When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things. … ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
(Sign on restaurant in Jaffrey, NH)
Former copy editor John Richards has decided to surrender in his 20-year quest to promote correct (i.e., prescribed/codified) apostrophe usage.
Richards and like-minded crusaders are enraged by (i) use of the apostrophe in plurals and (ii) in possessive it’s (which I’ve seen many times on signs and websites and in print) and (iii) omission in other possessives where it does belong (Barclays).
This is a message that the p.c. crowd — in the media, in the universities – needs to hear again and again, because they don’t get it, especially when a Presidential candidate (Warren) announces “her” pronouns on the debate stage, and a teacher is fired for not using the student’s preferred pronouns. It is not enough, the argument goes, to have pronouns of two genders, when there are so many other genders. We need more pronouns!
The attitudes and prejudices of speakers towards various languages and dialects is important “peri-linguistic” data. They may influence the development and differentiation of language itself. Or they may not — just voices in the wind.
Gripes of a pseudo-expert
Thus, when a major, even venerable magazine, Harper’s, publishes an essay “Semantic Drift” by Lionel Shriver, it deserves critical attention. I have seen many such pieces before — a pseudo-expert bitching about linguistic developments he doesn’t like.
Spare me the sight / of this thankless breed, these politicians / who cringe for favors from a screaming mob / and do not care what harm they do their friends / providing they can please a crowd!
Euripides, Hecuba (c. 425 BCE)
This post introduces my Blahblahblah Award, bestowed upon the politician using the most devious and manipulative language since…well, since the previous award. The grinding Presidential race will continue for many months, so there should be plenty of material.
Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
I admire John McWhorter so much for the breadth of his accomplishments, his accessibility to the media, his eloquent lectures.
I recently saw a video clip in which he pegged Trump’s speech as characteristic of primitive humans just getting their “language chops” together.
The truth is what most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.
Paul Josef Goebbels
Here is the text of a letter I sent to the Manchester NH Union-Leader (published 6/21/19):
March 19, 2019
Let me add my voice to the chorus of people outraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of immigrant confinement to concentration camps. This is worse than obscene and ignorant. It is an utterly irresponsible use of language. As a linguist, I am appalled by the deceptive reducing of two vastly different entities to a single point of comparison — confinement.
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach.
I just read an article on “who’s got the sexiest accent?’, and when I Googled the article, I discovered that “sexiest accent” generates over four million hits.
As Trump said about health care, who knew there were so many surveys?
The ones I skimmed through seemed mostly intended as tourism boosters, at least for the places with accents people like.
I didn’t see a survey conducted by any linguistics scholar I ever heard of. In the latest survey, from Big Seven Travel (Katey Psencik, The Columbus Dispatch), there are 50 accents — just like we have 50 states! Some of the accents are associated with cities, so presumably not every State was represented.
“…style is intrinsic and private, like…voice or gesture, partly a matter of inheritance, partly of cultivation. It is more than a pattern of expression. It is the pattern of the soul.”
Think of language as haberdashery: you have a closet full of clothes for every occasion. Your clothing choice expresses yourself in a particular context, for a particular audience. In the same way, barely aware of it (or not aware at all), you change your speech to what you think (though there are no conscious thinking processes) will be effective for a particular situation and audience.
Don’t forget why God made your eyes — plagiarize!
Tom Lehrer, “Lobachevsky”
I’m involved in a fair number of plagiarism cases. In non-fiction allegations, I typically represent a student who has omitted quotation marks, possibly because he/she was lifting what appeared to be basic background information. There are very few ways of saying some things with the appropriate degree of precision (especially in legal and scientific writing).
Definitions of “politician”:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.
(One who) divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies. That means he knows only one class: enemies.
[Someone] who identifies the sound of his own voice with the infallible voice of the public.
Joseph K. Howard
A set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people and who…are, taken as a mass, at least one step removed from honest men.
1. You have the right to remain silent.
2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
3. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while you are being questioned.
4. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish one.
(After the warning and in order to secure a waiver, the following questions should be asked and an affirmative reply secured to each question.)
1. Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you?
2. Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to me now?
Forensic linguistics – what’s that?
At various places on this site, you’ll find somewhat abstract descriptions of the services I offer. But what kinds of cases do I actually get involved in? Examples follow (current cases excluded).
In three of my specialties, I’m about equally divided between Plaintiff and Defendant. In cases of alleged academic plagiarism, I represent the Defendant, who typically has not committed plagiarism, even by the university’s own rules. In cases of literary plagiarism, I represent Plaintiffs who believe that their work has been copied.
The tongue of man is a twisty thing
There are plenty of words there
Of every kind
The range of words is wide
And their variance
— Homer, Iliad
If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
I’ve spent a lifetime learning about language. As I pay attention, I continue to learn. Here’s a true story about something I recently learned about language. I call it “It’s the grammar, stupid.”
Dr. Phil hunts online love-scammers
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.”
A prophet of political correctness
One of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, died recently, leaving a magnificent body of work. Unlike other personal faves, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who composed mostly in the key of J (for “Jewish”; Malamud’s The Natural is an exception), Roth’s versatility was truly impressive.
Our society is divided by many conflicting forces, but two of them are in our face almost all the time, roiling America like the whirling blades of the old MixMaster – and causing just as much confusion.
Both are related to the field in which I was trained – linguistics. Both center on language – not surprising, since language is a multi-purpose tool without which we would not be human.
I think of them as two mega-issues, each with a constellation of sub- and intersecting issues.
1. Hate speech and fighting words
Draft ABC press release — full-page ads in all print media; also release to all online news outlets (alternate universe):
New York, NY – June 1, 2018.
To all our advertisers, our staff, our viewers, and all the citizens of our great and FREE country….
We at ABC have experienced a firestorm of criticism for the on-line behavior of Roseanne Barr. To those who are apoplectic with politically-correct rage, we say: calm down.
We will not fire Roseanne or cancel her show over her behavior outside the workplace.
As offensive as her tweet was, it was just words. I repeat: just words.
To introduce the next post, here’s my response to a New Yorker piece on forensic linguistics. The article is in the print version and at
As a practicing forensic linguist, I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the profession – but with mixed feelings.
It was gratifying to see forensic linguistics, which is not as sexy or yucky as rape kits and maggots but provides valuable information and deserves its own CSI segment, getting long-deserved respect.
Can people deliberately fake their writing style?
By way of background…
Perhaps 25% of the cases I handle involve the authorship of anonymous, disputed, or forged documents. The client wants to know who’s writing those nasty, threatening emails or letters. I typically ask the client for writing samples from the suspected author. Sometimes there’s more than one suspect, and I have to decide which of them may be the author of the anonymous document(s).