Do women and men process language differently? Is it neuroscience or neurosexism?

Hello internet! 

I’ve been crazy busy the past few months and haven’t been able to blog. I presented in Canada at TOSCON2015 and then presented a new talk at NATECLA. I’ve met some really nice people and had a great time but I’m hoping to get back to blogging now. And to start things off is a guest blog which I’m really excited about. 

Around the time of TESOL 2015 I heard about a talk called ‘Neuroscience, learning styles and teacher training.’ The title worried me as I thought it might be some kind of hymn to woo. Once I saw the slides dear reader, my heart leapt! the authors, Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries did something I’d been hoping to do. They repeat the Dekker 2012 study on neuromyths, but with EFL teachers!  

The study basically asks teachers whether or not they believe statements, like “we only use 10% of our brain” are true or false and the results are shocking! Around 93% of UK teachers believe that employing learning styles will lead to better results, despite evidence to contrary. (more info about their findings here

I wrote to Carol almost as soon as I heard about the research to congratulate her and we’ve been corresponding for months now. I asked her if she would consider writing a guest blog and she graciously agreed (of course, not before Mike Griffin got to her first *shakes fist*). So here it is! I’m exceedingly pleased to present Carol Lethaby writing about two topics which are of interest to me, gender and skepticism. 

Over to Carol…


A big thank you to Russ Mayne, for inviting me to guest blog – in this post I plan to uphold the tradition of debunking popular myths that has become Russ’s trademark. I’ve chosen to focus on the idea of women’s and men’s brains and particularly the idea that the sexes supposedly process language differently.  This is an area of considerable significance to language teachers and one that I have been tackling in both talks and articlesin recent years.

The popular view is that men process language only in the left hemisphere, while women use both their right and left hemispheres to process language, which supposedly makes women better at language. This idea has been repeated again and again in the literature until it has come to be accepted as fact, giving rise to books with such ludicrous titles as:  ‘Why men don’t iron’, ‘Why men never remember and women never forget’, ‘Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps’ and my own personal favourite, ‘Why men don’t have a clue and women always need more shoes’

This video from the entertainer, Mark Gungor, illustrates beautifully the popular idea. There is, however, one problem with this account of things … that it’s not true. Now, you may argue that this is all harmless, and just a bit of fun, – ‘laugh your way to a better marriage’ is the name of Gungor’s website and books – even a great topic for discussion in the language teaching classroom; but is it really harmless if the notion that there are pre-determined differences between the way the sexes think and use language is reinforcing self-fulfilling gender stereotypes? This has been termed neurosexism by Cordelia Fine and others, and in Fine’s awesomely readable book ‘Delusions of Gender’, she really takes researchers to task for shoddy research and rubbish conclusions based on spurious findings:

“It is appalling to me that one can, apparently, say whatever drivel one likes about the male and female brain, and enjoy the pleasure of seeing it published in an reputable newspaper, changing a school’s educational policy, or becoming a bestseller.” (Fine, 2010:  174)

I mentioned some of the appalling, blatantly sexist titles above, but there are of course also books that are taken very seriously, based on the idea that female and male brains are very different – Why Gender Matters, Boys and Girls Learn Differently, The Female Brain, to name but a few.  Supposed inherent brain differences between girls and boys have been used as a reason to separate the sexes and to teach them differently.

So, where did the idea come from that men and women process language differently and how does it fit in with supposed brain differences? Like many a good neuromyth, there was originally some, albeit dubious, research base for this claim.  It started in 1995 when Shaywitz, Shaywitz et alpublished a study based on neuroimaging that showed eleven out of nineteen women’s brains with activation in the left andright hemisphere while the other eight women’s brains and nineteen men’s brains activated in the left hemisphere only, when doing one particular language task (concerned with rhyming words), out of the various tasks that they were asked to carry out.

From this study it was concluded that men and women deal with language differently, with men being more specialised in the left hemisphere and women being less lateralised, further generalised to suggest that men’s brains are more lateralised than women’s, inferring further that this accounts for female and male cognition differences (nicely coinciding with already accepted gender stereotypes (see Gungor above)).

