform of the language. Ms. Kuizenga wondered: "Why not English?"

Dating back to a 13th-century monk named Orm, the spelling-reform movement was a pet project for religious leaders and ivory-tower intellectuals for much of its history. Noah Webster catapulted the movement into relevance in the 18th century, when he created a new, distinctly American orthography on a patriotic impulse, around the time of the Revolutionary War. Webster, who died in 1843, is why Americans write "color" instead of "colour" and "theater" instead of "theatre." He fought his whole life for government-mandated spelling reform and died despondent that it never happened.

Campaign for Reform

Later, a group of determined professors from Oxford, Columbia and Yale took up Webster's cause and began campaigning for widespread reform. The movement reached its apogee on Aug. 20, 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt, a terrible speller, officially changed the spelling of 300 English words.

What seemed like a good idea -- changing "through" to "thru," and so on -- turned into a humiliating disaster. Newspapers mocked him as "Rozevult." Congress voted 142-24 to overturn the order.

Modern Critics

Modern critics find a number of faults with the theory of spelling reform. Some consider English spelling beautiful because each word reflects its own evolutionary history. Others argue the idea of phonetic spelling fails to take dialect into account, since pronunciation varies widely from one English-speaking place to another. Finally, the spelling-reform movement has never been able to settle on a single simplification scheme.

But hope springs eternal. "People think we're suggesting a major change in the English language," says Ms. Kuizenga. "We don't even think that's possible, and we certainly don't see any point to it. We're all people who love the English language just as much as anyone, if not more. We just want to make it a little easier to spell."
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« Reply #11 on: September 18, 2008, 11:51:13 AM »

© = hold down ALT key and type 0169 (NUM LOCK must be on)
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« Reply #12 on: January 30, 2009, 06:39:51 PM »

Visual puns
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« Reply #13 on: March 28, 2009, 07:21:28 AM »

Not that I agree very much with the author's hostility to punning, but I post this anyway.

Pun for the Ages
Published: March 28, 2009

THE inglorious pun! Dryden called it the “lowest and most groveling kind of wit.” To Ambrose Bierce it was a “form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.” Universal experience confirms the adage that puns don’t make us laugh, but groan. It is said that Caligula ordered an actor to be roasted alive for a bad pun. (Some believe he was inclined to extremes.)

Addison defined the pun as a “conceit arising from the use of two words that agree in the sound, but differ in the sense.” “Energizer Bunny Arrested! Charged with Battery.” No laugh? Q.E.D.

Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion. Most resemble mathematical formulas: clever, perhaps, but hardly occasion for knee-slapping. The worst smack of tawdriness, even indecency, which is why puns, like off-color jokes, are often followed by apologies. Odds are that a restaurant with a punning name — Snacks Fifth Avenue, General Custard’s Last Stand — hasn’t acquired its first Michelin star.

How have the great comic writers regarded puns? Jane Austen puns once, in “Mansfield Park,” and it serves to impeach the moral character of the offender. Mark Twain’s first book, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” enamored reviewers with its punlessness. There are “no contortions of words,” said a London paper. “His fun is entirely dependent upon the inherent humor in his writings.” The 20th century’s finest humorist, P. G. Wodehouse, doesn’t use them.

Shakespeare, however, does. Many are bawdy: puns operate, after all, on double entendre. Yet the poet is guilty less of punning than wordplay, which Elizabethan taste considered more a sign of literary refinement than humor; hence “puns” in seemingly inappropriate places, like a dying Mercutio’s “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

The true punster’s mind cycles through homophones in search of a quip the way small children delight in rhymes or experiment babblingly with language. Accordingly, the least intolerable puns are those that avoid the pun’s essential puerility. Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin, was a specialist. He could effortlessly execute the double pun: Noah’s Ark was made of gopher-wood, he would say, but Joan of Arc was maid of Orleans. Some Whately-isms are so complex that they nearly amount to honest jokes: “Why can a man never starve in the Great Desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But what brought the sandwiches there? Why, Noah sent Ham, and his descendants mustered and bred.”

Whately shows us that it is the punner himself who gives his art a bad name, by so frequently reaching for the obvious. Nothing vexes so much as a pun on a name, for instance. Yet even these can rise to wit if turned with finesse. Jean Harlow, the platinum-blond star of the 1930s, on being introduced to Lady Margot Asquith, mispronounced her given name to rhyme with “rot.” “My dear, the ‘t’ is silent,” said Asquith, “as in Harlow.” The writer Andrew Lang asked his friend Israel Zangwill if he would take a stand on an issue. Zangwill wrote back: “If you, Lang, will, I. Zangwill.”

Why do puns offend? Charles Lamb, a notorious punster, explained that the pun is “a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.” Surely puns silence conversation before they animate it. Some stricken with pun-lust sink so far into their infirmity that their minds become trained to lie in wait for words on which to work their wickedness. They are the scourge of dinner tables and the despised prolongers of office meetings, some letting fly as instinctively as dogs bark and frogs croak, no longer concerned even with drawing applause; they simply can’t help themselves.

I asked a friend of mine, an inveterate punster, whether he punned while on dates. “Sure, I pun on dates,” he replied. “On prunes and figs, too.” And well he might, considering the similitude between puns and fruit flies, both of which die practically the instant they are born, but not before breeding others.

But low as puns may be, they have been known to appeal to the loftiest minds. Samuel Johnson hated puns, but his friend Edmund Burke, whose intellectual powers daunted even Johnson, was notorious for pun-making (e.g., “What is [m]ajest[y], when stripped of its externals, but a jest?”) Still, Burke was conscious of his sin, revealed in an incident recorded in a friend’s journal: “Lord Mulgrave called to Burke one day at our table with a ‘so, Burke, you riot in puns now Johnson’s away.’ This made good sport for my lord and for the company, but Burke changed color and looked like Death.”

With Burkean contrition, I confess that in a Thai restaurant not long ago, following my company’s attempt to order three curry dishes, I suggested that we not get “curried away.” Punning, it seems, like every non-deadly sin, is easier to excuse than to resist.

Joseph Tartakovsky is a student at Fordham Law School.
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« Reply #14 on: August 29, 2009, 10:08:54 AM »

II. In pain? Swear your way out, new study advises


Ahhhhhhhhh! That feels better! At least that's what a new British study promises.

If you're trying to ease the pain of an injury, says this first-of-a-kind research, start cussin'.

Dr. Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, accidentally smashed his little finger "really, really hard" with a hammer while building a shed in his garden awhile back. "While it was throbbing," he recalls, "I swore a bit." His wife later cut loose a string of expletives during the pain of childbirth--and those 2 incidents got him wondering about the psychology and physiology of cursing.

With 2 colleagues, he arranged a simple experiment. Drawing on some 5 dozen undergraduate volunteers, the team had subjects submerge their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water and see how long they could endure the pain while continuously repeating a swear word of their choice. The test was then repeated, but this time the students could only utter a neutral control word, like "brown" or "square."

Well, [bleep] me! Cursing helped, especially with female subjects!

"Swearing increased pain tolerance...and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing," Stephens reported. The swearers were able to keep their hands submerged an average of 160 seconds, compared to only 100 seconds for the non-cursers. That's "quite a big difference," Stephens says.

