2011 in Review

The Year 2011 in Language & Writing

Bryan A. Garner*


Eight-thousand literature and language professors and scholars gathered in Los Angeles for the convention of the Modern Language Association of America. The recurrent subject during the week was the economy’s effect on humanities faculty and students. The association’s executive director, Rosemary Feal, lamented that there is “a misconception that English and foreign-language studies do not prepare students for a range of careers.” U.C. Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield predicted that “bootleg” schools would start to secede from larger universities. He sees these lower-tuition schools specializing in teaching humanities without the costs of big-ticket research and sports. • The day after a gunman in Tucson killed six people and wounded 14, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on its interview with a local man who spells his name “:David-Wynn: Miller.” An online video had shown the shooting suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, ranting that “the government is implying [sic] mind control and brainwash [sic] on the people by controlling grammar,” and MSNBC had noted that Miller, an anti-tax advocate, promoted similar views on his website. Miller said he’d never met Loughner and had no sympathy for him, but “he’s saying there’s no Constitution, which there isn’t.” The interviewer paraphrased Miller’s claim that he “broke the mathematics of language” to prove that the Constitution and Magna Carta are invalid. He certainly broke something. • The documentary Project Nim by Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire) opened the Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of the chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (shades of Noam Chomsky, the “father of modern linguistics”) that was taught American Sign Language as part of a landmark linguistics study in the 1970s by Columbia University. The experiment’s goal was to discover how humans evolved to use language and how our brains process the world linguistically. Many thought the study was a flop, but the film scored 97% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. • The Irish Times reported that Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift’s correspondence displays a waggish side. One such letter includes the phrase: “I expect a Rettle vely soon; and that MD is vely werr, and so Nite dee MD.” Dr. Abigail Williams of Oxford has translated this as: “I expect a letter very soon, and that my dears are very well, and so night dear my dears.” She calls it a “little language” suggesting a playful kind of baby talk Swift used with female companions. • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the American Dialect Society’s word of the year for 2010 was app, which means “an application program for a phone or computer or other electronic device.” It beat out nom, which is “an onomatopoetic form connoting eating, especially pleasurably.” The Society has chosen words of the year since 1990, its first choice having been bushlips and more recently bailout in 2007, subprime in 2008, and tweet in 2009. Society members praise app for its apparent ubiquity and inclusiveness, as corporations, small companies, and even individuals have created apps for general use. • AOL News reported on a Carnegie-Mellon study suggesting that geographic dialects are emerging on Twitter. The researchers examined 380,000 tweets during a week in March and found, among others, y’all in the South and yinz in Pittsburgh. In California the word cool is losing its -l: in Southern California it becomes coo, while in Northern California koo is preferred. Perhaps because of the character limit, u instead of you is common, but the study found that New Yorkers favored a lengthening of some words to the second-person youu and the first-person II. Researchers plan future studies to analyze whether these geographical Twitter dialects spread as tweeting becomes ubiquitous.


The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) reported on a study by Dr. Peter Garrard at the Centre for Clinical Neuroscience in London. Dr. Gerrard wants to transcribe and computer-analyze participants’ old diaries and letters for information that could lead to early-detection Alzheimer’s tests. In a linguistic study of the writings of two famous Alzheimer’s sufferers—Iris Murdoch and Harold Wilson—“it was possible to identify changes in Iris Murdoch’s language use in her final novel—before anyone was aware of her symptoms.” Researchers found a reduced range of expressive vocabulary and the favoring of generic words over specific ones. • The Washington Times reported that the latest fad among would-be iconoclasts is to belittle The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, who teaches linguistics and English at the University of Edinburgh, derides it as “a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules.” Professor Stanley Fish, who teaches humanities and law, considers it “picayune and elementary.” Yet this slender volume covers more material than most professors do in two semesters—and its authors wrote considerably better than their detractors do. • In an article in The Reading Teacher, Lou Gates introduced Phonguage, a system blending whole language and phonics, as a new tool to help children learn to read. With few exceptions, Gates says, the sound pattern of every word commonly used in children’s vocabularies fits into one of five categories. Once a child learns the patterns, reading reportedly becomes easier. • Sify News reported that a study published in the journal Acta Astronautica claimed new evidence of humans and dolphins communicating. Previous studies have shown humans communicating with dolphins in captivity by using fish as a reward, but this new study allowed the dolphin to communicate with humans by using an underwater keyboard to emit a specific sound or by whistling that pitch itself. A specific pitch corresponded with a certain prop or toy thrown to the dolphin after the sound was received. Over a three-year period, scientists discovered that young females enjoyed this playful interaction with humans, but young males weren’t as interested in the game. • The New York Times reported on research that fully bilingual people appear to dream in the language they are using most frequently at the time. One study, using native German speakers fluent in English and native English speakers fluent in German, had participants sleep in a lab and record their dreaming language of choice. People with sleep disorders such as sleepwalking and sleep-talking leave a silent segment where the fictional response in the dream would appear, possibly showing that we “speak” only the words in our dreams that we experience as our own. • The Irish Times reported that bilingualism may help the brain offset some of the effects of dementia. Professor Ellen Bialystok studied a group of 450 Alzheimer’s patients, both monolingual and bilingual. Matching the subjects based upon age, cognitive level, and other aspects, Bialystok concluded that bilingual people can function better than their single-language counterparts. • The New York Times announced that after 32 years, its “On Language” column, written by William Safire until his death in 2009, had reached its end.