Now, there are several problems with making this conclusion from the study.

Firstly, this is an example of what scientists call ‘reverse inference’ – that is drawing conclusions about what and how people think based on the physical brain.  Fine has no patience for this and she warns of the dangers of drawing conclusions about how we think based on neuroscientific data. “Inferring a psychological state from brain activity … is fraught with peril.” (2010: 151)  Brain scientists warn against making conclusions about cognition based on brain activation seen during imaging and this is precisely what the Shaywitz et al study does.

Secondly, this is a very small study (38 people) and does not address the fact that, in the other language tasks participants were asked to perform, there were no significant differences between male and female participants, nor the fact that not all women displayed the bilateral activation that was so interesting to scientists.

Note too, that all participants were adults, so how can we conclude from this that this is a hard-wired female-male difference?  As neurobiologist, Lise Eliot, points out, nearly all the evidence is based on the adult brain – “Who’s to say that such differences [in the brain] are caused by nature and not by learning?” (Eliot, 2009: 9).  Brain scientists point to gender differences in brain structure being related to the complex interrelationship between genetic factors, our experiences and our biology, in other words, what we do and what happens to us affects what our brain looks like.  “Experience can alter sex differences in brain structure” (2004:  211) says Melissa Hines, a neuroscientific researcher who has been looking at the question of gender and the brain for over 35 years.  As educators, doesn’t it seem more helpful to look at how gendering in the classroom may contribute to learning differences as well as how education can remediate those differences?

Thirdly, and most importantly, neuroscientific studies done since have notshown the sex differences in language processing found in the Shaywitz study.  It has been found that most women and most men process language in the left hemisphere of the brain and that both sexes show a tremendous amount of interconnectivity between the hemispheres.  After carrying out a meta-analysis of functional imaging of sex differences, Sommer et al (2004) conclude:

“In summary, this meta-analysis found no significant sex difference in functional language lateralization in a large sample of 377 men and 442 women. Thus, the hypothesis that language functions are generally presented more bilaterally in women than in men is not supported. This suggests that language lateralization is unlikely to underlie sex differences in cognition, and their biological basis remains elusive.”

So why haven’t we heard more about Sommer’s study (and others like it) saying there is no support for innate differences between how the sexes process language? Why does the popular media continue to promote the idea that male and female brains are “completely different”?  Unfortunately studies that don’t show differences between the sexes are often underreported.  Hines talks about this problem as well as the converse “overreporting of positive results” (2004: 6).  To address this issue, Janet Hyde 2005 proposed the ‘Gender Similarities Hypothesis’ after conducting a meta-analysis of 46 meta-analyses of studies concerned with sex differences. She sums up like this:

“It is time to consider the costs of overinflated claims of gender differences.  Arguably, they cause harm in numerous realms, including women’s opportunities in the workplace, couple conflict and communication, and analyses of self-esteem problems among adolescents.  Most important, these claims are not consistent with the scientific data. [my emphasis]” (Hyde, 2005:  590)

This focus on looking for sex differences continues to this day.  In 2013 there was a study splashed all over the newspapers including this headline in the Mail Online “Men’s and women’s brains: the truth! As research proves the sexes’ brains ARE wired differently, why women’s are cleverer ounce for ounce – and men can’t read female feelings

Cordelia Fine responds  by pointing out that 1) the conclusions don’t take into consideration differences between larger and smaller brains (they have different structures because of size – male brains tend to be larger because men tend to be larger and larger brains are needed to control larger bodies), 2) there’s no discussion of the plasticity of the brain and the effect of our experiences on our neural structure (see above)  and 3) the study is full of reverse inference based on legitimising tired stereotypes (you can see Fine’s full response to the study here).   But the damage has already been done and the study is quoted as ‘proving’that female-male differences are hard-wired when in reality it shows no such thing!

