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  • Commas don't kill people

    According to one legend, the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement, convicted of treason for supporting the Irish rebellion, was “hanged on a comma.” But that's wrong, the comma didn't kill him.

  • In the event of moon disaster, and other speeches our presidents never gave

    Two days before the first astronauts walked on the moon, H. R. "Watergate Bob" Haldeman directed Nixon speechwriter William Safire to come up with something for the president to say to the astronauts' widows. Just in case.

  • Google's Panopticon will make you a better person--just click to agree

    The Fourth Amendment protects your right to privacy, and the Fifth protects you from self-incrimination. That’s why the government has to get a warrant before it can snoop inside your house and warn you that you have the right to remain silent when questioned by police. But in the Fall of 2018 Google filed a patent application for a system that will monitor and evaluate everything you say and do and take corrective action if you stray from prescribed norms. All you have to do is click to agree and you’ve signed away your privacy and your protection against self-incrimination.

  • It's National Grammar Day, not National Pedant's Day

    National Grammar Day is celebrated every year on March 4th because it’s the only day of the year that is a complete sentence. Get it? March fourth/March forth? As they say on the internets, hahaha.

    But like many celebrations, National Grammar Day is founded on a myth. There is no Tooth Fairy, and most of the language we produce has nothing to do with complete sentences.

  • What do you call a retired professor?

    Emeritus? Emerita? Emeriti? Emeritae? Emeritx? Emerit? Maybe we need a gender-neutral word for retired academics?

  • NPR Poll: Americans don’t want to be politically correct. Tote bag, anyone?

    A new NPR-Marist poll finds that 52% of Americans don’t think the country should become more politically correct. Only 36% think that more political correctness is needed. The rest are either unsure or don’t care.

    That response is not surprising, since politically correct has always been a negative term. But two things about the NPR poll are bizarre. The first is that NPR, which has long promoted the idea that carrying its tote bag was the right-thinking, liberal thing to do, had replicated a 2010 Fox News poll, Fox News being the network that attacks anyone with a public radio tote bag as politically correct. The second is that the question NPR asked is long, confusing, and designed to produce a negative response:

    In general, are you in favor of the United States becoming more politically correct and like when people are being more sensitive in their comments about others or are you against the country becoming more politically correct and upset that there are too many things people can't say anymore?

  • In Silicon Valley’s version of the nanny state, the nannies are all offline

    As the techies of Silicon Valley rake in the profits from our inability to live without devices, they’re cutting their own children’s screen time down to zero to ensure that at least one group of privileged kids can spend quality time—with their nannies. And to make sure the nannies of Silicon Valley are off-line as well, parents are forcing them to agree not to text, call, or surf on the job. According to the restrictive contracts nannies have to sign, a logon in the presence of their charges—even when the nanny is responding to a parent’s text—may be grounds for dismissal. Which is odd considering that nannies, like the parents who hire them and almost everyone else in the digital age, rely on texts, email, and the internet to find work, arrange their schedules, and deal with everyday details and emergencies, both personal and work-related.

  • Countering the backlash against nonbinary pronouns

    Today, Oct. 17, is International Pronouns Day. You can follow my earlier pronoun posts on singular they here, on Winnie the Pooh and gender-neutral heesh, here, on the violence of pronouns, here, on some of the first invented pronouns here, and on the politics of generic he, here.

    In this post I want to look at the backlash against gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns.

    Singular they and invented pronouns like ze, hir, E, and per highlight the need for respect and inclusion, so it’s not surprising that they generate backlash from the enemies of respect and inclusion. The objections to the pronouns are unconvincing, occasionally bizarre, and totally wrong.

  • Nonbinary pronouns are older than you think

    October 17 is International #PronounsDay. We have grammar day, mother language day, dictionary day, punctuation day! apostrophe day’, talk like Shakespeare day, even talk-like-a-pirate day. But this is the first time ever that a part of speech gets its own day. And not just a part of speech, but a part of a part of speech. Oct. 17 is not a day to celebrate all pronouns. We don’t celebrate the interrogatives, demonstratives, and relatives, worthy as they may be. We don’t even celebrate all the personal pronouns. Instead, October 17 is set aside for just the third-person singular gender-neutral and nonbinary personal pronouns.

    It’s the day for ze, hir, E, per, xi, ip, thon, heesh, co, um, le, and singular they. These may seem new, but they’re older than you think.

  • International Pronouns Day

    October 17 is International Pronouns Day, a whole day devoted to a part of speech that comes with its own website and a dedicated hashtag, #PronounsDay. Since it’s the first-ever pronouns day, many people are not sure how to celebrate, and so the organizers offer some suggested activities: tell people your pronouns; ask people their pronouns; have a pronoun party.

    A party? Pronouns, a part of speech that probably made your eyes glaze over in English class, are now highly-contested, high-profile symbols in the ongoing struggle for human rights. Maybe not worth a pronoun party. Certainly worth a #PronounsDay.

  • Hey, you guys, you is already plural

    Should we get rid of the plural you guys because it’s sexist? Joe Pinsker, writing in the Atlantic, reports a growing resistance to the common use of you guys—along with hey guys, and just plain guys—to address mixed groups of men and women, as well as single-sex groups of only women. Pinsker finds that trans and gender-nonconforming people feel excluded by you guys; that teachers and business people reject you guys as not inclusive; and that lots of people want to ditch you guys in favor of something gender neutral, like folks, or people, or comrades. Then Pinsker adds this peculiar observation by way of explaining why you guys is so popular: “English lacks a standard gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun.” He actually says this twice.But that is flat-out wrong. English has always had a gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun: you.

  • In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

    In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.” . . .

    Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh.

  • A Brief History of Singular 'they'

    Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent—the word the pronoun refers to—is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves their mother.

    But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375 . . .

  • The right to read

    It’s been a bad few weeks for reading.

    First a South Carolina police union pressured a high school to drop two books from its summer reading list. The problem? The books depicted cops as violent racists. The union defended its foray into censorship because, “when people don’t like the books their kids are asked to read, they call the police.”

    Then, as if the book police wasn’t bad enough, a Detroit federal judge ruled that there is no constitutional right to read. Guns, yes. Books, no.

  • The Babel Proclamation: celebrating a century of banning foreign languages in America

    Today America celebrates the centenary of the Babel Proclamation. On May 23, 1918, Iowa Gov. William Harding banned the public use of all foreign languages: in schools, on trains, at meetings, in church, even on the phone.

    They called the ban the Babel Proclamation. America was at war, and German—commonly spoken in Iowa at the time—was the language of the enemy. When asked why he banned all languages and not just German, Harding explained that “German intrigue does not confine itself to the German language. The fact is they find it more convenient now to use other languages.” Apparently no one thought to ask Harding, “So if German spies speak English, shouldn’t you ban English too?”

    As for prayer, Harding told the Chamber of Commerce, “I am telling those who insist upon praying in some other language that they are wasting their time, for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice in English.”

    Oh, and that First Amendment business in the Constitution? Welp, according to the governor, freedom of speech is guaranteed only if you speak English.