Why? "Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon," Stephens says. Unlike most language production, which occurs in the outer few millimeters of the left hemisphere of the brain, swearing seems to arise from the primitive emotional centers buried deep in the right-side brain. Uttering an expletive in response to physical pain may be instinctive, akin to a dog yelping when its tail is stepped on.

"In swearing," Stephens told a reporter for Time, "people have an emotional response, and it's the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain." He also noted that the swearers in his experiment experienced consistently accelerated heart rates during their diatribes, suggesting that cussing may increase aggression, "which downplays weakness in order to appear stronger."

A couple of caveats:

• If you casually swear a lot in your daily life, you may be blunting cuss words as an Rx for pain. Speculating on why foul-mouthed women on average did better in suppressing pain during Stephens' experiment, Dr. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, says he suspects that "swearing retains more of an emotional punch [for women] because it has not been overused. That's one reason I think people should not overuse profanity in their speech and writing...because it blunts [swear words] of their power when you do need them."

• A tendency to "pain catastrophise" also tended to reduce the analgesic effect of obscene words, Stephens found. Catastrophise means to "blow things all out of proportion," explains Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Research Center, which as not involved in the experiments. "When you are mentally exaggerating a situation, you tend to focus more on the trauma and pain. If you're focused on swearing, you're shifting your attention in another direction, releasing psychological and physiological tension, and suppressing your perception of pain."

In future research, Stephens says, he hopes to explore more deeply "the relationship between induced aggression and reduction of pain." Meanwhile, a full report on his current study can be accessed for a fee at the website for the journal NeuroReport: See the Aug. 5 issue.

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« Reply #15 on: August 31, 2009, 05:39:13 PM »

Once again, The Washington Post has published the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers were asked to supply alternate meanings for common words. The winners are:

1. Coffee (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.
2. Flabbergasted (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
3. Abdicate (v.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
4. Esplanade (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.
5. Willy-nilly (adj.), impotent.
6. Negligent (adj.) describes a condition in which you absentmindedly answer the door in your nightgown.
7. Lymph (v.), to walk with a lisp.
8. Gargoyle (n.), olive-flavored mouthwash.
9. Flatulence (n.) It is an Emergency vehicle that will pick you up after you are run over by a steamroller.
10. Balderdash (n.), a rapidly receding hairline.
11. Testicle (n.), a humorous question on an exam.
12. Rectitude (n.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
13. Pokemon (n), a Rastafarian proctologist.
14. Oyster (n.), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Jewish phrases.
15. Frisbeetarianism (n.), the belief that when you die, your Soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.
16. Circumvent (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

In a second category, The Washington Post's Style Invitational asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition.
Here are this year's winners:
1. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stop bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
2. Foreploy (v): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.
3. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.
4. Giraffiti (n): Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
5. Sarchasm (n): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.
6. Inoculatte (v): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
7. Hipatitis (n): Terminal coolness.
8. Osteopornosis (n): A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
9. Karmageddon (n): its like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.
10 Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things those are good for you.
11. Glibido (v): All talk and no action.
12. Dopeler effect (n): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
13. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.
14. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.
15. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the fruit you're eating.
16. Ignoranus (n): A person who's both stupid and an ass.
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« Reply #16 on: July 27, 2010, 01:41:41 AM »

Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?

Take "Humpty Dumpty sat on a..." Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say "sat" rather than "sit." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) change the verb to mark tense.

In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.

In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you'd use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you'd use a different form.

Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages?

These questions touch on all the major controversies in the study of mind, with important implications for politics, law and religion. Yet very little empirical work had been done on these questions until recently. The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world.

The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that "to have a second language is to have a second soul." But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky's theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s. Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don't really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn't differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking.

Use Your Words
Some findings on how language can affect thinking.

Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.
Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation.
The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn't remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: "The vase broke itself," rather than "John broke the vase."
.The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny. Instead, as linguists probed deeper into the world's languages (7,000 or so, only a fraction of them analyzed), innumerable unpredictable differences emerged.

Of course, just because people talk differently doesn't necessarily mean they think differently. In the past decade, cognitive scientists have begun to measure not just how people talk, but also how they think, asking whether our understanding of even such fundamental domains of experience as space, time and causality could be constructed by language.

For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don't use terms like "left" and "right." Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, "There's an ant on your southwest leg." To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, "Where are you going?", and an appropriate response might be, "A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?" If you don't know which way is which, you literally can't get past hello.

About a third of the world's languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.

Differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions. So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time?

To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world's languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like "John broke the vase" even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say "the vase broke itself." Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn't normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn't encode or remember the agent as well.

In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase "ripped the costume" while the other said "the costume ripped." Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read "ripped the costume" blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.

Beyond space, time and causality, patterns in language have been shown to shape many other domains of thought. Russian speakers, who make an extra distinction between light and dark blues in their language, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue. The Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon in Brazil, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities. And Shakespeare, it turns out, was wrong about roses: Roses by many other names (as told to blindfolded subjects) do not smell as sweet.

Patterns in language offer a window on a culture's dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we've found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice). So does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?

Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent and hone to suit our needs. Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn't tell us whether it's language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what's needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.

Journal Communitydiscuss..“ That language embodies different ways of knowing the world seems intuitive, given the number of times we reach for a word or phrase in another language that communicates that certain je ne sais quoi we can't find on our own.

.—Steve Kallaugher.
 One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. And if you take away people's ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically, sometimes making them look no smarter than rats or infants. (For example, in recent studies, MIT students were shown dots on a screen and asked to say how many there were. If they were allowed to count normally, they did great. If they simultaneously did a nonlinguistic task—like banging out rhythms—they still did great. But if they did a verbal task when shown the dots—like repeating the words spoken in a news report—their counting fell apart. In other words, they needed their language skills to count.)

All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak. The next steps are to understand the mechanisms through which languages help us construct the incredibly complex knowledge systems we have. Understanding how knowledge is built will allow us to create ideas that go beyond the currently thinkable. This research cuts right to the fundamental questions we all ask about ourselves. How do we come to be the way we are? Why do we think the way we do? An important part of the answer, it turns out, is in the languages we speak.

—Lera Boroditsky is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology.
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« Reply #17 on: December 15, 2010, 10:54:22 AM »

'I worry incessantly that I might be too clear," Alan Greenspan once claimed. He intended the remark to be crowd-pleasing, but it served as an acknowledgment of the necessary ambiguity of professional economics. To be clear is to leave oneself open to attack; there is safety in obscurity. In many quarters clarity is interpreted as oversimplification, and the cryptic utterance is regarded as a mark of expertise. Yet the murkiness of public discourse often results not from willful indistinctness but simply from a blithe, untutored lack of rhetorical know-how.

In "Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric," Ward Farnsworth sets out to remedy this. A professor at the Boston University School of Law, Mr. Farnsworth has previously published "The Legal Analyst," which he described as "a collection of tools for thinking about legal questions," and a guide to chess tactics. This book manifests his familiar pragmatism and distaste for rarefied theory; billed as "a lively set of lessons," it is in fact more akin to a well- curated exhibition of rhetorical accessories.