Poor grammar and spelling really can get people in trouble—sometimes in the most surprising ways. The New York Times reported on a man who posed as a government official and took over a rural high school in eastern Guyana. He beat students with a cane and with leather belts and arbitrarily changed school hours. At first the head teacher believed the man’s claim that the Ministry of Education had sent him to run the school. But his poor grammar and spelling made faculty suspicious enough that they called the police, which led to his arrest. • The St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minn.) reported that blogs are becoming a classroom tool for writing. Sites such as Kidblog.org and Edublogs host blogs for students from elementary school to high school. Besides encouraging students to write, blogging offers new means of discussion. For instance, while a high-school class read Shakespeare’s plays, students blogged as characters. “Hamlet” titled one post “Insane Family Drama” and lamented the betrayal by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he unfriended on Facebook after his father’s murder. Something is rotten. • Fears that Americanisms are trampling Britspeak are groundless, reported the Daily Mail (U.K.). Linguists at the British Library have found that Britons may use Americanisms for some purposes, such as ordering in American fast-food restaurants. But for the most part, not only do many Britons avoid American pronunciations, but British English is evolving more rapidly than American English. More and more, it is Americans who are sticking to “traditional” speech patterns and uniform pronunciations. • The Daily Telegraph (London) cited an addition to the Oxford English Dictionary that also happens to be the first graphic symbol to be included. The heart sign (as in the famous tourism slogan: I [heart] NY) will be listed under the word heart as a verb meaning “to love.” Among the other 45,437 additions are OMG (an abbreviation of “Oh my God”) ego-surfing (meaning “to search on the Internet for mentions of one’s own name”), and taquito (a small Mexican taco). Hence: “OMG I dropped my taquito while ego-surfing.” • Reuters noted that the newest edition of the New American Bible has changed certain words in an effort to help readers understand the Catholic view. For instance, the word holocaust has been changed to burnt offerings to signal the positive idea of setting aside offerings to God rather than genocide. And the word booty has been replaced by spoils of war. Perhaps more controversially, in a key passage of Isaiah 7:14, the virgin has been altered to the young woman in an attempt to better translate the Hebrew word almah.


