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A couple of pieces of language news have come through the pipes lately. I only have a little bit to say about each of them, so I figured, why not combine them? (The answer, as any SEOer worth their salt could tell you, is that presenting them separately will drive additional traffic to the site. But you are worth far more to me than mere traffic stats, dear reader, and so I’ll present them together in a more efficient package.)

The first bit of news is that the AP has at last caved to the present and changed their stylebook to request email over e-mail. Some people made quite a bit of fuss over this, but it really doesn’t matter. The AP Stylebook no more determines the English language than any else does. The stylebook is reacting to modern English, not shaping it. John McIntyre and Arnold Zwicky and Jan Freeman have more on how much this doesn’t matter.

I'm very sorry to report that this sweet animated gif is now out-of-date around the AP offices.

The second bit of news is that the Oxford English Dictionary has a new update out, including revised “R” words, foods, Australian slang, and a couple of Internet initialisms: OMG and LOL. People also are freaking out over this. To clarify, the inclusion of LOL in the OED does not mean that it should be used in formal writing, it does not mean that the folks at the OED necessary like it, or anything more than that they believe it is a sufficiently common and important word in contemporary English that it should be recorded with its definition. No more, no less. They join other popular initialisms as BFF, IMHO, TMI, and everyone’s favorite, WTF. This was met with a wide range of misinterpretations on Twitter:

[The “some words are based on people’s opinions” line just keeps on making me laugh.]

The third bit of news is that the OED has added a new verbal sense (i.e., definition) to heart, meaning to love or be fond of. (This, by the way, is not the only verbal definition of heart; one definition, to embolden, dates back to 897 AD.) Contrary to what some have reported, it is not entered into the OED as <3, nor as ♥. It is simply a new sense for the five-letter word heart.

I repeat, as even some actual newspapers have claimed otherwise, that the symbol ♥ is not in the OED. Try, if you have a subscription to the OED, searching for ♥ online. You will find no such entry.

Furthermore, there are articles announcing that ♥ would be the first symbol in the OED, but that’s not right either. Under the heading C, one finds the symbol ©. So, no, ♥ is not in the OED, but even if it were, that wouldn’t be breaking new ground. Keep calm; English carries on.

This concludes the language news for today. Good night and good luck.

Sarah Palin is back in the news for matters linguistic. I’ll only briefly summarize the issue here; given the strange belief by media and Internet folks that Sarah Palin’s doings are somehow significant*, I assume that by the time you’re reading this post, you’ve already been inundated with information about this latest event.

In short, there’s a proposal for an Islamic community center and mosque, the Cordoba House, at 45 Park Place in lower Manhattan. This is two blocks from the edge of the former World Trade Center site. The Community Board for that part of New York unanimously approved the proposal, but now Real Americans like Sarah Palin are instigating a Crescent Scare against the center, essentially claiming that having a good Muslim thing so close to a bad Muslim thing in a city many of them haven’t ever been to will cause them substantial emotional duress. Or as Palin herself put it, it would be a stab through the heart.

Personally, I find her position silly; there’s no reason that New Yorkers should care what Sarah Palin thinks they should do in their city, and there’s no reason she should care what they do. In fact, the only reason I find her position at all interesting is the way she chose to express it. In a tweet, she called on “Peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” something:

That tweet was quickly taken down (thanks to Little Green Footballs for getting the screenshot) and replaced with a similar tweet that took out not only the heart-stabbing imagery, but also the curious word refudiate, which was replaced with the more standard refute**:

But the damage was done. The blogosphere, primed by her usage of refudiate in a Fox News appearance a few days earlier, had already caught wind of Palin’s refudiated tweet. So Palin was left with little choice but to defend herself:

Yes, people create words a lot. Shakespeare is especially known for this. English, like all extant languages, is ever-changing, and there’s a lot of good to be had in allowing people to create words or mess with syntax when it’s called for. However, refudiate was an error (just like misunderestimate). That’s fine; we all make mistakes. But there is a world of difference between passing off a mistake as a word and the premeditated release of a new word.

The fact that Palin took down her original tweet, and then added not only the “refute” tweet but also another tweet that re-instated the heart-stabbing point of the original, shows that she lacks confidence in her new coinage. Those two tweets contain pretty much everything that was in the original, except for refudiate, so it seems pretty clear that Palin is trying to repudiate refudiate.

So what of refudiate? As Mark Liberman showed, Sarah Palin is not the first to use the word; the science-fiction author John Sladek used it in a short story, Answers, back in 1984. It’s popped up from time to time since then, but in all of the instances I’ve listed here (as well as most of the others I found), it’s explicitly labelled as erroneous, just as Palin has implicitly labelled it.

Personally, I find this surprising and a little bit sad, as refudiate could be a useful word for me. Sometimes someone will say something both profoundly mistaken and offensive, and I’ll want to simultaneously repudiate it (i.e., separate myself from it unequivocally) and refute it (i.e., disprove it). In fact, I’ve been noticing this feeling a lot more when I read about political news lately. Sarah Palin herself is someone whose opinions I’d often like to refudiate.

Unfortunately, Palin has miscreated refudiate, rendering it unusable. In her original tweet, it seems likely to me that the word she wants is repudiate; it’s a little unclear because the character limit forced her to omit the object of transitive refudiate, so we’re left to infer that the intended object is the mosque. The only other possible object would be Palin’s own argument-in-question-form, and presumably she’s not requesting people to disprove her claim.