Peddling sex differences in brain function is clearly ‘sexy’ and sometimes lucrative, and neuroscience is a very tempting way to try to explain differences between the sexes. Isn’t it time, though, that we got away from this obsession with looking for hard-wired differences between the sexes and considered the part that our experiences and especially education, play in female and male disparities?  Given the potentially harmful nature of neurosexism, shouldn’t we be more critical and look more closely at what the studies should, can and do tell us, rather than merely accepting the narrative that confirms our cliché-ridden beliefs and sells yet more books and toys?


Fine, C (2010) Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W. W. Norton.
Hines, M (2004) Brain gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hyde, J S (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis’ American Psychologist, Vol 60 (6), Sep 2005, pp581-592
Lethaby, C (2014) ‘Children, gender and learning’ in Primary Methodology Handbook:  Practical ideas for ELT Richmond Publishing
Sommer, I et al (2004) Do women really have more bilateral language representation than men? A meta-analysis of functional imaging studies Brain, 127, 1845–1852

language or dialect?

‘Did you know China is very big and has many dialects‘, My Chinese teacher told me pointing to a map of China. ‘It’s hard to understand people here and here, and as for over here…’ she said, pointing at Tibet, ‘their Chinese is impossible to understand.’

Hmmm, I thought, that might be because it’s a completely different language. Now while it’s true that Tibetan and the other Chinese languages all belong to the same language family, it’s also true that English and Iranian belong to their same family and we wouldn’t consider the one to be a regional variation of the other, so what’s going on with Chinese?
One of the sources of the confusion is the written system which is shared, in the same way that the roman alphabet is shared among many European languages. As the characters represent words and not letters there is very little connection with the symbol and the sound, thus the phrase ‘I love you’ in four Chinese dialects look like this:


Ah! Pretty similar you might say.  And you’d be right but here’s how you say them:

Wo ai ni
ngóh oi néih
Gua ai li
nguh eh non

Well, you may say, no doubt they are mutually intelligible, after all, they look kind of similar, right?  well what about these four, they look roughly as similar as the above example:

‘Dialect’ ?
Ti amo
Te lubesc
Te amo
Je t’aime

Would you be happy to call these dialects? Well, you might but you’d be on your own. So why are the Chinese languages called ‘dialects?’

Before delving into dialects that are really languages it’s interesting to look at some languages which are really dialects. You may know that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and Hindi is the majority language of India. However these two languages are virtually identical. Until 1947 India and Pakistan were one country and hence one language. In the same way American English and British English speakers have few communication problems, Urdu and Hindi speakers, except for some vocab, have no problems understanding each other. Another example of dialects becoming languages are Norwegian and Danish which are basically the same language with different flags and football teams. So political reasons, rather than a clear difference can be enough to grant a dialect language status.
Chinese languages are interesting because they follow the opposite kind of logic. China as a political entity is, shall we say, more interested in highlighting similarities than differences. The Chinese government is working hard to shape a national sense of unity, and so it follows that if the Chinese are all one people, under heaven, then it makes sense for them to speak one language. The Chinese word Fangyan  方言, meaning ‘regional language’ is close to the English word dialect, but not exactly the same. In the same way no longer being able to reproduce together is usually the boundary of a new species, mutual unintelligibility is arguably the boundary of a different language. But as we have seen with other languages, the differences might not be so clear cut.

All purpose "ignore newspapers" reponse

OK OK OK I know I said I wasn’t going to write any more pieces about newspapers, but like a fly to XXXXX I’m drawn back by the rancid stench of ‘Journalism’. But this folks, this really is the last time. This is going to be my masterpiece, all encompassing retort to all language articles appearing in the press. Below is a list of rules and if I’ve sent this piece to you then that means the article you tweeted probably has one of the problems listed below. 

Rule 1: the article in question is almost certainly wrong

It might not be 100% wrong but there is wrongness in it! The shocking surprising headline of someone learning a language in a few hourswaking up speaking a foreign language or commenting on the decline of English is almost certainly being misreported by non-experts. This is not surprising as they get most everything else wrong as well from health articles to science and pretty much everything else. Even if it’s not wrong, it’s probably not completely right, with misrepresentation and fudge rife. 

Rule 2: If the article isn’t written by a linguist of some kind ignore it.

