Penn’s Language Log settles grammar debates with wisdom and wit

You’re waiting in line when the person behind the counter says, “I can help who’s next.”

Sound odd?

The ubiquitous customer service phase that has replaced “I can help whoever’s next” is a grammatical construction less common today than it was in Shakespeare’s time. Think of Iago’s line in “Othello”: “Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands.”

Unusual sentence structures are regularly explored in the Language Log, a blog run by Mark Liberman, a professor in Penn’s Department of Linguistics and Department of Computer and Information Science. The informative and entertaining site began in the summer of 2003. It covers correct grammar usage such as “who” versus “whom,” syntax agreement, negation and relative clauses, and a host of language topics.

Liberman and blog co-founder Geoffrey Pullum, a University of Edinburgh linguistics professor, post regularly alongside multiple guest contributors, fellow linguists, and interested wordsmiths.

There are nearly 200 categories of commentary from A to W, “Abbreviation” to “WTF.”

Readers engage with contributors in robust commentary. Their pet peeves—“Peeving”—rise to the level of loathing about certain phrases, such as “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less,” “Where’s it at?” instead of “Where is it?" and “I’m good” for “I’m well.”

Liberman says there are about 6,000 daily sessions and 10,000 daily page views, on average. An early morning May 14 post, “English Names in East Asia,” by Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature, had drawn 62 comments by press time.

“We have had thousands of students from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore enrolled as undergraduates and graduate students at Penn,” Mair wrote. “Almost every student from the Sinosphere who applies to Penn has an English name. Many of them, prodded by their American teachers or friends, give up foreign names after awhile, or they use their Chinese names and English names in different circumstances. The same is true for Korea.”

In less than an hour, a reader with the username “languagehat” commented, “I would never dream of prodding someone to change the name by which they’ve chosen to call themselves, but then I wasn’t raised by wolves.” Reader “mg” responded, “I work in a setting with a lot of Chinese colleagues, about half of whom use English names and half stay with their Chinese names. While I couldn’t imagine my colleagues ‘pushing’ people to drop their English names, I could see friendly encouragement that they didn’t have to use them unless they wanted to (i.e., we’re all willing to try to pronounce foreign names—no need to coddle us).”

Language Log is often cited and Liberman quoted in top-tier publications, particularly on political topics. Trending Twitter topics aren’t lost on Language Log. (See #covfefe, filed under “Humor.”)

“Many people are interested in many aspects of speech, language, and communication,” Liberman says. “There’s not a lot of public-facing discussion of those issues that is careful, well-informed, and occasionally amusing. And I often answer email.”

Liberman fields emailed queries from journalists frequently. One media request began, “A story that I wrote spurred a huge debate in the newsroom and also with readers after its publication: An artist had filled a street crack with rainbow sprinkles, but of course not everyone agrees that this is the right term.” The journalist stated that some locals insist that the correct term for sprinkles is “jimmies,” while others say that “jimmies only refers to the chocolate toppings, and some locals don’t use the term jimmies at all.” The journalist wanted Liberman to settle the sprinkles versus jimmies debate.

Liberman handed the question off to colleagues across the pond at the University of Cambridge, who showed the reporter how to check geography on The Great American Word Mapper and sent several maps, links to a couple of online discussions, and research findings on ice-cream-topping vocabulary.

In Philadelphia, jimmies is more popular.

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