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    1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

    Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (...

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  • 05/20/15--21:01: The End of Irony. Or Not.
  • MAIN_Letterman

    David Letterman played it straight after 9/11: “New York is the greatest city in the world.”

    “What’s all this irony and pity?”
    “What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
    “No. Who got it up?”
    “Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
    –Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

    To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The key text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions...

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  • 06/01/15--21:01: Take My Metadata
  • RANDPAUL-2We are all going to have to get used to the word metadata. Explaining what it means in simple terms is quite tricky, for it is a genuinely abstract concept. (And let me warn the purists up front that in this post I am going to be treating data not as the plural of the Latin word datum, but as an English singular noncount noun like air, fun, furniture, information, or water: I will say the data is stored, not the data are stored.)

    As a preliminary shot, one could say that in any domain where data...

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    0dd3b-bloglovinMy husband teases me for skipping past much of the bulk of newspaper editorials to get to the comments. He’s a social scientist, interested in government policies and the social order; I’m a fiction writer, interested in how personalities respond to rhetorical maneuvers. It hasn’t been lost on me that the majority of highly rated comments in newspapers like The New York Times come from a handful of commenters, who seem to make a full-time job out of logging on to major journals and Internet sour...

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    productimage-picture-lucky-jim-272Preparing for my vacation next week, I posted a query on Facebook, which read in part: “Looking for suggestions for a couple of novels to really get into on vacation. Am not looking for tales of emotional distress, pain, suffering, etc. I can get that at home.”

    I got a lot of recommendations, one of which included a plot summary that began, “Malaya, 1951. Yunking Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the …” Yo, what part of “emotional distress” don’...

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  • 07/14/15--21:01: Existential Questions
  • General_Joseph_F._Dunford

    Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. of the U.S. Marine Corps

    Testifying before a Senate Committee last week, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., President Obama’s nominee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia.”

    If you have had your face buried in philosophy books the last 30 or so years, the phrasing might have seemed odd — “existential threat” more likely calling to mind Kierkegaard or ...

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  • 07/21/15--21:01: The Fringe Is Coming to Town
  • castleI love this time of year in Edinburgh. The weather, of course, remains its usual disgraceful self: high winds with on-and-off rain the past few days. The gap between the David Hume Tower and the business school still funnels the wind into gusts that can lift small-framed people off their feet. In May this year we had hailstorms. But you don’t come to Edinburgh for equable weather. When I moved here from California, I vowed never to waste my time grumbling about the cold and the dark.

    No, what I ...

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  • 07/30/15--21:01: ‘Academic Interest’
  • Sunaura Taylor

    Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler go for a walk.

    In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award, speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

    A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probab...

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    The catcher and sage Yogi Berra was allegedly once asked if the name of the bottled chocolate beverage he endorsed was hyphenated. “No ma’am,” he is said to have replied. “It’s not even carbonated.”

    Yogi was wrong on the first point, as you can see from this image.


    But his confusion is understandable, so thorny can the subject of hyphens be. Even the Yoo-hoo folks appear to be hedging their bets, judging from the tininess of the hyphen on the label.

    Hyphens are on my mind because a physician fr...

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  • 08/04/15--21:01: On @Tejucole and #Prompts
  • T.Cole_01

    Teju Cole
    Photo credit: Retha Ferguson

    The use of the word prompt to mean incitement or cue has probably been around for 500 years or so, but its use in a narrower sense, as an instruction or directions for a writing assignment in class, is new to me. I swear I hadn’t even heard it until maybe a couple of years ago. “Professor, what is the prompt for next week?”

    “Did you check the syllabus? Take this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, “Waiting for Icarus,” and rewrite it as if you were a reporter filing a ...

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  • 08/06/15--21:01: Diagramming Trump
  • According to “steveknows,” commenting on the Slate article “Help Us Diagram This Sentence by Donald Trump!” I have been punked. I don’t care. Gertrude Stein said there was nothing more exciting than diagramming sentences, and she wasn’t all that far from the truth. As with the claim that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is the longest sentence in the English language, calling Donald Trump’s explosion of language a sentence stretches the meaning of the word sentence. Verbal speech contains no punctuation,...