"Everyone speaks and writes in patterns," Mr. Farnsworth states. We have absorbed models of expression, which we reproduce "without thinking much about it." Yet we can study the patterns and learn to make our utterances more effective. To this end he maps the rhetorical figures that are, as he puts it, "practical ways of working with large aesthetic principles." Selecting passages from favorite authors and orators, and providing judicious remarks about them, he offers "help to those who wish to be on better terms with such techniques."

In its popular use, the adjective "rhetorical" has become a slur, conveying images of bombast and bloatedness. We are apt to associate it with the prolix statements of policy makers and the aureate pomposity of evangelists. Mr. Farnsworth wants to reclaim the word and the principles it truly betokens.

View Full Image
.Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric
By Ward Farnsworth
Godine, 254 pages, $26.95
.He is the inheritor of a substantial tradition. The ancient literature on rhetoric includes works by Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. The subject was treated extensively by Renaissance scholars such as Erasmus and Juan Luis Vives, George Puttenham and Thomas Wilson. Its modern apostles, on the whole less eminent, are numerous. Mr. Farnsworth, however, is unusual in focusing on techniques rather than articulating a general plea for expressive poise.

Although the bulk of the book consists of examples, Mr. Farnsworth's interleaved commentary is valuable. He explains, for instance, polysyndeton: It is the repeated use of a conjunction, as in Mark Twain's "a German daily is the slowest and saddest and dreariest of the inventions of man." In addition, Mr. Farnsworth gives us six reasons to use it, including a certain artless effect, which "may enhance the speaker's credibility." When it comes to asyndeton—the omission of conjunctions, as in Twain's "Munich did seem the horriblest place, the most desolate place, the most unendurable place"—he offers seven such reasons. This is done with modest brevity rather than in a labored and didactic fashion.

An incidental effect of Mr. Farnsworth's selection of examples is a kind of covert literary criticism. We are alerted to G.K. Chesterton's love of chiasmus—the ABBA pattern in which repetition involves reversal. Chesterton writes that "we do not get good laws to restrain bad people. We get good people to restrain bad laws" and that "an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered." According to Mr. Farnsworth, the device suited the author because "he believed that modern thought constantly had things backward."

One gets the impression that, a century on from Chesterton, Mr. Farnsworth finds our own modernity topsy-turvy. He notes the decline of rhetoric in our times and his chosen examples come from authors and orators between the age of Shakespeare and the 1950s. The modern politician is for him "a creature of very modest literacy and wit," who strains for grandiloquence and "spoils what he touches." Instead of rhetoric, the politician favors figures of another kind: Today's infatuation with statistics is a bid for scientific exactness but tends to crowd out finesse.

Having taken Latin and Greek at school, I knew a little bit about rhetoric before settling down with Mr. Farnsworth. But while chiasmus and ellipsis were familiar, many of his terms were new to me. Most are not words to slip into casual conversation—"Great epizeuxis in your presentation, George!"—but they usefully label forms of ingenuity, and a familiarity with them sharpens our sensitivity to the range of ways in which language can be mobilized to influence and excite us.

The most immediate pleasure of this book is that it heightens one's appreciation of the craft of great writers and speakers. Mr. Farnsworth includes numerous examples from Shakespeare and Dickens, Thoreau and Emerson, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. He also seems keen to rehabilitate writers and speakers whose rhetorical artistry is undervalued; besides his liking for Chesterton, he shows deep admiration for the Irish statesman Henry Grattan (1746-1820), whose studied repetition of a word ("No lawyer can say so; because no lawyer could say so without forfeiting his character as a lawyer") is an instance, we are told, of conduplicatio. But more than anything Mr. Farnsworth wants to restore the reputation of rhetorical artistry per se, and the result is a handsome work of reference.

Mr. Hitchings is the author of "The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English" (2008).

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« Reply #18 on: February 13, 2011, 10:31:19 AM »

What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
The decline and fall of American English, and stuff
Clark Whelton

I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.

Uh-oh. It was a classic case of Vagueness, the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century. Squirrel Woman sounded like a high school junior, but she appeared to be in her mid-forties, old enough to have been an early carrier of the contagion. She might even have been a college intern in the days when Vagueness emerged from the shadows of slang and mounted an all-out assault on American English.

My acquaintance with Vagueness began in the 1980s, that distant decade when Edward I. Koch was mayor of New York and I was writing his speeches. The mayor’s speechwriting staff was small, and I welcomed the chance to hire an intern. Applications arrived from NYU, Columbia, Pace, and the senior colleges of the City University of New York. I interviewed four or five candidates and was happily surprised. The students were articulate and well informed on civic affairs. Their writing samples were excellent. The young woman whom I selected was easy to train and a pleasure to work with. Everything went so well that I hired interns at every opportunity.

Then came 1985.

The first applicant was a young man from NYU. During the interview, he spiked his replies so heavily with “like” that I mentioned his frequent use of the word. He seemed confused by my comment and replied, “Well . . . like . . . yeah.” Now, nobody likes a grammar prig. All’s fair in love and language, and the American lingo is in constant motion. “You should,” for example, has been replaced by “you need to.” “No” has faded into “not really.” “I said” is now “I went.” As for “you’re welcome,” that’s long since become “no problem.” Even nasal passages are affected by fashion. Quack-talking, the rasping tones preferred by many young women today, used to be considered a misfortune.

In 1985, I thought of “like” as a trite survivor of the hippie sixties. By itself, a little slang would not have disqualified the junior from NYU. But I was surprised to hear antique argot from a communications major looking for work in a speechwriting office, where job applicants would normally showcase their language skills. I was even more surprised when the next three candidates also laced their conversation with “like.” Most troubling was a puzzling drop in the quality of their writing samples. It took six tries, but eventually I found a student every bit as good as his predecessors. Then came 1986.

As the interviews proceeded, it grew obvious that “like” had strengthened its grip on intern syntax. And something new had been added: “You know” had replaced “Ummm . . .” as the sentence filler of choice. The candidates seemed to be evading the chore of beginning new thoughts. They spoke in run-on sentences, which they padded by adding “and stuff” at the end. Their writing samples were terrible. It took eight tries to find a promising intern. In the spring of 1987 came the all-interrogative interview. I asked a candidate where she went to school.

“Columbia?” she replied. Or asked.

“And you’re majoring in . . .”


All her answers sounded like questions. Several other students did the same thing, ending declarative sentences with an interrogative rise. Something odd was happening. Was it guerrilla grammar? Had college kids fallen under the spell of some mad guru of verbal chaos? I began taking notes and mailed a letter to William Safire at the New York Times, urging him to do a column on the devolution of coherent speech. Undergraduates, I said, seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.

By autumn 1987, the job interviews revealed that “like” was no longer a mere slang usage. It had mutated from hip preposition into the verbal milfoil that still clogs spoken English today. Vagueness was on the march. Double-clutching (“What I said was, I said . . .”) sprang into the arena. Playbacks, in which a speaker re-creates past events by narrating both sides of a conversation (“So I’m like, ‘Want to, like, see a movie?’ And he goes, ‘No way.’ And I go . . .”), made their entrance. I was baffled by what seemed to be a reversion to the idioms of childhood. And yet intern candidates were not hesitant or uncomfortable about speaking elementary school dialects in a college-level job interview. I engaged them in conversation and gradually realized that they saw Vagueness not as slang but as mainstream English. At long last, it dawned on me: Vagueness was not a campus fad or just another generational raid on proper locution. It was a coup. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames.