The Guardian reported on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s five-week performance of a new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet—140 characters at a time. Such Tweet Sorrow was billed as a real-time presentation of the characters in contemporary settings and situations, as is obvious from the first tweet from @julietcap16: “Totally haven’t introduced myself yet! . . . I’m 15 and SO proud to be a Capulet!” The RSC cast of six actors improvised much of the chatter, following a story grid. The director, Roxana Silbert, conceded that the production is probably not for Shakespearean purists. • Also on the subject of “Twitterature,” Allan Hoffman reported in the Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.) that it’s an emerging literary form, usually created by stringing together tweets on a related subject, including links to relevant information. The result can be striking, such as Tweets from Tahir, a collection of messages sent during the Egyptian revolution, which formed a narrative of the events by people on the scene. Sometimes a tweet is a story in itself: “A gaggle of giggles as the girls pass around the love note: Who will dare deliver it to its object? Not the author, obviously.” SWAK. • Also in the Star-Ledger, Tom Mackin reviewed Leslie Dunton-Downer’s book The English Is Coming: How One Language Is Sweeping the World (2010) as a “lighthearted, captivating, enlightening study of how and why English has become the Earth’s common language.” Today China is reportedly the country with the greatest population of people with some knowledge of English. The United Kingdom is fifth. • The Associated Press noted the 400-year anniversary of the King James Bible, to this day a best-seller. The actual date of completion in 1611 is variously reckoned, but many celebrate May 2. The final product was achieved after seven years of work by committees in London, Oxford, and Cambridge consisting of 47 translators employing the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. The KJV Bible introduced such now-familiar phrases as east of Eden, how are the mighty fallen, the skin of my teeth, and turned the world upside down. • The Economist on April 14 noted the publication of two learned papers addressing the evolution of language and the ontological adaptations that facilitate speech and comprehension in the scientific journals Science and Nature, respectively. Dr. Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland traced the evolution of language through phonemes (the smallest units of sound with distinct meaning) from 504 languages to central or southern Africa and suggested that all languages do have a common root. Dr. Michael Dunn with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands identified cognates for each of the major language families to analyze the correlation within these groups of grammatical features, and found no evidence in support of a universal grammar proposed by Noam Chomsky. In fact, Dunn credits linguistic culture with the differentiation in grammatical structure, and in stark contrast to the Chomskyan theory, proposes that nurture over and above nature is the foundation for the uniqueness found in various languages.


Slate reported that grammar, punctuation, and spelling matter in consumer reviews. People respond more favorably to well-written reviews—even negative ones. Some businesses are now hiring proofreaders to copyedit their customers’ online reviews. Others are even posting fake reviews, both good (on their own website) and bad (on their competitors’). The problem with sanitizing and faking reviews is that all reviews become suspect: “The lowercase reviews, the all-caps reviews, the Internet-speak, the subject-verb-agreement manglings, the sentence fragments, the pathetic attempts to spell chic—all of these are factors to weigh when considering someone’s opinion . . . . On the Internet, it’s important that other people can tell if you’re an idiot.” • In the New York Times, John Simpson, the Oxford English Dictionary’s chief editor, said that in the 1928 first edition, set had about 200 senses, filling 75 columns of type. Today, though, run has some 645 senses for the verb form alone. Lexicographer Peter Gilliver devoted more than a year to defining run. Simon Winchester mused: “Set stood for stability and sturdy conservatism, so the newfangled, richest-of-all-today’s-words run is all about ambition and optimism and the possibilities of the future. Set is England, old and fusty. Run is America, new and cool. Set is yesterday; run is tomorrow.” • The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that prosecutors in a murder case asked the jury to read the writing on the wall—literally. A forensic examiner admitted that graffiti is difficult to compare with normal handwriting. But he testified that taunting messages painted on the walls at the crime scene showed “significant similarities” to the defendant’s handwriting. And a linguist testified that the language of the threats, text messages in the defendant’s phone, and the defendant’s known writings also had similarities. The jury convicted. • Syracuse University announced that it is offering a professional graduate program in language instruction. The school will be training students to teach English to speakers of other languages or to teach languages other than English. The program was created in response to the increase of immigrants and the shrinking global economy. According to Amanda Brown, assistant professor of linguistics and the program director, the curriculum provides grounding in the mechanics of language, a foundation in language-teaching methods, and a supervised teaching practicum. • The Independent (U.K.) reported on American linguistics studies purporting to show that the habit of using so at the beginning of a sentence (“So the reason for the changes in these economic times . . .”) developed in Silicon Valley because it “appeals to problem-solvers and suggests that conversation is a logical process, moving in a single direction like software code.” • The Economist reported that one typo in a prospectus “the size of a phone book” threatened to cost Goldman Sachs $340 million. The financial giant offered four “exchange-traded warrants” (rights to buy securities at a fixed price) on the Hong Kong market. Hiding in the prospectus was a formula in which one multiplication sign should have been a division sign. That rendered the warrants badly underpriced: what Goldman Sachs sold 124 traders for $10 million was worth more like $350 million. Most of the lucky owners accepted a buy-back offer that rival dealers estimated at just a few million. • The Daily Telegraph (London) reported the discovery of James Boswell’s abortive lexicography. Boswell described showing Johnson a “specimen” of his own intended Scots dictionary in October 1769, but he abandoned the project after compiling only about 800 words and phrases. His manuscript disappeared in 1825 and was recently discovered in the Bodleian Library among the papers of 19th-century lexicographer John Jamieson. Among the terms he recorded is caddie, which meant “an odd-jobs man.” Today, of course, it’s a golf term—although a character in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger seems to combine the two senses: the Korean Odd Job carries Goldfinger’s golf clubs.


