Verbs, nouns, grammar

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch Constance Hale I wanted really to understand the relationship between nouns and verbs. Another question that I had: Why do linguists look so scathingly at grammarians? And why do grammarians look so scathingly at the history of English? Why is there a divide? And why is there such passion on each … Continue reading


In 1872 two men began work on a lexicon of words of Asian origin used by the British in India. Since its publication the 1,000-page dictionary has never been out of print and a new edition is due out next year. What accounts for its enduring appeal? Mukti Jain Campion Flora: “While having tiffin on … Continue reading

Everything Was a Problem and We Did Not Understand a Thing

Why can everyone learn Portuguese? Are some aspects of our nature unknowable? Can you imagine Richard Nixon as a radical? Is Twitter a trivializer? New Scientist takes a whistle-stop tour of our modern intellectual landscape in the company of Noam Chomsky. Graham Lawton Let’s start with the idea that everyone connects you with from the … Continue reading

The Birth and Death of Words?

CHRISTOPHER SHEA Can physicists produce insights about language that have eluded linguists and English professors? That possibility was put to the test this week when a team of physicists published a paper drawing on Google’s massive collection of scanned books. They claim to have identified universal laws governing the birth, life course and death of … Continue reading

Angry Words

Will one researcher’s discovery deep in the Amazon destroy the foundation of modern linguistics? By Tom Bartlett A Christian missionary sets out to convert a remote Amazonian tribe. He lives with them for years in primitive conditions, learns their extremely difficult language, risks his life battling malaria, giant anacondas, and sometimes the tribe itself. In … Continue reading

Word for Word

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Peter Mark Roget I can see my own copy up on a high shelf. I rarely open it, because I know there is no such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous around people who always assemble with their own kind, forming clubs and nailing signs to … Continue reading

How to have a conversation

It’s a dying art, struck down by text, email and messaging. So can we be taught how to talk to each other? John McDermott Perhaps it was the opium talking, but Thomas de Quincey once wrote that an evening in the company of Samuel Coleridge was “like some great river”. The poet “swept at once … Continue reading

The QWERTY Effect

How Typing May Shape the Meaning of Words Dave Mosher A keyboard’s arrangement could have a small but significant impact on how we perceive the meaning of words we type. Specifically, the QWERTY keyboard may gradually attach more positive meanings to words with more letters located on the right side of the layout (everything to … Continue reading


Once a mark of the cultured, language-learning is in retreat among English speakers. It’s never too late, but where to start? Robert Lane Greene launches our latest Big Question …   From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012 For language lovers, the facts are grim: Anglophones simply aren’t learning them any more. In Britain, despite four … Continue reading

Literally figuratively

All patriotic Americans ought to stand up and say enough is enough. We need a law to put a stop to this literally-abuse. A. Barton Hinkle … Literally? Yikes. The last time a Cat-5 hurricane made landfall in the United States was seven years ago, when Katrina slammed into New Orleans. Tuesday’s primary was eventful, … Continue reading

Do thoughts have a language of their own?

What is the relationship between language and thought? The quest to create artificial intelligence may have come up with some unexpected answers Robert Kowalski THE idea of machines that think and act as intelligently as humans can generate strong emotions. This may explain why one of the most important accomplishments in the field of artificial … Continue reading

Why Are Informers Called Rats?

And why are spies called moles? Forrest Wickman New York City police officers called attendees of the Brooklyn’s West Indian Day   Parade “savages” and “animals” in a series of Facebook posts full of complaints about being assigned to the event. Some members of the online group warned others to watch their words, which could get … Continue reading

Since When Can You Say Vagina on TV?

Cindy Y. Hong Photo of Whitney star Whitney Cummings by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images As Slate’s June Thomas recently pointed out on Brow Beat, there’s been an uptick in the number of vagina jokes on television this season. You can now catch Kat Dennings complaining about her customers’ attitudes toward her vagina, or Whitney Cummings … Continue reading

You talking to me?

A trainspotter’s guide to political speeches, great and terrible Sam Leith Aristotle identified the elements of a good speech Aristotle said there were three appeals that rhetoric could make: ethos, pathos and logos. These are, roughly: establishing the credibility of the speaker; stirring the audience’s emotions; and appealing to logic and reason. Any speech blends … Continue reading

Become A Noun For Posterity’s sake

Adam Cole and Robert Krulwich Adam: When I say "Henry Shrapnel, Jules Leotard, Robert Bunsen," you think — what? Me: That they’re inventors? Adam: No. Better than that. Each one has become immortal. They’re nouns! Me: Is that a good thing, becoming a noun? … Adam: Are you kidding? It’s a wonderful thing. A thing … Continue reading


Once it had to do with awe. Now it just means "great". How did "awesome" conquer the world? Robert Lane Greene explains (and reminisces) … In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was awesome. If this sounds like an irreverent approach to the famous first lines of … Continue reading

Fathers responsible for mother tongues

YOUR mother tongue may come from your father. The language of some cultures correlates with a prehistoric influx of foreign males. This is still reflected in the genetics of people today. Written records are powerless to tell us about the evolution of language before writing was invented. Instead, Peter Forster and Colin Renfrew of the … Continue reading