In 1988, my elder daughter graduated from Vassar. During a commencement reception, I asked one of her professors if he’d noticed any change in Vassar students’ language skills. “The biggest difference,” he replied, “is that by the time today’s students arrive on campus, they’ve been juvenilized. You can hear it in the way they talk. There seems to be a reduced capacity for abstract thought.” He went on to say that immature speech patterns used to be drummed out of kids in ninth grade. “Today, whatever way kids communicate seems to be fine with their high school teachers.” Where, I wonder, did Vagueness begin? It must have originated before the 1980s. “Like” has a long and scruffy pedigree: in the 1970s, it was a mainstay of Valspeak, the frequently ridiculed but highly contagious “Valley Girl” dialect of suburban Los Angeles, and even in 1964, the filmParis When It Sizzles lampooned the word’s overuse. All the way back in 1951, Holden Caulfield spoke proto-Vagueness (“I sort of landed on my side . . . my arm sort of hurt”), complete with double-clutching (“Finally, what I decided I’d do, I decided I’d . . .”) and demonstrative adjectives used as indefinite articles (“I felt sort of hungry so I went in this drugstore . . .”).

Is Vagueness simply an unexplainable descent into nonsense? Did Vagueness begin as an antidote to the demands of political correctness in the classroom, a way of sidestepping the danger of speaking forbidden ideas? Does Vagueness offer an undereducated generation a technique for camouflaging a lack of knowledge?

In 1991, I visited the small town of Bridgton, Maine, on the evening that the residents of Cumberland County gathered to welcome their local National Guard unit home from the Gulf War. It was a stirring moment. Escorted by the lights and sirens of two dozen fire engines from surrounding towns, the soldiers marched down Main Street. I was standing near the end of the parade and looked around expectantly for a platform, podium, or microphone. But there were to be no brief remarks of commendation by a mayor or commanding officer. There was to be no pastoral prayer of thanks for the safe return of the troops. Instead, the soldiers quickly dispersed. The fire engines rumbled away. The crowd went home. A few minutes later, Main Street stood empty.

Apparently there was, like, nothing to say.

Clark Whelton was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.
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"...grappling happens. It just does." - Top Dog

« Reply #19 on: July 28, 2011, 10:24:01 AM »

last night, i flipped through Anonyponymous - The Forgotten People Behind Everyday Words written by John Bemelmans Marciano (most famous example is the Earl of Sandwich)

here's one of the entries i typed up for a friend, posting here also:

al·go·rithm n. A set of rules for solving a problem.

No, the first anonyponymous person in the book is not Al Gore.

When a word begins with al-, there’s a good chance it comes from Arabic. This is true with alchemy, almanac, alcove, alcohol (ironically), and algorithm, named for Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, or, as his Latin translators called him, Algorismus.

In the early ninth century Baghdad was fast becoming the world’s most important center of trade and learning, and while engaged at its illustrious House of Wisdom, al-Khwarizmi produced his most famous work, The Book of Restoring and Balancing. In it, al- Khwarizmi explained how to solve complex mathematical equations by a method called al-jabr, Arabic for “reunion of broken parts,” which came rendered in Latin as “algebra.” (See about those al- words?) On an even more basic level, al-Khwarizmi was instrumental in the spread of Arabic numerals. Not that he invented them, nor did anyArab; the symbols originated on the Indian subcontinent in the centuries leading up to Christ.

The set of rules laid down by al-Khwarizmi for working with these fancy Hindu number signs was so revolutionary that his name came to mean arithmetic, first in the Arab world, and then in the form algorism throughout the West. But this wouldn’t happen until al-Khwarizmi’s books were finally translated into Latin, about three hundred years after he wrote them, an indication of just how far the Christian world lagged behind the Muslim one during the intellectual deep freeze of the Middle Ages. Roman numerals—a system invented for notching sticks—didn’t get replaced by Hindu-Arabic ones until the mid-1500s.

"A good stickgrappler has good stick skills, good grappling, and good stickgrappling and can keep track of all three simultaneously. This is a good trick and can be quite effective." - Marc "Crafty Dog" Denny
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« Reply #20 on: July 29, 2011, 10:22:19 AM »

Speaking of Arabic and English, I saw this today in the LA Times Sports Section and had a good laugh.

"As Frank McCourt launched an unusually personal attack on Commissioner Bud Selig, and as Jamie McCourt charged her ex-husband with waging "jihad" against Major League Baseball at her expense, the newest development in the Dodgers' long-running ownership saga..."

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« Reply #21 on: July 29, 2011, 02:59:22 PM »

No doubt she will fight it 1000%.
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« Reply #22 on: July 29, 2011, 07:16:32 PM »

What? An internal spiritual struggle? Sounds very peaceful.
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« Reply #23 on: July 30, 2011, 10:11:52 AM »

What? An internal spiritual struggle? Sounds very peaceful.

The English Language is expensive!   smiley

I'm not sure it's peaceful.  "Divorce could cost $35million".,0,1456738.story
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« Reply #24 on: March 19, 2012, 05:30:59 PM »

I've met the boy.  He is VERY impressive.
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« Reply #25 on: March 19, 2012, 05:35:34 PM »

Amazing. My study of Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish often results in me combining words from each language when I try to speak one of them.
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« Reply #26 on: April 06, 2012, 12:28:48 PM »

