Are we “citizens” or “taxpayers”?

In a recent discussion with Hilton Als at the New Yorker festival, Toni Morrison offered a lot of insightful commentary on topics about race, gender, writing, and other issues. I read about it in this Guardian article, and I found one of her observations particularly interesting. Morrison states:

The complexity of the so-called individual that’s been praised for decades in America somehow has narrowed itself to the ‘me’. When I was a young girl we were called citizens – American citizens. We were second-class citizens, but that was the word. In the 50s and 60s they started calling us consumers. So we did – consume. Now they don’t use those words any more – it’s the American taxpayer and those are different attitudes.

Morrison picks up on an interesting variation between words that could largely stand for the same thing: people who have a vested interest in the United States. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and politics

Trump fans aren’t spelling bee champions, but why do we care?

Grammarly is the worst. Seriously, it is. I don’t mean their silly little grammar and spelling checker thing. I’m sure that’s a perfectly adequate proofreading tool, doing its best to reinforce people’s deep-seated insecurities about writing every time they touch a keyboard. I mean the company itself is the worst. Especially the people involved with its ever-illuminating data analyses / desperate attempts at reminding people that their app exists.

Every so often, Grammarly puts out an amateurish research / marketing stunt hybrid, in which they explore the distribution of spelling and grammar mistakes across different sectors of society. For example, here they looked at which NFL team’s fans made the most spelling and grammar mistakes in internet comments. Important stuff.

Today, I came across Grammarly’s most recent contribution to the science of getting internet attention: ranking presidential candidates according to the number of spelling and grammar mistakes in their supporters’ Facebook comments. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and education, Language and politics, Language and social class, Prescriptivism and language prejudice

Why aren’t there more academics writing for popular publications?

Every so often someone comes up with the oh-so-original idea that academics should be more engaged with the public and tries to drench the internet in that lovely sentiment. Most recently, it was an article in the Guardian titled, and I’m not making this up, “Academics: leave your ivory towers and pitch your work to the media”. Most of these articles have a similar message: if we stuffy academics would, for just a moment, give up our polysyllabic technical terms and our three hundred page monographs for the snappy, ‘plain English’ style of the popular press, everyone would win. We (the academics) would get the credit and attention we deserve for our work. The public would get more sophisticated, cutting-edge work to read. Media outlets would have quality content to share with the world. Win. Win. Win. Right? Well… sort of. Read more ›

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Posted in Academia

Click here if you’d like your latent racist beliefs “proved” by “science”

Yesterday, I had the misfortune of reading a blog post presenting an analysis of popular music lyrics using language related metrics. Earlier today, I was cringing as the post and the Complex article about it popped up repeatedly as friends and acquaintances shared these links over social media. Then, I realized I’m a linguist with a blog, and I was suddenly reliving the same fantasies about media integrity, civic duty, and raising the bar of public discourse that I have when I watch The Newsroom. So allow me to tell you why I think this particular analysis is both methodologically sloppy and ideologically gross. Read more ›

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Posted in Language and race, Technology and language

Anti-gay politics and the word homosexual

Throughout my life, I’ve heard words referring to gay people tossed around as casual insults, often used as weapons against people who are not themselves gays or lesbians (see, for example, the use of “no homo“). It’s behavior like this that can make it difficult to know which words we should call each other.

Interestingly, while terms like faggot are pretty obviously hurtful, people may have considerably different perceptions of terms like homosexual. Jeremy Peters writes “To most ears, it probably sounds inoffensive. A little outdated and clinical, perhaps, but innocuous enough: homosexual”. Yet as Peters notes, some gays and lesbians find the term offensive. In fact, in 2006, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) listed it as an offensive term.

Read more ›

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Posted in Ideology and social change, Language and politics

Covering Baltimore: Protest or riot?


The death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man, while in police custody on April 19 sent residents of Baltimore, Maryland into the streets. Many have been actively calling for justice to be carried out, for the police officers responsible to be held accountable, and for wider reforms in the criminal justice system. On Monday, some turned to violence and property destruction, clashing with police, setting fires, and looting.

What are those of us who aren’t in Baltimore seeing and hearing from these events? Read more ›

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Posted in Language and race, Media discourse and media bias

“The most used words in men’s vs. women’s basketball coverage” up at Mental Floss

March Madness has begun. If you’re like me, and you want to think about the language behind it all, and what it says about society, Mental Floss has got you covered. They’ve been kind enough to publish a piece by me on the topic. Read more ›

Posted in Language and gender

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