SIMON GARFIELD Of all the truly calamitous afflictions of the modern world, typomania is one of the most alarming and least understood. It was first diagnosed by the German designer Erik Spiekermann as a condition peculiar to the font-obsessed, and it has one common symptom: an inability to walk past a sign (or pick up … Continue reading

The secret life of pronouns

The smallest words in our vocabulary often reveal the most about us, including our levels of honesty and thinking style James W. Pennebaker STOP for a moment and think about your most recent conversation, email, tweet or text message. Perhaps you think you said something about dinner plans, domestic chores or work. And you probably … Continue reading

When words die

Robert Fulford When Slate magazine recently dropped “FWIW” in the middle of an article, as if those four letters were just another common word we should all know, I felt at once the need for immediate dictionary assistance. Obviously, FWIW was an acronym of the kind that’s created online, as much for fun as for … Continue reading

Doubling in the Middle

Barry Duncan Is Quite Possibly the World’s First Master Palindromist, and He Refuses to Cede Control to the Alphabet Gregory Kornbluh In March 2010, Barry Duncan, master palindromist, was locked in an epic struggle with the alphabet. He was totally absorbed in the completion of a commissioned piece. “It’s draining me of every bit of … Continue reading

Localizing Language in the Brain

Study Pinpoints Areas of the Brain Used Exclusively for Language New research from MIT suggests that there are parts of our brain dedicated to language and only language, a finding that marks a major advance in the search for brain regions specialized for sophisticated mental functions. Functional specificity, as it’s known to cognitive scientists, refers … Continue reading

Bilingual Babies’ Vocabulary Linked to Early Brain Differentiation

Babies and children are whizzes at learning a second language, but that ability begins to fade as early as their first birthdays. Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences are investigating the brain mechanisms that contribute to infants’ prowess at learning languages, with the hope that the findings could boost … Continue reading

Are There Hidden Messages in Pronouns?

James Pennebaker says computers reveal secret patterns. Juliet Lapidos James Pennebaker Some 110 years after the publication of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which Sigmund Freud analyzed seemingly trivial slips of the tongue, it’s become common knowledge that we disclose more about ourselves in conversation—about our true feelings, or our unconscious feelings—than we strictly … Continue reading


John Sutherland Academics like me are skilled users of Never heard of it? Ask the nearest undergraduate and watch their cheek blanch. Turnitin is the trade’s leading ‘plagiarism detector’. You upload the student’s essay or dissertation and it’s checked against trillions of words and phrases in seconds. Irritatingly, however, Turnitin turns in a lot … Continue reading

The Jargon of the Novel, Computed

Graphic by Joon Mo Kang; source: Corpus of Contemporary American English, 425 million words, 1990-2011; data set measures all forms of the word “bolt.” By BEN ZIMMER We like to think that modern fiction, particularly American fiction, is free from the artificial stylistic pretensions of the past. Richard Bridgman expressed a common view in his … Continue reading

Space Invaders

Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. Farhad Manjoo Typographers… The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out … Continue reading

What’s a Metaphor For?

By Carlin Romano Writing about metaphor is dancing with your conceptual clothes off, the innards of your language exposed by equipment more powerful than anything operated by the TSA. Still, one would be a rabbit not to do it in a world where metaphor is now top dog, at least among revived rhetorical devices with … Continue reading

11 Secret Meanings Behind Punctuation in Text Messages

Technology keeps people connected in fantastic new ways but also introduces troublesome gray areas when it comes to communication. In his first book, 11 Points Guide to Hooking Up, comedy writer Sam Greenspan offers tips for handling dating sites, Facebook Walls and other potentially dating pitfalls of the modern world. To get a taste of … Continue reading

Refutations from a Stalinist Commissar-Lookalike

May 24, 2011 This response to a response to a response to a response takes George Scialabba and Noam Chomsky to task for seemingly hasty analogies and false accusations. By Christopher Hitchens Photo by Jutta Degener George Scialabba confidently and effectively re-states the differences between Noam Chomsky and myself as they stood almost ten years … Continue reading

Hitchens Distorts Noam Chomsky

May 11, 2011 George Scialabba on how “panting polemicist” Christopher Hitchens’s remarks against Noam Chomsky are evidence of a widespread and troubling failure among intellectuals. By George Scialabba After 9/11, Noam Chomsky wrote that, from a historical point of view, what was new about the murder of 3000 civilians was that it was carried out … Continue reading

The Case Against the Em Dash

Modern prose doesn’t need any more interruptions—seriously. By Noreen Malone Emily DickinsonAccording to the Associated Press Stylebook—Slate‘s bible for all things punctuation- and grammar-related—there are two main prose uses—the abrupt change and the series within a phrase—for the em dash. The guide does not explicitly say that writers can use the dash in lieu of … Continue reading

Artificial Grammar Reveals Inborn Language Sense

Parents know the unparalleled joy and wonder of hearing a beloved child’s first words turn quickly into whole sentences and then babbling paragraphs. But how human children acquire language-which is so complex and has so many variations-remains largely a mystery. Fifty years ago, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky proposed an answer: Humans are able to … Continue reading

The Rise of "Logical Punctuation".