In the New York Times, Adam Liptak reported that since 2000, the Justices of the United States Supreme Court have cited dictionaries in 225 opinions to define 295 words or phrases in modern statutes. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, was reported as criticizing the practice: “I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom.” In further correspondence with Liptak, I pointed out that it is perfectly natural for textualists to cite dictionaries—and that Sheidlower’s position is naive and untenable. • The Evening Standard (U.K.) reported that major London businesses toss four out of ten job applications because of their many spelling and grammatical errors. These employers spend tens of millions of pounds each year to provide their new employees with the literacy skills they should have learned in school. And these businesses expect the problem to get worse as the forthcoming generation of students has been educated by teachers who have grown up with texting and e-mails. • In the Washington Times, Priscilla S. Taylor reviewed Joshua Kendall’s book The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (2011). She opines that Kendall has written “about as interesting a book about Webster as the ornery, obsessive, often arrogant subject permits.” An interesting side note: the biography was published on April 14, the date in 1828 when Noah Webster copyrighted the first edition of his American Dictionary. • New Scientist reported that birds “may not have verbs, nouns, or past participles, but they challenge the notion that humans alone have evolved grammatical rules.” A Kyoto University researcher made “remixes” of complex finch songs. In the wild, the social songbirds seem to react angrily to the unfamiliar songs of intruders, but they get used to them after a while. In the lab, though, the birds could not get used to certain sequences of song parts, indicating “a specific rule in the sequential orderings of syllables in their songs, shared with the social community.” • The Chicago Tribune cited the completion of the University of Chicago’s Assyrian dictionary, which lists 28,000 words that haven’t been spoken in over 2,000 years. Since 1921, 88 scholars have worked 90 years to produce the set of 21 volumes (yours for $1,400). The material for the dictionary comes from millions of cuneiform tablets from which scholars extracted headwords and recorded them on more than 2 million index cards. These tablets record everything from poetry to the earliest systems of law, and their messages have now found new life through the efforts of these scholars.


Literally is losing its literal meaning, wrote Christopher Muther in the Boston Globe, and is becoming “a throwaway intensifier and a replacement for figuratively.” Muther noted that its decline had started by 1839, when it was misused by Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby: “‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence on the culprit.” The misusage is condemned by language mavens and lampooned by comedians, but nothing has discouraged the incorrect usage. The correct meaning is literally doomed. • Billions of dollars may depend on the authorship of certain e-mails. The New York Times reported on Paul Ceglia’s efforts to prove that e-mails were from Facebook-creator Mark Zuckerberg, thereby perhaps entitling him to a share of the Facebook fortune. How to prove it? By using forensic linguistics to identify the author of the e-mails. Expert opinions are divided: some say that style in e-mails is affected by spell-check and autocorrect functions. Others assert that a writer’s syntax remains relatively stable, effectively creating a characteristic “write-print.” Ceglia’s case could hinge on the spelling of cannot as one word or two. • Charles Duncombe, an Internet entrepreneur, told the BBC News that poor spelling and grammar may cost websites millions in online sales. Scams are frequently characterized by errors, so wary Internet shoppers are suspicious of sites riddled with bad grammar and misspellings. Duncombe measured the revenue-per-visitor on one website before and after an error was corrected, and noted that revenue had doubled. • For the first time in its nine-year history, the International Linguistics Olympiad was held in the United States. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University hosted 100 high-school students on teams from 19 countries. The competitors used their linguistic and analytical skills to solve logic puzzles based on patterns found in writing systems, grammar, and sequences. “It’s fun,” said William Zehang, 17, of Vancouver. “You can, without any previous knowledge of a language, solve a problem.” • The Guardian reported—to the relief of many—that Oxford University Press had been cleared of serial-comma killing. A Twitter user had ranted that the Oxford University website advised: “As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c.” When the diatribe went viral, punctuation lovers reacted: “The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.” A University spokesperson clarified that the quoted rule was only for staff writing press releases and internal communications; in the University of Oxford style guide, the serial comma lives on. • The Daily Telegraph (London) reported that linguists at the British Library have compiled a wordbank of some 4,000 words and phrases from regional British dialects. Their research revealed that some of the terms have appeared in widely read literature. For example, nesh (= a person susceptible to the cold) appears in the works of D.H. Lawrence, Frances Hodgson, and Thomas Hardy. The wordbank should be useful to academics, translators, actors perfecting their roles, and foreign call-center employees who might need to know that gurtlush signifies a Bristolian’s approval. • According to Science Daily, computer scientists studying 18,000 articles by financial commentators discovered that the verbs and nouns correlate closely with changes in the leading stock indexes. When a stock-market bubble is forming, they “converge in a ‘herd-like’ fashion,” then disperse when the bubble appears. Words and phrases such as soared, stocks rose again, and scaled new heights were most common in the lead-up to a crash.