If a scientist, a politician, or a journalist attempt to tell you that language is going to the dogs, or that the way people are using words is wrong, feel free to take no notice. Even if it is written by a linguist (or language ‘expert’) view it suspiciously. The guardian is not an academic journal claims and made there require zero evidence and they will provide no links to anything asserted in the article. So when you see the quarterly article stating something like, “I’m an editor of a famous journal and here are some language mistakes everyone is making” written in reasonable tones about how split infinitives are ugly or wrong and who/whom misused please remember they are almost always wrong, -or partially wrong. The best bet is to find out for yourself, from a reputable source. 

Rule 3: If it seems to be too good to be true…

…it probably is. Great breakthroughs are rare, but articles about them are not. “New theory” or “new breakthrough/cure” stories abound, but should be regarded with suspicion, like the story the “human language came from bird song” or that “English is really a Scandinavian Language” or that you can learn a language in 22 hours. These theories might be true, but if they are, why has no one suggested them before? This doesn’t instantly disqualify a theory, and paradigms are overturned, but “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and rather than believing the Daily Mail, I’ll wait for the peer reviewed article in a reputable journal before making up my mind, thanks.


Rule 4 Muphry’s law

This rule is named after murphy’s law but with a misspelling and it posists that anyone launching an attack on another person’s language use will inevitable have problems with language use in their article.  A good example of this is sceptic James Randy Randi, as I noted here. (thanks to Murray for pointing out I am too a victim of this)

Live by the sword…

Ranting about the lack of precision in language is one thing and quite a popular thing too, but being able to weed out all the imprecision in your own speech is another. I love “the skeptics guide to the universe” and James Randi, with his million dollar prize. I’m trying to listen to their entire back catalogue of podcasts (over 8 years worth) and enjoying it greatly.

The only thing that bothers me is that at times they can be quite prescriptive about language use. This doesn’t seem fitting for sceptics, -but at the same time, its hardly surprising for me to see scientists muscle in on linguists’ territory.

Anyway, episode 181 features a section with James Randi complaining about imprecision in language use; redundant’ phrases like “unfortunate tragedy”, “rich millionaires” and a “deadly fatality”. Fine, go ahead and complain about this stuff, but if you are going to complain Randi, then in the very next breath, don’t say something like this:

[interviewees] begin every single response with the phrase “well…”

Hold on, every single? As a oppose to what? Surely if you want to remove redundancy this should be “every response”. Randi has shown here that it’s a lot easier to pick at things you don’t like than to actually remove all of the supposed imperfections from your speech. If you’re going to criticize language use you’d better make sure yours is perfect. Five seconds before he makes this ‘blunder’ Randi says:

I understand that this is only an expression but it’s a careless one.

And here’s another expression “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis

If you follow my blog, and you’re a bit of a stickler for language use then you probably think something like “hey, this guy is way too lenient about language!” or “everything I think is wrong, he says is OK!” or something like that. 

With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about a piece of language I unapologetically loathe. I hate it so much that I don’t believe it has any place in the English language (as it is presently used) and should be banned.  The phrase in question is the hideously non-sensical “the exception that proves the rule“.

Whenever I see this phrase it confirms my suspicions that the world is largely insane made even more insane by the fact that people seem satisfied by this a response:

A: Have you noticed how all TEFL teachers are massive lefties?
B: Well, Neil’s a life long member of the Conservative party.
A: well the exception proves the rule.
B: Hmm I suppose you’re right.

We have pedants running around screaming about less/fewer or who/whom (all of which are perfectly reasonable and defensible) and yet when someone utters this illogical bumf -everyone around just sits there nodding.


It is to my mind quite spectacular that this phrase, having no meaning and being so obviously contradictory to all facets of common sense, continues to exist. How would science even operate if this were true? Image the scenario, a scientist discovers a new law of nature, another scientist points out that said law has an exception, the first scientist with tears in her eyes exclaims “well then, it must be true!”