Return to the Article

August 29, 2011
Early Obama Letter Confirms Inability to Write
By Jack Cashill
On November 16, 1990, Barack Obama, then president of the Harvard Law Review, published a letter in the Harvard Law Record, an independent Harvard Law School newspaper, championing affirmative action.
Although a paragraph from this letter was excerpted in David Remnick's biography of Obama, The Bridge, I had not seen the letter in its entirety before this week.  Not surprisingly, it confirms everything I know about Barack Obama, the writer and thinker.
Obama was prompted to write by an earlier letter from a Mr. Jim Chen that criticized Harvard Law Review's affirmative action policies.  Specifically, Chen had argued that affirmative action stigmatized its presumed beneficiaries.
The response is classic Obama: patronizing, dishonest, syntactically muddled, and grammatically challenged.  In the very first sentence Obama leads with his signature failing, one on full display in his earlier published work: his inability to make subject and predicate agree.
"Since the merits of the Law Review's selection policy has been the subject of commentary for the last three issues," wrote Obama, "I'd like to take the time to clarify exactly how our selection process works."
If Obama were as smart as a fifth-grader, he would know, of course, that "merits ... have."  Were there such a thing as a literary Darwin Award, Obama could have won it on this on one sentence alone.  He had vindicated Chen in his first ten words.
Although the letter is fewer than a thousand words long, Obama repeats the subject-predicate error at least two more times.  In one sentence, he seemingly cannot make up his mind as to which verb option is correct so he tries both: "Approximately half of this first batch is chosen ... the other half are selected ... "
Another distinctive Obama flaw is to allow a string of words to float in space.  Please note the unanchored phrase in italics at the end of this sentence:
"No editors on the Review will ever know whether any given editor was selected on the basis of grades, writing competition, or affirmative action, and no editors who were selected with affirmative action in mind."  Huh?
The next lengthy sentence highlights a few superficial style flaws and a much deeper flaw in Obama's political philosophy.
I would therefore agree with the suggestion that in the future, our concern in this area is most appropriately directed at any employer who would even insinuate that someone with Mr. Chen's extraordinary record of academic success might be somehow unqualified for work in a corporate law firm, or that such success might be somehow undeserved.
Obama would finish his acclaimed memoir, Dreams from My Father, about four years later.  Prior to Dreams, and for the nine years following, everything Obama wrote was, like the above sentence, an uninspired assemblage of words with a nearly random application of commas and tenses.
Unaided, Obama tends to the awkward, passive, and verbose.  The phrase "our concern in this area is most appropriately directed at any employer" would more profitably read, "we should focus on the employer." "Concern" is simply the wrong word.
Scarier than Obama's style, however, is his thinking.  A neophyte race-hustler after his three years in Chicago, Obama is keen to browbeat those who would "even insinuate" that affirmative action rewards the undeserving, results in inappropriate job placements, or stigmatizes its presumed beneficiaries.
In the case of Michelle Obama, affirmative action did all three.  The partners at Sidley Austin learned this the hard way.  In 1988, they hired her out of Harvard Law under the impression that the degree meant something.  It did not.  By 1991, Michelle was working in the public sector as an assistant to the mayor.  By 1993, she had given up her law license.
Had the partners investigated Michelle's background, they would have foreseen the disaster to come.  Sympathetic biographer Liza Mundy writes, "Michelle frequently deplores the modern reliance on test scores, describing herself as a person who did not test well."
She did not write well, either.  Mundy charitably describes her senior thesis at Princeton as "dense and turgid."  The less charitable Christopher Hitchens observes, "To describe [the thesis] as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be 'read' at all, in the strict sense of the verb.  This is because it wasn't written in any known language."
Michelle had to have been as anxious at Harvard Law as Bart Simpson was at Genius School.  Almost assuredly, the gap between her writing and that of her highly talented colleagues marked her as an affirmative action admission, and the profs finessed her through.
In a similar vein, Barack Obama was named an editor of the Harvard Law Review.  Although his description of the Law Review's selection process defies easy comprehension, apparently, after the best candidates are chosen, there remains "a pool of qualified candidates whose grades or writing competition scores do not significantly differ."  These sound like the kids at Lake Woebegone, all above average.  Out of this pool, Obama continues, "the Selection Committee may take race or physical handicap into account."
To his credit, Obama concedes that he "may have benefited from the Law Review's affirmative action policy."  This did not strike him as unusual as he "undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs during my academic career."
On the basis of his being elected president of Law Review -- a popularity contest -- Obama was awarded a six-figure contract to write a book.  To this point, he had not shown a hint of promise as a writer, but Simon & Schuster, like Sidley Austin, took the Harvard credential seriously.  It should not have.  For three years Obama floundered as badly as Michelle had at Sidley Austin.  Simon & Schuster finally pulled the contract.
Then Obama found his muse -- right in the neighborhood, as it turns out!  And promptly, without further ado, the awkward, passive, ungrammatical Obama, a man who had not written one inspired sentence in his whole life, published what Time Magazine called "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."
To question the nature of that production, I have learned, is to risk the abuse promised to Mr. Chen's theoretical employer.  After all, who would challenge Obama's obvious talent -- or that of any affirmative action beneficiary -- but those blinded by what Obama calls "deep-rooted ignorance and bias"?

What else could it be?

Page Printed from: at April 05, 2012 - 04:39:39 PM CDT
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« Reply #27 on: May 22, 2012, 08:43:39 AM »

May 21, 2012, 9:17 pm
The Most Comma Mistakes

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

As I noted in my earlier article, rules and conventions about when to use and not to use commas are legion. But certain errors keep popping up. Here are a few of them.

Identification Crisis

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m referring to a student’s writing a sentence like:

I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.

Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None is correct — unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:

I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.

If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.

You need a comma after “movie” because this and only this is Mr. Allen’s newest movie in theaters, and after “Jessie” because she and only she is the writer’s oldest friend.
The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name. The basic idea is that if the name (in the above example, “Jessie”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“my oldest friend”), use a comma before the name (and after it as well, unless you’ve come to the end of the sentence). If not, don’t use any commas.

Grammatically, there are various ways of describing what’s going on. One helpful set of terms is essential vs. nonessential. When the identifier makes sense in the sentence by itself, then the name is nonessential and you use a comma before it. Otherwise, no comma. That explains an exception to the only-thing-in-the-world rule: when the words “a,” “an” or “some,” or a number, come before the description or identification of a name, use a comma.

A Bronx plumber, Stanley Ianella, bought the winning lottery ticket.

When an identifier describes a unique person or thing and is preceded by “the” or a possessive, use a comma:

Baseball’s home run leader, Barry Bonds, will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.

My son, John, is awesome. (If you have just one son.)

But withhold the comma if not unique:

My son John is awesome. (If you have more than one son.)

The artist David Hockney is a master of color.

The celebrated British artist David Hockney is a master of color.

And even

The gay, bespectacled, celebrated British artist David Hockney is a master of color.

(Why are there commas after “gay” and “bespectacled” but not “celebrated”? Because “celebrated” and “British” are different sorts of adjectives. The sentence would not work if “and” were placed between them, or if their order were reversed.)

If nothing comes before the identification, don’t use a comma:

The defense team was led by the attorney Harold Cullen.

No one seems to have a problem with the idea that if the identification comes after the name, it should always be surrounded by commas:

Steve Meyerson, a local merchant, gave the keynote address.

However, my students, at least, often wrongly omit a “the” or an “a” in sentences of this type:

Jill Meyers, sophomore, is president of the sorority.

To keep the commas, it needs to be:

Jill Meyers, a sophomore, is president of the sorority.

Peter ArkleThe Case of the Missing Comma
A related issue is the epidemic of missing commas after parenthetical phrases or appositives — that is, self-enclosed material that’s within a sentence, but not essential to its meaning. The following sentences all lack a necessary comma. Can you spot where?

My father, who gave new meaning to the expression “hard working” never took a vacation.

He was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1964.

Philip Roth, author of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and many other books is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize.

If you said “working,” “Iowa” and “books,” give yourself full marks. I’m not sure why this particular mistake is so tempting. It may sometimes be because these phrases are so long that by the time we get to the end of them, we’ve forgotten about the first comma. In any case, a strategy to prevent it is to remember the acronym I.C.E. Whenever you find yourself using a comma before an Identification, Characterization or Explanation, remember that there has to be a comma after the I.C.E. as well.

Splice Girls, and Boys
“Comma splice” is a term used for the linking of two independent clauses — that is, grammatical units that contain a subject and a verb and could stand alone as sentences — with a comma. When I started teaching at the University of Delaware some years ago, I was positively gobsmacked by the multitude of comma splices that confronted me. They have not abated.

Here’s an example:

He used to be a moderate, now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

It’s easy to fix in any number of ways:

He used to be a moderate. Now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

He used to be a moderate; now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

He used to be a moderate, but now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

He used to be a moderate — now he’s a card-carrying Tea Partier.

How to choose among them? By reading aloud — always the best single piece of writing advice — and choosing the version that best suits the context, your style and your ear. I would go with the semicolon. How about you?