Assuming that the mosque is the object, we can then be pretty sure that repudiate is the intended meaning, as you can’t refute a thing***; refuting is the act of disproving or rebutting or showing to be erroneous, which must be done to an argument, claim, belief, or something of the like. To refute a mosque would be, I suppose, to prove that it does not exist, in which case the whole tweet would become quite unnecessary. It isn’t a blend; it’s just a variant form of repudiate. Because she introduced the word in a domain already solidly ruled by another word, refudiate has no reason to catch on.

And so, sadly, the meaning that people will think of for refudiate will not be the reasonable meaning that blends refutation and repudiation into a rebuttal-and-disavowal. Worse, because of Palin’s awkward attempt to justify it away, the word will be a laughingstock for the near future. This has poisoned what could have been a good word.

But at least it gives us a cautionary tale. Refudiate coulda had class. It coulda been a contender. Instead, it’s the butt of a joke. If you have a pet word that you’ve been nurturing, and you want to see it find its way into the language, don’t introduce it as an identical replacement for an existing word. Don’t omit its context. And don’t ever treat it like a typo. Be proud of your word, thrust it into the light of day, make clear what exactly it means, and you’ll be the proud parent of a word.

*: Of course, the fact that I’m writing about Sarah Palin again means that I am part of the problem. Crumbs.

**: I say “more standard” here even though her usage of refute is still non-standard. The OED notes that pre-18th century Scotland is the only place and time when refute has been used consistently to mean “to refuse or reject (a thing or person)”. In general, refuting something is about disproving it, and it doesn’t really make sense to disprove a plan.

***: Unless you are in Scotland in the 17th century, which I remain confident Palin is not.

Have you ever had to confront a dirty truth about one of your childhood heroes?  I have.  I used to worship Woodrow Wilson.  My elementary and high school history books treated him like a brainiac whose sole problem was his aloofness.  He’d have a great idea, like the League of Nations, or the Fourteen Points, or a less-punitive Treaty of Versailles, but then the lunkheads in Congress — I’m looking at you, Henry Cabot Lodge — would vote him down, seemingly because they were jealous of how smart and great he was.

I graduated from high school and went on to college at Wilson’s alma mater, excited about all the stuff on campus named for him or otherwise honoring him.  And then, during my junior year, I started reading about how Wilson was actually a pretty heavy-duty racist, even for his time. (This came from reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, one of the inspirations for this blog.)  It was a crushing blow, and revealed to me that, even though I thought I had matured beyond hero worship, hero worship isn’t something you ever really outgrow.

“Weird Al” Yankovic is another of my boyhood heroes.  My best friend in elementary school and I listened to Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day album incessantly throughout much of 1996 and 1997. I still get the song “Mr. Popeil” stuck in my head from time to time, and the lyrics to “Amish Paradise” are etched into my brain.   Thus it is with a profound sense of sadness and tarnished dreams that I inform you that even Weird Al can be wrong — though not nearly so badly so as Wilson.  Weird Al posted a video on Twitter in which he stops a car because he sees a road sign reading

You might be able to predict what happens next: Weird Al gets out of the car, walks over to the sign, and attaches a Post-It with “LY” written on it.  Turning to the camera, he says “Grammar, people! C’mon!”

This may have contributed to the appearance of “g-r-a-m-m-a-r” as one of the top trending topics on Twitter. (It appeared with the dashes between the letters on Twitter; I’m not spelling it out or anything.)  Twitter discussions of grammar, with or without dashes, are probably something best avoided, so I’m a little dismayed at what Weird Al has wrought.  But more than anything else, I am sorry to say that Weird Al is incorrect.  There is nothing wrong with the phrase drive slow.

Whoa, there!  Perhaps you’re wondering if I’ve gone round the bend.  There’s nothing wrong with drive slow?  Yes, you read that right.  Slow is what’s known as a flat adverb, one that lacks an -ly suffix and therefore looks the same as an adjective.  Another flat adverb is right, which I used in the phrase read that right a few sentences ago.  But I think my favorite example of a flat adverb is fast, because it’s uncontroversially an adverb, and it has no -ly version:

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! poster
(1a) Varla insists on driving fast.
(1b) *Varla insists on driving fastly.

(2a) Linda prefers to drive slow.
(2b) Linda prefers to drive slowly.

(The * means the sentence is ungrammatical.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adverbial slow appeared around 1500 and has stuck around the language ever since. Adverbial fast and right are even older, dating back to 1205 and 950 respectively, so it’s clear that flat adverbs like slow have a long pedigree.

Not only that, but the pedigree is distinguished as well. Thackeray includes the line “[…] we drove very slow for the last two stages on the road […]” in his 1848 classic Vanity Fair. Even Shakespeare himself would smile upon the road sign; he used adverbial slow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “[…] but O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes!”

And, if you’re the sort who only accepts grammar if some authority tells you it’s the case, you’ll be interested to hear that The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Usage and Abusage, and The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style all accept adverbial slow in the context of a road sign. (Fowler’s does so begrudgingly, the others openly.)

So, no, idol-of-my-youth and all your re-tweeters, the sign didn’t need corrected. Your ire is misplaced. The same is true for Dr. Pepper’s slogan “drink it slow”. (It is worth noting, though, that adverbial slow can only follow the verb; it usually can’t be an adverb if it precedes the verb. I slow drove down the street, for instance, is wrong.)

Summary: It’s fine to use slow as an adverb; it is part of a class of words that can be either adjectives or adverbs, and has been for 500 years. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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