Are we supposed to believe that rules without exceptions, are unproven? A few seconds of thought will confirm to anyone that exceptions do very little to strengthen rules. What has happen here is that the original Latin phrase (see title) has been misunderstood and is now being used in a totally nonsensical way. The original meaning is a (not very useful) phrase indicating that exceptions to rules, show that rules must exist. So if you said to your students “OK, you can speak (native language) in class today”, then what you’re also saying is that usually, the class is English only. The exception to this rule shows that there must be a rule.
Does this make any sense?

There are some folk (me at one time) who have latched onto a faulty etymology, in which it was claimed that “prove” means “test“. So exceptions test rules. This makes more sense but it  unfortunately has two problems. The first problem is that it probably isn’t true, -or at least I’ve seen no evidence it is correct. More importantly, even if it were true, that certainly isn’t how people are using it now. Nowadays it is almost certainly meant to mean “confirm”.
Semantic shift is natural and it’s not at all odd to see a word change meaning, for example uninterested and disinterested, swapped meanings, peruse now means the opposite of what it meant and the word decimate has almost entirely lost its original meaning. The difference here is however, all these words are no fulfilling a useful function in language or at least express something meaningful. “TETPTR” means absolutely nothing. It’s like saying “well, you can prove anything with facts“.
what on earth does this mean?

It is interesting to wonder why people so frequently use a meaningless phrase. One blogger suggests it may come from the deep human desire not to be wrong, -which is certainly possible. It kind of acts as a rebuff when inconstancy has been pointed out. You get to have the last word. describe it neatly as “ignore that thing that disproves my theory; it only proves my theory”.

It reminds me of the similarly silly conversation stopper “I’m entitled to my opinion.”  which seems to mean “I’m not interested in the facts, stop arguing with me dammit.”


Teacher beliefs in EFL

There are many odd beliefs around the world, strongly held yet completely ridiculous.  I like to collect them. I’ll introduce some of my favourites here for you: 


Penis theft:

In nations like Nigeria, the Congo and Uganda witchcraft is still believed in.  Witches and warlocks have magical powers and, so the legend goes, one of these is the ability to steal a man’s penis by touching him.  The fear of penis theft is quite real yet there have been no reported cases of men with missing genitalia.  There have, however, been several cases of “witches” being murdered for stealing penises.  Penis theft is a kind of mass-hysteria in which a man may scream in a crowd “oh my penis has been stolen” or something like this at which point panic breaks out, a witch is found and often beaten to death. 

Korean Fan death

Thanks to newspaper misinformation many Koreans believe that leaving a fan on overnight will lead to death.  Quite how this works is a mystery, but there have been a couple of suggestions.  One is that the fan blades chop the air molecules up and thus decrease the amount of air and the other is that the fan creates a kind of vortex sucking all the air out of the room.

Chinese period panic

monthly taboos are common in many cultures.  Chinese medicine is a bit like western medicine was 400 years ago and so the idea of people being hot and cold etc still exists in the popular conscious.  Women are ‘colder’ than men and during their period they become even more so and thus must avoid cold foods like ice-cream, eschew ice in drinks and avoid some foods, like alcohol altogether.  It seems partaking of these things will lead to discomfort for women.   There are around half a billion people living their lives like this because this is what they believe.   

Interesting!  but what does this have to do with EFL?  
Bear with me! 

If you haven’t heard of these beliefs before, you may have read them with disbelief.  You may have even thought, “how stupid!” or “how could anyone believe that?” and perhaps assumed I was exaggerating.  You might have even entertained the idea that those countries have poor education so perhaps it is to be expected.  But how would you react if something you believed was on that list?

Well, I wouldn’t believe anything so patently untrue, -you might think, and if I had made mistake I would quickly change my views.  But would you?  We’ll do an experiment later on. The crucial thing to remember is that no one believes that they hold mistaken views.  If they thought they were wrong then they would believe something else.  You might expect, if we were rational, we might just say “oh I see, thanks for telling me!” but people don’t.  What you think is connected to who you are.  Believing something that turns out to be wrong makes you feel like an idiot, -it shouldn’t- but it does.  Only an idiot, after all, would believe in stupid things. 

So time for an experiment, read the following sentences and see how many of them you believe?

