I’m helping score the Analytical Writing Placement Exams for incoming UC freshmen this week. For those of you not familiar with the exam, 17 and 18 year olds who have been admitted to a UC wake up at some ungodly early hour of a Saturday morning, sit down, read a passage, and write an essay. It’s my job to look for things like sentence variety, organization and structure, arguments, analysis, and a general understanding of the prompt. Of course, multiple grammatical errors, poor variety in vocabulary, and numerous misspellings can hurt, but I can be forgiving for one or two misspelled words. After all, they don’t have access to spellcheck or wikipedia, and no one writes perfectly well without a chance to edit, especially on a Saturday morning when you’re 17.

The prompt this year has to do with socializing with strangers. One “error” I’ve seen in many essays (of a variety of skill levels, including those scoring “clearly competent”) is the use of conversate instead of have a conversation or converse. But is this really an error?

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T11021199_10103411507214023_8653118442359345632_noday I volunteered as a judge for the Junior Division of Social, Behavioral, and Cognitive Sciences at the local County Science Fair!!

Even though I had to get up an hour and a half earlier than I normally do, it was totally worth it! I learned that if you feed ants aspartame, they don’t build tunnels that are as deep as ants that are fed sugar. I learned that praising preteens based on their effort (“You worked hard!”) is better for their confidence and willingness to try a harder puzzle than if you praise their innate ability (“You’re smart!”) or remain neutral (“You completed the puzzle!”). I also learned that people pay much more attention to the number of stars an online review has than just about any other information, and that special needs children work better when listening to rap music than when listening to classical or no music.

I’ll definitely do this again next year!

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When I enrolled as a freshman in college, I registered as a linguistics major but I had a notion that I would minor in computer science. Computer science seemed interesting and well-paying and I didn’t even know computational linguistics was a thing at the time. I just liked computers. I never had a problem switching between Macs and PCs. I liked to peak inside computers and replace the RAM and things like that. I had poked around with HTML editors. The classes on things like graphic design and artificial intelligence and stuff seemed really cool.

I looked up the prerequisites and found that to minor in CS you had to actually get pretty far in math, at least through Calculus C and one or two courses of Linear Algebra. So, naturally, I signed up for Calculus A my fall term.

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This week, my students choose their topics for their research papers. Since I’m teaching a general education writing class which is required of all freshmen, the topic can be literally anything. I have to approve it, but I’ve been pretty flexible. After all, I might learn something interesting! Not to mention reading 25 papers on the same thing is eye-numbingly boring.  More »

I’m a linguist. At the core of my soul, I believe in descriptive linguistics. A biologist goes out in the world, and describes the anatomy of the plants and animals he collects. He doesn’t say “this shouldn’t exist, because evolution says it shouldn’t!” Likewise, linguists go out in the world and describe the languages they collect. They don’t say “this shouldn’t exist, because the grammar rules says it shouldn’t!” Linguists and biologists alike wonder at all the weird structures they find, and aren’t judgmental about them.

Is there a time and a place for “correct grammar”? Sure, but it’s cultural. It’s not an objective fact. Stephen Fry put it nicely: just like you dress up your attire for special occasions (like job interviews), so do people dress up their language. All the science says that most of the “rules” people are taught in grade school are totally bunk. When I taught Intro to Linguistics last summer, I spent a whole lecture going over why Weird Al’s Word Crimes was totally bunk. Other linguists did so too.

Which is why I feel totally weird and out of place being a prescriptivist teaching “correct” “academic” writing. Sure, I can teach them some common conventions and research skills. But I’ve been asked questions like “Is it Tom and me or Tom and I?” And the real answer is “it depends” or maybe “whichever one is more frequent in your dialect”, but the answer they want to hear is “it’s Tom and me if the phrase is an object and Tom and I if the phrase is a subject, because and me are case-marked pronouns and English was a historically case-marking language even though we don’t use case anymore except in these pronouns and some people who still use whom“.

I finished teaching my first class about two weeks ago, and have had some time to reflect. Overall, I think things went pretty well, although I haven’t seen my course evaluations yet. More »

For centuries, people have bemoaned the downfall of the next generation’s language. The latest rendition of this fear comes in the form of a fear of the digital age. The New York Times just published a piece decrying the lack of handwriting – especially cursive handwriting – in the new Common Core standards. To support their claims, the article cites a study which links handwriting to greater activation in the brain.

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