The New Jersey Record reported that researchers at Cornell University have identified key features of faked online reviews. Hotel fakes, for example, use scene-setting language (vacation, business, my husband, etc.), more verbs, and lots of exclamation points, while genuine reviews use concrete words (price, check-in, bathroom, etc.) and more nouns. The researchers have also detected “a correspondence between the linguistic structure of deceptive reviews and fiction writing.” • Old Navy destroyed thousands of “Superfan Nation” T-shirts it had planned to sell to fans of more than 70 universities, the Los Angeles Times reported. The shirts featured the schools’ name and mascot with the apostropheless heading “Lets Go!” Old Navy apologized for the misspelling, but Collegiate Licensing, the company that handled the licensing of the universities’ names and logos, seemed to blame the schools. In an e-mail, they rationalized: “The designs were sent to the participating schools for them to make the ultimate decision and were all approved. There are many designs . . . that are not always grammatically correct. For example, go get ’em, go git ’em, sic ’em, dawgs, etc.” In the end the shirts were pulled from the shelves and reprinted. • India commemorated the 99th birthday of Kannada lexicographer G. Venkatasubbaiah with a 99-photo exhibition, tracing his contributions to Kannada literary culture from his schooldays during the 1920s to the present. His ten dictionaries “played a pivotal role in the standardization of the Kannada script.” • Bloomberg’s Business Week noted the development of Google Trends as an effective tool in gathering intelligence on terrorist personnel and motives. Such “open source” data banks, as well as search engines and social-networking data, have helped researchers collect information about tactics and goals, and they even provided a basis for evaluating the morality of terrorist agents based on their activity on the Internet. The language of terrorism is being catalogued and analyzed. • The Barnstable Patriot reported that the first language of recorded use in Cape Cod is now being spoken there once again. Although the Wampanoag language has suffered much neglect, and unfortunately much of it has been lost to time, through the efforts of Nitana Hicks what’s left is now being preserved. The methods used by 18th-century colonists to stake their claims—such as court documents, wills, deeds, and land transfers—now provide tools for Hicks to use in recovering some of the language. The project literature states: “Recognizing that the colonists preferred written documents, the native people of Cape Cod became the first American Indians in the English-speaking New World to develop and use an alphabetic writing system.” • The New York Times reported on a study published in the journal Science suggesting that hearing may be a larger impairment than previously thought for dyslexics. According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz of the Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale University, the study demonstrated “the centrality of spoken language in dyslexia—that it’s not a problem in meaning, but in getting to the sounds of speech.” The study also provided evidence for the interconnectedness of brain processes involved in reading. Dr. Gabrieli, one of the researchers, notes that current understanding considers voice recognition to be “like recognizing melodies or things that are primarily nonverbal.” Researchers hope these discoveries about dyslexia may help in developing new methods in detection and education.