Two particular situations seem to bring out a lot of comma splices. The first is in quotations:

“The way they’ve been playing, the team will be lucky to survive the first round,” the coach said, “I’m just hoping someone gets a hot hand.”

The comma after “said” has to be replaced with a period.

The other issue is the word “however,” which more and more people seem to want to use as a conjunction, comparable to “but” or “yet.” So they will write something like:

The weather is great today, however it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

That may be acceptable someday. Today, however, it’s a comma splice. Correct punctuation could be:

The weather is great today, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.


The weather is great today. However, it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.

Comma splices can be O.K. when you’re dealing with short clauses where even a semicolon would slow things down too much:

I talked to John, John talked to Lisa.

Samuel Beckett was the poet laureate of the comma splice. He closed his novel “The Unnamable” with a long sentence that ends:

… perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Which goes to show, I suppose, that rules are made to be broken.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” He blogs for the Chronicle of Higher Education and his own blog, Not One-Off Britishisms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”
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« Reply #28 on: June 15, 2012, 01:27:14 PM »
The Queen’s English no more
Carolyn Moynihan | 15 June 2012

On the last day of June a sad event in the long and noble history of the English language is scheduled to take place: the Queen’s English Society will formally be wound up. Forty years of trying to raise the awareness of fellow Englishmen about the misuse of apostrophes and semicolons, the overuse of the exclamation mark and the insidious effect of American spell checks -- to say nothing of texting and twittering -- have seen the ranks of active supporters thin to vanishing point. Only 22 members came to the recent annual meeting, and ten of those were committee members.

As the society’s chairman, Rhea Williams, said in a not very elegant statement: “Things change, people change. People care about different things. If you look at lots of societies, lots of them are having problems… People don’t want to join societies like they used to.” (Shouldn’t that be “as they used to”?) And she is perfectly correct about that, although a few years spent plugged into the internet have taught me that there is a multitude of people who espouse the QES cause unofficially and like nothing better than to point out the spelling and grammatical errors in other people’s online comments -- and even, sad to say, journalists’ articles.

(In defence of the profession I must add that many of the mistakes one finds in the otherwise polished prose of a publication such as MercatorNet come from speed rather than ignorance; under pressure of time, proofreading becomes a luxury. Wasn’t The Guardian, a leading English newspaper, once fondly known as the “Garudian” because of all its typos? And do not forget, dear reader, that one person’s bad grammar is another’s stylistic innovation, designed to keep you awake.)

At the same time there are legions who will cry “Good job!” at the demise of the QES and scoff at the very idea of unchanging rules. A good number of the 335 comments on the Guardian’sreport about this event are evidently along those lines. Says one: Doing anything by the rules just isn't the done thing any longer. Anyway, who needs rules when they have predictive texting? Who even needs words, let alone sentences, when they have text-speak. Grammar? OMG! Punctuation? LOL! Spelling? UMBK!

(I know, the use of “they” in the above sentences is ungrammatical, but the alternative is horrible: an encounter with the gender police over the use of “he”, or “she”, with the prospect of being forced into that abominable compromise “he or she” or, even worse, “s/he”.)

But let me come to the point: in the absence of the QES are we to have a standard for written English, or not? Who will arbitrate between “different to” and “different from” (let us not even consider here the strange Americanism “different than”!) Who will point out the egregious error in the sentence, “Your wrong!”? Who will reprimand the profligate users of exclamation points? Are such delicate tasks to be left entirely to Microsoft? Or Apple? Or Samsung? Perish the thought!

And yet, and yet… the task of prescribing standards is a high calling and one that should not be undertaken lightly. Few of us could sustain the rigour required for modelling the English language in all its linguistic perfection, not to mention deep obscurity. Who would never use the preterite instead of the past perfect tense, or change case after the verb “to be”, or use “owing to” when “due to” is required?

The QES itself has been found sadly deficient in its self-appointed role. Provoked by a remark on the society’s website belittling his profession (“We believe that descriptive linguistics, which declares anything anybody said or wrote to be ‘correct’ caters to mass ignorance under the supposed aegis of democracy and political correctness.” - You can see why he was mad at them) descriptive linguistics scholar Geoffrey K Pullum turned a ruthless eye on the site’s content and came up with rich pickings.

A malformed use of “neither … nor”; passive constructions; punctuation errors; a missing co-ordinate; wordy officialese; use of “anyone” instead of “someone”; even, even, a split infinitive -- Pullum found them all in one short paragraph describing the society’s mission. The press release about the society’s winding up yielded another batch of purists’ no-no’s, including a missing verb, a sentence beginning with a conjunction, and a missing full stop. The last straw for Pullum, a British-American, was QES’ insistence that Britons should shun the word “sidewalk” and stick to “pavement”. “We’ll adopt such American nouns as we damn well please, OK?” he frothed.

Such are the passions that can still be aroused over English usage. And such are the perils of prescriptivism, even in the largely benign form advocated by the Queen’s English Society. But surely they are right in insisting that a line should be drawn, across which no-one should be allowed to step with impunity.

Models of enforcement are not lacking. On YouTube there’s Smosh grammar police (somewhat coarse and violent but they get the message across about “they’re” and “there”, and have been viewed more than 5.7 million times -- which tells you something). And the rather too realistic Grammar Nazis (over 4.8 million views) whose representative gives a lesson on the dangling participle that you will never forget. (Actually, I am informed that the latter is a parody of a scene in a movie called, ahem, Inglorious Basterds (sic)). If nothing else these videos may make grammar appealing to boys.

It only remains to decide where the line is to be drawn. Some candidates:

Ending a sentence with a preposition? Too bad; Winston Churchill, allegedly, put paid to that little hang-up umpteen years ago with the expostulation: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” Or something a bit stronger.

The split infinitive? Sorry, but that’s been a lost cause ever since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave it a heroic gloss: "In those days men were real men, women were real women, small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before - and thus was the Empire forged."

Use of “it’s” instead of “its”, or vice versa? Well, good luck with that one -- its going take more than an army of grammar nazis to make a dent in the wall of ignorance about the apostrophe and it’s vital importance to civilisation as we know it.

Hmmm. It’s all looking a bit difficult. And, after all, it is meaning that counts -- the battle of ideas and not the clash of participles. That is what we stake our reputation on in this publication and, who knows, one day MercatorNet might be an oracle of grammar and style as well. We’re working on it.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

PS: There are some cunningly placed grammatical errors in this piece. A free copy of the QES Punctuation Guide for anyone who can correctly identify five.

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« Reply #29 on: June 20, 2012, 09:30:35 AM »

This Embarrasses You and I*
Grammar Gaffes Invade the Office in an Age of Informal Email, Texting and Twitter

When Caren Berg told colleagues at a recent staff meeting, "There's new people you should meet," her boss Don Silver broke in, says Ms. Berg, a senior vice president at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., marketing and crisis-communications company.
"I cringe every time I hear" people misuse "is" for "are," Mr. Silver says. The company's chief operations officer, Mr. Silver also hammers interns to stop peppering sentences with "like." For years, he imposed a 25-cent fine on new hires for each offense. "I am losing the battle," he says.

Employers say the grammar skills of people they hire are getting worse, a recent survey shows. But language is evolving so fast that old rules of usage are eroding.

Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace. Many of them attribute slipping skills to the informality of email, texting and Twitter where slang and shortcuts are common. Such looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors, many managers say.

There's no easy fix. Some bosses and co-workers step in to correct mistakes, while others consult business-grammar guides for help. In a survey conducted earlier this year, about 45% of 430 employers said they were increasing employee-training programs to improve employees' grammar and other skills, according to the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP.

"I'm shocked at the rampant illiteracy" on Twitter, says Bryan A. Garner, author of "Garner's Modern American Usage" and president of LawProse, a Dallas training and consulting firm. He has compiled a list of 30 examples of "uneducated English," such as saying "I could care less," instead of "I couldn't care less," or, "He expected Helen and I to help him," instead of "Helen and me."

Leslie Ferrier says she was aghast at letters employees were sending to customers at a Jersey City, N.J., hair- and skin-product marketer when she joined the firm in 2009. The letters included grammar and style mistakes and were written "as if they were speaking to a friend," says Ms. Ferrier, a human-resources executive. She had employees use templates to eliminate mistakes and started training programs in business writing.

Most participants in the Society for Human Resource Management-AARP survey blame younger workers for the skills gap. Tamara Erickson, an author and consultant on generational issues, says the problem isn't a lack of skill among 20- and 30-somethings. Accustomed to texting and social networking, "they've developed a new norm," Ms. Erickson says.

At RescueTime, for example, grammar rules have never come up. At the Seattle-based maker of personal-productivity software, most employees are in their 30s. Sincerity and clarity expressed in "140 characters and sound bytes" are seen as hallmarks of good communication—not "the king's grammar," says Jason Grimes, 38, vice president of product marketing. "Those who can be sincere, and still text and Twitter and communicate on Facebook—those are the ones who are going to succeed."

Also, some grammar rules aren't clear, leaving plenty of room for disagreement. Tom Kamenick battled fellow attorneys at a Milwaukee, Wis., public-interest law firm over use of "the Oxford comma"—an additional comma placed before the "and" or "or" in a series of nouns. Leaving it out can change the meaning of a sentence, Mr. Kamenick says: The sentence, "The greatest influences in my life are my sisters, Oprah Winfrey and Madonna," means something different than the sentence, "The greatest influences in my life are my sisters, Oprah Winfrey, and Madonna," he says. (The first sentence implies the writer has two celebrity sisters; the second says the sisters and the stars are different individuals.) After Mr. Kamenick asserted in digital edits of briefs and papers that "I was willing to go to war on that one," he says, colleagues backed down, either because they were convinced, or "for the sake of their own sanity and workplace decorum."
Patricia T. O'Conner, author of a humorous guidebook for people who struggle with grammar, fields workplace disputes on a blog she cowrites, Grammarphobia. "These disagreements can get pretty contentious," Ms. O'Conner says. One employee complained that his boss ordered him to make a memo read, "for John and I," rather than the correct usage, "for John and me," Ms. O'Conner says.

In workplace-training programs run by Jack Appleman, a Monroe, N.Y., corporate writing instructor, "people are banging the table," yelling or high-fiving each other during grammar contests he stages, he says. "People get passionate about grammar," says Mr. Appleman, author of a book on business writing.

Christopher Telano, chief internal auditor at the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., has employees circulate their reports to co-workers to review for accuracy and grammar, he says. He coaches auditors to use action verbs such as "verify" and "confirm" and tells them to write below a 12th-grade reading level so it can be easily understood.

Mr. Garner, the usage expert, requires all job applicants at his nine-employee firm—including people who just want to pack boxes—to pass spelling and grammar tests before he will hire them. And he requires employees to have at least two other people copy-edit and make corrections to every important email and letter that goes out.

"Twenty-five years ago it was impossible to put your hands on something that hadn't been professionally copy-edited," Mr. Garner says. "Today, it is actually hard to put your hands on something that has been professionally copy-edited."

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at
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« Reply #30 on: July 17, 2012, 05:45:02 AM »

Writing With Antonin Scalia, Grammar Nerd
Posted by Alex Carp

The first time Bryan A. Garner, a lawyer and writer, met Antonin Scalia—over breakfast at the Washington, D.C., Four Seasons, in 2006—the Justice spent the early part of their conversation praising a magazine essay he had recently read on English grammar and usage. Garner, who has now written two books with Scalia, felt that it would be bad form to interrupt, but when the Justice had trouble remembering the essay’s author, he suggested a name. Scalia assented. “Sir,” Garner replied, politely, “that essay is a review of my book.”

Garner is the editor-in-chief of “Black’s Law Dictionary,” a contributor to the “Chicago Manual of Style,” founder of the H.W. Fowler Society—which he named for the legendary lexicographer—and author of Oxford’s “Modern American Usage,” recent editions of which have seen his name moved, à la Fowler, into the book’s title; he might be the world’s premier authority on grammar and usage in English. The essay under discussion that morning was “Tense Present,” by David Foster Wallace, which had by then gained a passionate following in certain circles, though few of its readers likely realized that its influence extended to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Scalia had initially proposed the breakfast after declining to sit for a more formal interview on writing and legal advocacy. By the end of their meal, Scalia had changed his mind, and the two have gone on to form a productive and collegial, if unusual, working relationship. The interview, Garner’s first with a sitting Justice, took place the following October, and he has completed others with almost two hundred state and federal judges, and nine of the eleven Justices who have sat on the Court since. “You’re something of a SNOOT yourself,” Scalia told Garner as they ended their interview, invoking Wallace’s pet phrase for a grammar and usage fanatic, “and that makes me happy.” (Other SNOOTs, according to Scalia, include former Justices Harry Blackmun and David Souter. Ruth Bader Ginsburg shares their zealousness, but, Scalia said, she’s “too polite.”)

“Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges,” the first book co-authored by the pair, appeared in 2008. Their second book, “Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts,” was published by Thomson/West last month. The nearly six-hundred-page tome details Scalia’s judicial philosophy, which they call “textualism.”

“My calculation is we spent about eighty-five to one hundred hours side by side for ‘Making Your Case,’” Garner said. “Probably sixty of those hours, once we had a draft, we actually went through sentence by sentence, together, reading it aloud. We ended up really co-authoring every single sentence of the first book.”

The intensity of their collaboration took an uneven toll on the writers. “In 2008, before we went to press, I suggested that we should do a second book together, on textualism. I wanted to write something that would be a better guide to judges and to lawyers than we had on the market. And, after we finished the book, the first book, Justice Scalia said no way. ‘No way. I’m sick of this. I’m sick of writing. I hate writing,’” Garner said. But he hadn’t just completed a book subtitled “The Art of Persuading Judges” without learning a few tricks. “So I said, ‘Well, all right. I think it needs to be done. And the shame is, now it’ll never be done, because you know more about this subject than anyone else alive.’ He said, you know, ‘Life is short, and I don’t have time for this.’ I said, ‘Well, all right.’ About six months later, I get a phone call from him, and he said, ‘You know, Bryan? I miss you,’” Garner recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Well, I miss you, too, Nino. You know, there’s a cure for that. Let’s start the second book.’”