1.       People should drink 8 glasses of water a day

2.       You should wait an hour after eating before going swimming

3.       You lose 40% of your body heat from your head.

4.       Daddy long legs are very poisonous but cannot bite through human skin

5.       Fingernails and hair continue to grow after death

6.       We only use 10% of our brains

7.       Emus, when threatened, bury their heads in the sand

8.       The great wall of China is the only man-made object you can see from space

9.       Eskimos have 7/50/100/1,000 words for snow

10.     Blood in your veins is blue

Well, they are all wrong.  Not a bit wrong, or right under certain circumstances but all widely believed and absolutely wrong.  But what’s this got to do with EFL? I’m coming to that…
But first think about compare your reaction to the ones you already knew were wrong and the ones (if any) that you just found out were wrong.  No doubt you’ll pulling a pained look and heading straight for Google to check them out.  Perhaps a little shocked?  Perhaps even trying to justify your belief (well, it might not be 8 glasses, but drinking water is important etc etc).  Secondly think about how you came to know and believe in that “fact”. 


How does this all relate to teaching?  Well EFL has a similar trickle-down of knowledge effect.  Examine the following sentences and see which ones you have heard/believe:

1.       An ideal class should have at least 60% student talking time to 40% TTT.

2.       A task-based approach is the best method for teaching languages

3.       A process approach to writing is better than a product based approach

4.       L1 should, where possible, be avoided in the classroom

5.       An inductive approach is best for grammar teaching

6.       It’s useful to have students activate their schemata

7.       Each student has their own individual learning style

8.       It’s useful for students to get feedback on grammar mistakes

Now, I’m not going to now tell you that all of these are wrong. But before we go any further you might want to think about if you believe in these ideas, and if so, why? Personally, I have no idea for most of them but I’ll comment on a few.
In number 2 for example, Swan looks at the idea that Task based instruction is superior to other methods and, after carefully examining the evidence, concludes that “The claim that TBI is a superior teaching approach, solidly based on the findings of current theory and research, cannot be sustained” (2005:396) a view he shares with Richards and Rogers (2001). Another example is process approaches to writing which seem quite popular these days but  for which “there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (Hyland 2003:17-18)
Most teacher give students corrective grammar feedback for their writing. But does it do any good? Truscott and Ferris have argued over this point for over 15 years. Truscott has claimed that feedback is not only pointless but might even harm students while Ferris has tried to find evidence for its efficacy. In a 2004 article entitled ‘The ‘‘Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here?’ Ferris admits that “despite the published debate and several decades of research activity in this area, we are virtually at Square One” (2004:49) If we don’t know whether it works, and it could even be harmful why are we doing it?
For a lot of this, we just don’t know. I am hopeful that as research techniques get better we will learn more. The purpose of this article is, though, to warn against dogmatism and bandwagon jumping. I’ve heard many teachers (myself included) make claims about this method or that approach, that just can’t be backed up. New interesting ideas seem to move quickly to dogma in the EFL world and it becomes difficult to challenge the orthodoxy. Just think about how easily other false beliefs have implanted themselves in your mind, -or other people’s for that matter. The medical world was convinced that bleeding people was a super cure for all manner of diseases, until it turned out that in fact it wasn’t. And if you’re thinking how stupid people were in the past, remember that it didn’t seem stupid to them.
When asked about approaches teachers claim things like “I know this works, I can tell from the students faces” and “since I started doing [method/technique/approach] things have been better in my class” or “I don’t care about evidence, it works for me!”. Now these teachers may well be right, or they might be suffering from confirmation bias, but until there is solid evidence about practices, it’s probably best if we all proceed with caution.

nb: As always, comments and corrections are very welcome!


Ferris, D.R. (2004) Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? Journal of Second Language Writing 13 (2004) 49–62

Hyland (2003) Genre-based pedagogies: A social response to process Journal of Second Language Writing 12 17–29

Richards, J. and T. Rodgers. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M (2005) Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction Applied Linguistics 26/3: 376–401


That’s so gay!