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  • 08/13/15--21:01: The Gray Lady Gets Jiggy
  • Jon Stewart

    Jon Stewart: “If you smell something, say something”

    August 8 was a momentous day, at least in my geeky world. That was because The New York Times decided “bullshit” was Fit To Print. Twice before in its 164-year history (in 1977 and 2007), the paper quoted someone as saying the word, and it has appeared on the paper’s website, but its first straight-up print appearance, with no quotation marks, was in this sentence from Neil Genzlinger’s article about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast: “He delivere...

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    Jo Brand delivered Geoff Pullum’s No. 4

    August is gone, and with it the Edinburgh Festival and its fabulous Fringe. The grand orchestral concert with fireworks over the castle was on Monday night, the climax of a perfect summer day. All the most ambitious comedians in the country are now checking out of their rented accommodation and heading for the train station or the airport. And I have promises to keep.

    At the end of my July 22 post I made a pledge: “In September I will let you know about th...

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  • 09/10/15--21:01: Love Game
  • Serena WilliamsOnce a year, Flushing Meadows in New York turns into a 22-ring circus of tennis, and people start asking me, as a lifelong tennis player, what all those words mean. I wasn’t going to write about tennis lingo in this blog, but a new acronym in the sport put me over the edge. So here goes.

    The name of the sport itself seems to have come from the French tenez, or “take,” which is purportedly what the server used to shout before firing the ball cross-court to begin the point. The game we play th...

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    coastersLast week I promised to explain why I was recently browsing in a little German grammar book I have owned since 1963.

    Here’s the straight truth. I have been invited to lecture on data and theory next March at a conference sponsored by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, Germany. And I’m ashamed. Not because I’ll be lecturing in English — that’s the norm for international academic conferences, so no shame there. And yet I have something to expiate.

    My German is barely a smattering...

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    Slightly more than four years and a thousand posts ago, at the behest of the editor Heidi Landecker at The Chronicle of Higher Education, this Lingua Franca blog came into being. Since that time, day after day, our motley crew has mused, elucidated, queried, uncovered, advertised, challenged, and pontificated about language, more or less as Heidi and Liz McMillen, The Chronicle’s editor,  had envisioned. And you, dear readers, have responded with everything from dissertations of your own to com...

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  • 10/07/15--18:30: German for Beginners
  • Refugees arrive in Germany

    Refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, arrive in Bavaria. (Photo by Falk Heller/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

    MUNICH — Spende, reads the sign leaning against a tent outside Munich’s main train station. Donations. Items needed for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been pouring into Germany in recent months. Germany, the final destination — the refugees hope — of long, arduous, often heartbreaking journeys from Afghanistan, Somalia and, in greatest numbers, Syria.

    Bottled water
    Baby formul...

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  • 10/22/15--18:36: Snapping Fingers
  • I have recently encountered an endearing trend among high-school and college students, informally as well as in classrooms and in larger gatherings: collective finger-snapping. Once, in the middle of a lecture I delivered at the University of Oxford, someone began expressing approval by snapping her fingers, and within seconds the entire hall followed her. The same thing has happened in class discussions about varieties of love and ways of expressing them. At first the sound was distracting, but...

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  • 11/10/15--18:30: American Stars and Hearts
  • (Image from

    (image from

    If Twitter users want to respond to a tweet, they have three options: reply to it, retweet it, or mark it with a symbol of approval. Over the past couple of weeks, Twitter has begun changing that symbol from a star to a heart, and the word the symbol represents from “Favorite” to “Like.”

    On its blog, the company gave an explanation for the momentous shift:

    We want to make Twitter easier and more rewarding to use, and we know that at times the star could be confusing, es...

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  • 11/15/15--15:04: A Postcard From Bilbao
  • 800px-Guggenheim_Bilbao_06_2012_Panorama_2680

    Guggenheim Musem Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman in foreground. [[Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Wikimedia Commons]]

    Bilbao, Spain

    People whose experience of Spain goes back many decades tell me that Bilbao was once a nondescript little steel town on a polluted river, best driven past and avoided on your way to somewhere nicer. But today, as I stroll along the riverfront walk overlooked by the grandeur of the University of Deusto, and watch cormorants dive into the Nervio...

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