The work was sometimes rough going—“Reading Law” alone took two hundred and sixteen drafts. “Justice Scalia is an intellectual pugilist, throwing some very hard punches,” Garner explained. “But he wanted to see what I had coming back. He’ll work out positions by taking a strong stance and seeing what you have.” Garner, unlike Scalia, identifies as pro-choice and favors legalizing gay marriage. He’s against prayer in public school, favors gun control, and, as he states in “Reading Law,” “deplores the Second Amendment.” In one of their darker moments, the book was almost cancelled—over a dispute about grammatical contractions, like “don’t” and “can’t,” that they had to leave unresolved. (Garner deems them acceptable in legal writing; Scalia, the only child of a professor of Romance languages, finds them “intellectually abominable, but commercially reasonable.”) “And yet,” Garner said, “Justice Scalia and I have not yet found a case that we would decide differently. We begin and end with the words of the text.”

Between books, Garner spends most of his time holding legal-writing seminars for practicing lawyers, travelling more than two hundred nights a year in an effort to break the bad habits of a profession bound tightly to its precedents. “Word for word,” he has said, “lawyers are the most highly paid professional writers in the world. But the literary tradition in the profession is probably the worst.”

One of those seminars, held last month in the ballroom of a Manhattan hotel, drew close to forty lawyers. “Judges are people, too,” Garner implored his students, and “hyphenating well, punctuating correctly, is not below your pay grade.” But the documents he collects from courts and firms, and teaches lawyers across the country how to fix, show him how much work he has left to do. “How can lawyers write this way?” he wondered, mid-lesson, looking at a memo near the end of the day. “It’s as if we’re not even alive to the language!”

When, despite his natural energy, the minutia of what amounted to a day-long writing and grammar lesson grew tedious, Garner resorted to his dry sense of humor. “I have it on good authority,” he conceded in one peek under the robes, “that when appellants to the U.S. Supreme Court spend eighty per cent of their time looking at Justice Kennedy,” who has gained a reputation as the divided Court’s swing vote, “it’s annoying.” He waited a beat. “To the others.”

Photograph courtesy Bryan A. Garner.

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« Reply #31 on: July 24, 2012, 10:50:15 AM »
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« Reply #32 on: December 13, 2012, 08:17:06 PM »

Vocabulary Declines, With Unspeakable Results
The first step to fight income inequality: Do a better job of teaching kids to read..

For all the talk about income inequality in the United States, there is too little recognition of education's role in the problem. Yet it is no coincidence that, as economist John Bishop has shown, the middle class's economic woes followed a decline in 12th-grade verbal scores, which fell sharply between 1962 and 1980—and, as the latest news confirms, have remained flat ever since.

The federal government reported this month that students' vocabulary scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have seen no significant change since 2009. On average, students don't know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.

All verbal tests are, at bottom, vocabulary tests. To predict competence most accurately, the U.S. military's Armed Forces Qualification Test gives twice as much weight to verbal scores as to math scores, and researchers such as Christopher Winship and Anders D. Korneman have shown that these verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level. Math is an important index to general competence, but on average words are twice as important.

Yes, we should instruct students in science, technology, engineering and math, the much-ballyhooed STEM subjects—but only after equipping them with a base of wide general knowledge and vocabulary.

Students don't learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. They do so by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. If a child reads that "annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming," he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words "annual" and "fertile" if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.

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Associated Press
 .Yet in the 1930s, American schools transformed themselves according to the principles of "progressive education," which assume that students need to learn not a body of knowledge but "how-to" skills that (supposedly) enable them to pick up specific knowledge later on. Analyses of schoolbooks between 1940 and 1960 show a marked dilution of subject matter and vocabulary. Little surprise, then, that students began scoring lower on tests that probed knowledge and vocabulary size. The decline became alarming in the 1970s, as the federal report "A Nation at Risk" pointed out in 1983.

The focus on the "skill" of reading has produced students who cannot read. Teachers cannot cultivate reading comprehension by forcing children to practice soul-deadening exercises like "finding the main idea" and "questioning the author." Students would be better off gaining knowledge by studying real subject matters in a sensible, cumulative sequence. Instead, elementary schools are dominated by content-indifferent exercises that use random fictional texts on the erroneous assumption that reading comprehension is a formal skill akin to typing.

Vocabulary-building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words. Substance, not skill, develops vocabulary and reading ability—there are no shortcuts. The slow, compounding nature of vocabulary growth means that successful reform must lie in systematic knowledge-building. That is the approach used in South Korea, Finland, Japan, Canada and other nations that score highly in international studies and succeed best in narrowing the verbal gap between rich and poor students.

In the U.S., 45 states have recently adopted the Common Core State Standards for language arts. The standards have been denounced for various pedagogical and political reasons, but all sides in the debate should accept one key principle in the new standards: "By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge . . . to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation . . . [through] rich content knowledge within and across grades."

Opponents of Common Core's new nonfiction requirement ought to recognize that good, knowledge-enhancing nonfiction is literature that helps students gain the knowledge and words they need to understand fiction and everything else.

The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: "Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?" When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it's fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.

Mr. Hirsch, a former professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, is founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. This op-ed is adapted from an essay forthcoming in the Winter 2013 issue of City Journal.
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« Reply #33 on: June 27, 2013, 12:18:32 AM »

I always wondered-- now I know!!!


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« Reply #34 on: July 02, 2013, 01:52:47 PM »

But some of the weirdest languages are widely spoken. The seventh-strangest language, Kongo, is spoken by half a million people in Central Africa. After that comes Armenian, then German. English ranks fairly high as well, coming in 33rd. There's also no particular region of strange languages -- the top 25 weirdest (pictured with red dots in the map below) are scattered across every continent. Mandarin is one of the strangest languages, while Cantonese is one of the most "normal." And linguistic families are also no guarantee of similarity. Schnoebelen notes that while Germanic languages are all pretty weird, Romance languages run the full breadth of the strangeness spectrum, from Spanish, which falls in the Weirdness Index's top 25, down to Portuguese, which ranked as one of the most mundane languages.
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« Reply #35 on: November 06, 2013, 10:47:58 PM »
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« Reply #36 on: September 14, 2014, 03:53:23 PM »
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« Reply #37 on: June 22, 2017, 12:06:43 AM »

25 examples of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms - from

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’
3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)
4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.
5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.
6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).
7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning ‘to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,’ “trim” came to mean ‘to prepare, make ready.’ Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: ‘to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance’ or ‘to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of.’ And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?
8. Cleave can be cleaved into two “homographs,” words with different origins that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,” meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the contrary meaning ‘to split or sever (something), ‘ as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: “cloven,” which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”
9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced differently.
10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in "running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in "holding fast." If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.
11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm went off."
12. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come safely through,’ as in “The company weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”
13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).
14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’
15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.
16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.
17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)
18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense ‘to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping,’ which grew out of the earliest meaning.
19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”
20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”
21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”
22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”
23. Bitch, as reader Shawn Ravenfire pointed out, can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.
24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.
25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”
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« Reply #38 on: June 24, 2017, 09:46:52 AM »

25 examples of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms

Fascinating. Perhaps related:
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« Reply #39 on: October 09, 2017, 03:18:39 PM »

Trump Must Demand Boarder Wall In DACA Deal - Lunch Alert!
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