For the 50th anniversary of the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Geoffrey Nunberg and the New York Times looked back at its much-criticized reception in 1961. It was denounced for its “lax” admissions policy and quotations from sources such as Ethel Merman and Betty Grable. Nunberg recalled that “The Times [charged] that Merriam had ‘surrendered to the permissive school’ and that the dictionary’s ‘say as you go’ approach would surely accelerate the deterioration already apparent in the language.” But few today complain about additions to modern dictionaries. • The Arizona Republic reported that Arizona will stop monitoring English teachers’ ability to use proper grammar and pronunciation. Classroom monitors quoted some teachers as asking, “How do we call it in English?” and pronouncing much as /mush/, levels as /lebels/, the as /da/, and lives here as /leeves here/. The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education had threatened to investigate whether teachers are being removed from classrooms based on their accents rather than their skills. Of course, there is a question whether accent and pronunciation are themselves skills necessary to teaching language (any language) effectively. • September 24 was National Punctuation Day. Veteran print journalist Jeff Rubin started the idea in 2004 out of frustration with the myriad errors in daily newspapers. Victoria Thomas, an English lecturer at Washington University, believes that punctuation is more than just proper grammar. “We’re always looking for signs of who somebody is,” she said. “We take it from their dress and their manners. In many circumstances, good punctuation is simply good manners.” • Misty Adoniou, a language and literacy senior lecturer at the University of Canberra, commented in the Canberra Times (Aus.) that many teachers are afraid of the subject of grammar because they were not taught it properly themselves: “The word grammar resonates with a very archaic, old-fashioned and formal way of teaching, and I think there are a lot of us who feel we missed out on the basics in our own schooling years.” She thought problems began in the 1960s when linguists questioned the need for any grammatical lessons at all. • The Charleston Gazette (W. Va.) reported that an Associated Press–MTV poll of American teens and 20-somethings revealed that young people are insensitive to hurtful language in texts and Internet posts. The majority said they used and weren’t very offended by racial taunts and words like slut, fag, and retard. Many said biased slurs were used to sound “cool” (or koo or coo). Though more than half were aware that their biased electronic messages could have negative consequences, they expressed little or no concern. The poll was part of an MTV campaign, “A Thin Line,” aiming to stop the spread of cyberbullying. • The Canberra Times lamented the declining use of scholarly print dictionaries as poor-quality dictionaries proliferate online. Users unfortunately seem unaware of the difference. Traditional dictionaries encourage wandering in the word-meadow above and below the definition sought, and provide useful cognate forms and synonyms. Typical online dictionaries provide only a short, one-line definition and nothing about shades of meaning. And some, like urbandictionary.com, may offer hundreds of definitions with no scholarly backing for a given word. • The New York Times reported that the Rev. Eugene A. Nida, linguist and Baptist minister, died at his home in Madrid on August 25 at the age of 96. He fostered the Babel of Bibles project, in which he recruited and trained native speakers to translate Scripture into more than 200 languages, including Navajo, Tagalog, and Inuktitut. He demonstrated through this work that his dynamic (later functional) equivalence system of translation, which uses local idiom while maintaining the integrity of meaning enhances comprehension. • Time reported that according to William Labov, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, regional accents are growing stronger and more pronounced. Labov believes political affiliation may play a role in exaggerating class dialects, dividing accent along boundaries of the red and blue states. • Business Insider reported that one company, Lexicon, is behind some of the most recognizable names in the technology industry. In 1998 the company helped Research In Motion executives in coining the name Blackberry for its then-unnamed wireless e-mail device. Other Lexicon successes include naming Apple’s PowerBook and Intel’s Pentium microprocessor. Lexicon has been in the business of names since 1982, when fewer than 10,000 high-tech trademarks existed. Now there are more than 300,000.


Writing in the Boston Globe, Gareth Cook noted how much news Twitter had made in the “Arab spring” uprisings earlier in the year. He pointed out another value of the often-maligned social medium: “Twitter has become an established tool for scientists.” Cook reported on two Cornell sociologists who took data from more than half a trillion time-stamped “tweets” spanning two years, weighed the connotative word-use with linguistic software, and charted time-of-day data against mental attitudes. It turns out that people’s moods start the day rosy, slump at work, then pick up again in the evening. Who’d have known? • Tweets are also a rich field for linguists studying patterns of informal English. The New York Times reported that the study of tweets is termed “twitterology.” Tweets arguably provide much more data than traditional dialect surveys, and since cellphones often encode the sender’s location, linguists can build maps of regional dialects. For instance, northern Californians use hella for emphasis, and New Yorkers prefer suttin to something. Even emoticons vary from region to region. Tweets are suttin hella good for linguists. 🙂 • In the St. Petersburg Times, Sean Daly commented on the use—or overuse—of exclamation points in social media. He described the punctuation mark as “the Botox of Twitter, the fake frozen smile of Facebook, the cheap special effect of e-mail.” Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, called the exclamation point “the thinking man’s emoticon” and said that he “wouldn’t be caught dead putting a smiley face in an e-mail.” 🙁 • The Plain Writing Act that President Obama signed in 2010 went into effect. Federal agencies were required to start writing plainly in all new or substantially revised documents produced for the public. “It is important to emphasize that agencies should communicate with the public in a way that is clear, simple, meaningful, and jargon-free,” said Cass Sunstein, a White House administrator who provided guidance to federal agencies on implementing the law. Some examples: it is requested becomes please, and it is required becomes you must. What to do with Sunstein’s it is important to emphasize that?