The period outside the quotation marks is not a copy error. By Ben Yagoda Conan O’Brien is a follower of logical punctuation For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks. This rule still holds for professionally edited prose: what you’ll … Continue reading

The Mighty Pen

Simon Blackburn WE HUMANS CAN APPRECIATE many things. It is one of our most attractive qualities. How could Rodolfo not fall in love with Mimi as she sings her own rapture at the first sunshine after winter, the first kiss of April? In this small feast of a book Stanley Fish displays his love of … Continue reading

Language universality idea tested with biology method

A long-standing idea that human languages share universal features that are dictated by human brain structure has been cast into doubt. By Jason Palmer Science and technology reporter, BBC News The study challenges the idea that the "language centres" of our brains are the sole driver of language A study reported in Nature has borrowed … Continue reading

Last Two Speakers Of Language Refuse To Speak To Each Other

Jonathan Chait Not from the Onion: The language of Ayapaneco has been spoken in the land now known as Mexico for centuries. It has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods. But now, like so many other indigenous languages, it’s at risk of extinction. There are just two people left who … Continue reading

Dear Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary

Time to get your shittle together. By Paul Collins Dear Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, In my more hopeful moments, I like to think that drunken frat brothers everywhere are quoting Beat poetry to each other. It would be a fine vindication of our educational system. And it seems to be the implication of … Continue reading

Africa the Birthplace of Human Language, Analysis Suggests

Psychologists from The University of Auckland have just published two major studies on the diversity of the world’s languages in the journals Science and Nature. The first study, published in Science by Dr Quentin Atkinson, provides strong evidence for Africa as the birthplace of human language. An analysis of languages from around the world suggests … Continue reading

Weak Evidence for Word-Order Universals: Language Not as ‘Innate’ as Thought?

About 6,000 languages are spoken today worldwide. How this wealth of expression developed, however, largely remains a mystery. A group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has now found that word-orders in languages from different language families evolve differently. The finding contradicts the common understanding that word-order develops … Continue reading

Evolutionary analysis shows languages obey few ordering rules

By John Timmer Human languages are far more complex than any animal communication system we’re aware of, and yet young children can easily learn to master more than one language in an astonishingly short period of time. This has led a number of linguists, most notably Noam Chomsky, to suggest that there might be language … Continue reading

The "Nonplussed" Problem

How long should we cling to a word’s original meaning? By Ben Yagoda Do disinterested and uninterested have different meanings to you?Suppose a friend said to you, "I know you’re disinterested, so I want to ask you a question presently." Then he didn’t say anything. Would you be momentarily nonplussed? Quite likely, yes. The above … Continue reading

“OMG! LOL! Dictionaries Are Funny!”

by Ian Crouch Dictionaries are savvy players in the Web publicity game. Here’s the model: alert the world to recently added words, and then stand back and watch as we write headlines like the one above. Last week, the Oxford English Dictionary announced its latest update, which along with the initialisms “LOL” and “OMG,” included … Continue reading

"LOL" out loud is official now

By Nate Anderson The venerable Oxford English Dictionary has long been the definitive reference work on the English language. This week, it lent the majesty of its name to “LOL" (laughing out loud), a shiny new entry which will now join OMG, IMHO, TMI, BFF, and other linguistic "initialisms" in the dictionary. And why not? … Continue reading

Ruby for Kids Helps Teach Programming

By Chuck Lawton I’ve long been interested in ways to help teach kids programming. Especially my kids, though they’re still young. I got interested in computers when my dad wrote a “guess the number” game for me which included my name on the screen. Suddenly I understood that these fancy beige boxes could do things … Continue reading

The Stutterer

How he makes his voice heard. By Nathan Heller Behind bold facades lie a thousand small humiliations. Abraham Lincoln grew so depressive that he couldn’t, for a while, be trusted near sharp objects. Ella Fitzgerald started her singing career after being too ashamed to dance publicly. Susan Sontag came upon an issue of Partisan Review … Continue reading

Do casual words betray terrorists’ murderous intent?

Peter Aldhous, San Francisco bureau chief What do George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden have in common? Both may have unwittingly revealed their decisions to launch violent actions through subtle shifts in their use of language. "It doesn’t matter which team you’re on," James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, … Continue reading

The decline and fall of American English, and stuff

What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness 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?,’ … Continue reading

More Than Words

By Chelsea Wald  February 11, 2011 "It’s getting to be impossible to do work in bioinformatics without knowledge of biomedical ontology." — Mark Musen Most biomedical research laboratories make up their own private language to describe their particular techniques, materials, and measurements. Even medical practitioners have more than a hundred ways to describe a simple … Continue reading

Math Skills Rely on Language, Not Just Logic

By Lisa Grossman Knowing a language that uses counting words can shape one’s ability to understand large numbers. A new study of deaf people who have made up their own hand signals to communicate shows that without number words, it’s hard to keep track of more than three objects at a time. “Learning language really … Continue reading