Category Archives: language and linguistics

A Hidden Gender?

Last fall I gave at talk for Editors Canada in Barrie, Ontario, on grammatical gender and pronouns. I forgot to add it to my blog then, so I’m adding it now! There are many people who have a lot of things to say about grammatical gender and natural gender and use of different pronouns for different people, and many of them are presenting “facts” that are no such thing. So I took the time to set forth the real facts.

Special characters and diacritical marks

I’ve recently done a presentation and a webinar on handling words from other languages in English context. (If you’d like me to present it – or another topic – for your organization, ask about my availability!) For it, I created a handout that’s a handy reference for word people. I’ve decided to make it available for everyone. So here it is!

Special Characters and Diacritical Marks

Yeet citationality: yippie-ki-yay!

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

The voting is in, and the American Dialect Society’s Slang Word of the Year is… yeet.

Yeet is not so well known to oldsters, but it is in vogue among the youth. Its popularity demonstrates a central fact of how vocabulary spreads. It also leads us to Bugs Bunny, Clark Gable, and Judith Butler. Continue reading

Sprucing up Christmas

May dad writes a column for the Cochrane Eagle. He asked me to do a guest column for Christmas, and I was happy to. Here it is (you can also see it on coffeewithwarren.com).

christmas_tree_500

When I was a teenager, we lived in a big house at the foot of Mount Yamnuska. Every December, we would go out into our big back lot and find a suitable spruce tree. We would cut it and drag it across the snow and into the house, and it would spruce up our living room as we spruced it up with ornaments, garlands and those little tinsel strips the cats always ate. Continue reading

Watch out for the theta roles!

Never mind passive voice — it’s all about your cast list

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Listen to the audio version of this article on Patreon.com

We have all been taught to be leery of the passive voice – sorry, make that we have all learned to be leery of the passive voice – because passive voice focuses on the recipient of the action rather than the actor. But we often get it wrong – for example, when a news story or headline is criticized for using the “passive,” odds are high that it’s actually written in the active voice; it’s just evasive in some other way.

Consider a few real-world examples of active voice misidentified as passive. When Janet Jackson had her famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, one writer tut-tutted another for using the passive by writing A snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore. But although that sentence doesn’t name Justin Timberlake, it isn’t passive voice either – to be passive, the sentence would need to say a snap was unfastened. Other typical examples of misidentified passives include An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred and Boy dies as troops fire on demonstration. In spite of writers inveighing against other writers for using “the passive,” these sentences have no is or was and no past participle – to be passive, they would have to be written as The firearm was accidentally discharged and Boy is killed as troops fire on demonstration.

So how did we get so far off base in telling the passive voice from the active voice? The answer is that we’re not off base at all; we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not really the passive we should be looking out for. It’s the theta roles.  Continue reading

Eye rhymes and iRhymes

(or: Can you rhyme emoji?)

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

An eye rhyme is when two words that only look like they rhyme are used for a rhyme. This was an early annoyance from my childhood, when elementary poems rhymed good with food. Another famous one is from Shakespeare:

If this be error and upon me prov’d
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Both of those examples may be excused by having been real rhymes at one time (indeed, for the Bard, the o’s in both prov’d and lov’d were like the oo ingood). Other eye rhymes have always been for your eyes only: come and home, for instance, which have never rhymed, or the name Sean Bean.

But if we can get away (at least occasionally) with rhyming things by appearance, then rhyme can be visual. In which case visual things can rhyme. Such as emoji. Continue reading

Let’s do the time Whorf again

Every so often, someone in a field such as economics comes up with something that seems to suggest that the language we use can affect how we think and even how we act. I’m not talking about obvious things (such as “How do you get 50 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, ‘Everyone please get out of the pool.’”). I mean what if, for instance, our grammar affected how we save for the future? What if our perception of time is conditioned by our language?

And all the linguists roll their eyes and say, “Whorf.” They’ve been down this road before. They reach for the mute button.

But what if both sides are overreacting a bit?

Read my latest article for the BBC:

Can language slow down time?