As Queen Elizabeth II prepared to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible with a service at Westminster Abbey on November 16, The Daily Telegraph (London) noted that the celebrated version is no longer used regularly at St. Paul’s Cathedral—“only when the Royal Family comes,” the paper’s Peter Mullen was told. Mullen bemoaned its passing: “It is the religious register in English, and its words and phrases have penetrated deeply into English literature.” New translations are tin-eared by comparison, he wrote, citing the New Jerusalem Bible’s rendering of a coat of many colors as a decorated tunic, or through a glass darkly as puzzling reflections in a mirror. • The Associated Press reported the start of a three-year project to create a 20,000-entry Apache-English dictionary with an introductory grammar. The ambitious effort, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, seeks to preserve some of the remaining indigenous languages of North America. The government’s aim in the late 19th century, of course, was to suppress the Apache language through assimilation. The window of opportunity for preserving a record of that language is closing fast: there are now fewer than 150 fluent Apache speakers, according to tribe members. • The Chicago Tribune questioned whether Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s surge in the polls was due to a backlash against bad grammar. One of his opponents, Texas governor Rick Perry, announced that “It ain’t a day for quittin’ nothin’.” And another, Herman Cain, when asked if he was dropping out of the race after sexual-harassment allegations, responded: “ain’t gonna happen.” DePaul professor Bruce Newman was loath to give the public that much credit, saying the reaction against Perry and Cain reflected the candidacies’ nongrammatical problems—mere grammar being the least of their worries. • The New York Times reported that translating English brand names into Chinese is a business itself. Westerners are attracted by the sound of the name. But to Chinese, the meaning has deep significance. Microsoft, for instance, learned that whereas Bing (the name of its Internet browser) is a perfectly good term in English, in Chinese it denotes disease. But Bi ying (roughly “responds without fail”) has cachet. And Coke sells better when it’s marketed as Tasty Fun. Tasty Fun is the real thing; Tasty Fun is it; have a Tasty Fun and a smile. • The Oklahoman reported on November 26 that the language of the Roman Catholic Mass will be changing for the first time in 40 years. The third edition of the Roman Missal was credited by the church as being closer to the Latin original and more consistent with Scripture, as exemplified in the alteration of “one in being with the Father” (from the Nicene Creed) to “consubstantial with the Father.” This word consubstantial—an esoteric throwback to theology developed in the 1300s to incorporate both the divine and human qualities of Christ—may not appear in our day-to-day religious vocabulary, but according to church leaders this spiritual Latinism better conveys Christian beliefs. Sounds like some out-of-touch pedants at work. • The Huffington Post posted a guide to appropriate transgender words. Genderqueer (adj.) is a gender identification that is outside the gender binary of simply male or female (it could be both or neither). Cisgender (adj.) is a gender identification that mirrors or matches the gender a person had had from birth. It is the transgender community’s preferred alternative to terms like biological man or biological woman. Fabdrogyny (n.) is a conscious celebration of an androgynous gender presentation. The Post also cited the correct usage for the terms transgender (an adjective that does not have an -ed at the end) and female-bodied or male-bodied (terms used to refer to transgender people who have not had surgery or used hormones—and often considered offensive). • The Philosopher’s Stone, the first book of the Harry Potter series, has become a modern iteration of the Rosetta Stone, according to the Vancouver Sun. The text has been translated into 70 languages, including Afrikaans, Hindi, ancient Greek, and Latin, and thanks to the efforts of researchers at the University of Calgary, selected readings from each translation will be available online.


