An Introduction

An introduction to a new blog on language.

Posted Nov 15, 2009

Why a blog on the English language for Psychology Today? What do language and grammar have to do with psychology?

Plenty, as I hope this blog will make clear. In my recent book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, I try to explain what we mean when we talk about the “rules” of language. That word has a lot of meanings, not all of them mutually compatible, and yet people have a bad habit of confusing them. I want people to understand how the various kinds of rules fit together, and I want them to realize that the so-called rules are really all about having an effect on others. Learning to put proper words in proper places is inevitably a psychological task.

In my on-line Guide to Grammar and Style, I give “The one unbreakable rule” of the English language: “Whatever works works.” I then add, “All that’s left for you is to figure out what works. Most of us will spend our lifetimes on that puzzle.” As I’ll argue throughout this blog, the solution to that puzzle is fundamentally psychological. It involves getting inside the minds of readers, and trying to predict what effect our words will have on them.

In the months to come I hope to use this blog to discuss many aspects of the English language, but a few themes are bound to come up again and again:

  • how and why languages change
  • the evolution of English
  • language and power
  • “authority” in the English language
  • political language
  • business English
  • nouning verbs, verbing nouns
  • the politics of Standard English
  • political correctness
  • language and law
  • African-American Vernacular English (a.k.a. Ebonics)
  • English in the Internet age

I’ll try to take a historical perspective to most of these questions, but I’ll also draw on my own background as a scholar, a writer, and a teacher of writing.

Who am I, by the way? I’m an English professor in New Jersey, where I teach English literature to the most ethnically diverse student body in America. My academic research focuses on eighteenth-century British literature, especially Samuel Johnson and the history of forgery, fakery, and fraud. I’ve published widely, in both academic and popular forums, on English literature, history, lexicography, grammar, and style. I teach courses on all these topics to both undergraduate and graduate students. The curious can consult my home page, which includes plenty of details on my background; a complete CV is available for those who have too much time on their hands. In a later post I’ll discuss whether these credentials, or any credentials at all, qualify someone to pontificate about English.

I welcome questions, comments, and suggestions from readers. I can’t promise a personal reply to every query, but I’m always glad to hear suggestions for future posts.