With year’s end comes word-of-the-year declarations—more each year, it seems. Dictionary.com got the ball rolling, choosing the fairly obscure verb tergiversate for top honors. The editors said the word means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.” and represents the year’s political and economic environment because “tumult has been the norm rather than the exception.” But the Dictionary.com definition is noticeably inferior to that of other dictionaries (note the awkward placement of the adverb repeatedly)—and it’s misleading. Here’s how the American Heritage Dictionary defines the word: (1) “to use evasions or ambiguities; to equivocate,” or (2) “to change sides; apostatize.” The editors of Oxford English Dictionary chose squeezed middle as its “global word of the year,” a pick Slate panned as “neither global [it’s unfamiliar to Americans], nor a word [it’s a phrase], nor of the year [it was coined in 2010].” Here’s the full OED definition: “the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those on low or middle incomes.” The American Dialect Society crowned occupy, the protest-connotation of which may rival Merriam-Webster’s 2007 pick (wOOt) for longevity. On a broader scale, the Global Language Monitor found occupy, deficit, fracking, and drone to be the four words drawing the most attention. On a narrower scale, the Washington Post reported that the Center for Creative Development of the Russian Language named RosPil its word of the year. Taken from the name of a popular Russian blog, the word is a pun for “sawed” and connotes government graft (“taking a cut”). And the Guardian reported that the French XYZ Festival picked (unofficially, the Academie Française would insist) attachient(e) as the French word of the year. It combines terms meaning “captivating” and “bloody nuisance” to denote someone you can’t live with and can’t live without. C’est la vie. • Oh, #@&%! Swearing can give you short-term pain relief, Keele University reported in the December Journal of Pain. Researchers at the U.K. school found that the relief seems more effective in participants who rarely curse than in those of a saltier bent. This distinction builds on a previous study by one of the authors, Dr. Richard Stephens, who’d found that cursing helps people tolerate exposure to ice-cold water. But people who curse habitually are so desensitized to swearing that they lose the benefit of pain-relief that the surge of adrenaline provides. • The Montreal Gazette reported that a French imposition, or in the view of the Commission Scolaire de Montreal a “new language-management program,” will require students to use French outside the classroom. The article noted that this bold move could possibly have an adverse effect—fueling resentment rather than addressing the specified problem of rising dropout rates. • In an interview for Verizon Thinkfinity Education Speaker Series, Jason Falls, educator and founder of Social Media Explorer, urged teachers to embrace social media in the classroom. Falls said that texting and other social media are not harming students’ writing skills: “Kids have become more efficient with their communications, as opposed to less professional with grammar and punctuation. If they have bad grammar, punctuation and spelling, it has nothing to do with texting; it has to do with their education.” Hence texting needs to become part of education? Hmmm. • Is cursive writing moribund? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The Baltimore Sun reported that 46 states are adopting so-called common-core standards that do not include the teaching of cursive writing. A few states have already mandated continued training in penmanship, and the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported that Indiana’s legislature will soon consider a bill following suit. In Rhode Island, educators (and, heaven help us, legislators) are looking at new teaching methods that may save cursive. The Providence Journal-Bulletin described a new, easier-to-teach method that looks more like a hybrid of print and cursive. • The New York Times reported that linguists, computer scientists, and others are working to create and improve software that will enable computers to recognize cues in human speech that indicate lies. Using loudness, changes in pitch, pauses between words, and dozens of other speech cues, existing software can detect a lie with 70% accuracy; people analyzing the same cues had only 57% accuracy. Other researchers are focusing on clusters of words and phrases that may signal deception, such as the overuse of clearly and very clearly. • The Daily Mail exhorted its readers to contribute to the efforts to save the language of William the Conqueror, a version of Norman French that can still be found today in the Channel Islands for perhaps another generation. Although surviving native dialects of this language are spoken by about 3,000 people on the islands, no speakers are under the age of 30.

Notable Milestones

425 years ago: Publication of the first English-language grammar, William Bullokar’s Pamphlet for Grammar (1586). 300 years ago: Joseph Addison’s call for an English Academy to settle grammar and usage questions for the entire language community—a call that mercifully went unheeded. 160 years ago: Publication of Goold Brown’s Grammar of English Grammars (1851). 105 years ago: Publication of the Fowler brothers’ book The King’s English (1906). 50 years ago: Publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).
* Bryan A. Garner is the author of more than a dozen books about words and their uses, including Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (Oxford, 3d ed. 2011) and Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford, 3d ed. 2009). He is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of the chapter on grammar and usage in the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago, 16th ed. 2010). As president of LawProse, Inc., he has conducted training on legal writing and advocacy for more than 120,000 lawyers, judges, and law students over the last two decades.
Scroll to Top