Reading (actually listening to) Steven Pinker’s massive Better Angels of our nature, I came across an interesting section on the use of the word “gay” as a pejorative.  there was something of a storm a few years back when Chris Moyles of BBC radio 1 used it on air and there is a lot of hand-wringing about this modern usage; I always feel a bit guilty when I say it. 

However Pinker presents evidence to suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t feel so bad.  Referring to a survey of American views of homosexually, he notes:
Many people have informed me that younger Americans have become homophobic, based on the observation that they use “That’s so gay!” as a putdown. But the numbers say otherwise: the younger the respondents, the more accepting they are of homosexuality. Their acceptance, moreover, is morally deeper. Older tolerant respondents have increasingly come down on the “nature” side of the debate on the causes of homosexuality, and naturists are more tolerant than nurturists because they feel that a person cannot be condemned for a trait he never chose. But teens and twenty-somethings are more sympathetic to the nurture explanation and they are more tolerant of homosexuality. The combination suggests that they just find nothing wrong with homosexuality in the first place, so whether gay people can “help it” is beside the point. The attitude is: “Gay? Whatever, dude.”(Pinker 2011:619)
In short, young people may use the word “gay” more often than older people, but they are also the group with the most tolerant views of homosexuals.  It’s therefore difficult to equate using “gay”, in this way, with being homophobic.  That’s not to say that it wouldn’t cause offence, but that it’s likely none was intended, and to reinforce this, when questioned kids often adamantly deny they are homophobic
Is it possible that this is an example of words not necessarily being linked to their literal meaning as discussed by me here or could it be the birth of a new homonym, reminiscent of fat/fat (later phat to avoid confusion which mirrors the recent appearance of “ghey“) which was in use when I was an undergraduate or funny/funny which is, if you think about it, an incredibly inefficient word for communication,  requiring, as it sometimes does, confirmation of meaning with the phrase “funny haha or funny peculiar?”  These kinds of words prove that languages evolve and are not regular or perfect but messy and constantly changing.  Language is so gay!

Edit:  I did come across an article which claimed that heaing the phrase “that’s so gay” may cause students to be more likely to suffer from “headaches, eating problems and feelings of isolation”.  I haven’t had a chance to read the study yet. 


The False Gods of Grammar

In a recent tweet Conan O’Brien asked:

One reply was from Grammar girl, (mignon Forgarty) author of “quick and dirty grammar tips”. Grammar Girl is a grammar expert and is an editor and an MS graduate in biology,  -not linguistics, and while this shouldn’t matter, I’ll explain later why it does. Her reply was:

First of, it’s important to say that this is absolutely correct and she presents a completely accurate explanation of the differences on her websitetoo. My issue is with the rule itself. A grammar expert can repeat learned rules but it strikes me that someone with a background in science, like Grammar Girl, might want to peek a bit further behind the curtain and think about why those rules exist and if they are worth following at all. These kind of language ‘rules’ along with splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, only exist because people in authority have decided they should exist, and a small band of self-proclaimed “experts” (from the 16th Century at least) have pronounced on their particular proclivities.

What’s wrong with who/whom?

A good place to start would be this piece about John McWorter’s (professor of linguistics) take on Who/whom. “Whom” is a fossilized piece of old English which is somehow still clinging to life. In  “myths, lies and half truths of language usage” he notes that many language experts, including the influential Robert Lowth fought for the survival of “whom”. However, McWorther notes, Lowth also fought for the survival of Sitten (sat), spitten (spat), wert (was) and Chicken as a plural (I have two Chicken). How many of these strike you as worth keeping?

If we look at other similar pronouns we can see how odd “whom” is:

pronoun use















General all purpose



 Linguistics quirks like this serve no purpose, as far as I can see, but to intimidate others and give people the chance to demonstrate their superior learning. The whole thing works like something of a catch 22. You can willfully split your infintives or refuse to use “whom”, despite knowing the “rules” but the maven you’re talking to may judge you as being less well educated, so you might feel obliged to use it anyway. It’s also worth noting that who/whom has been a source of mistakes throughout history, with errors appearing in The Bible, and works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchhill and Swift. So if you are confused, you’re in good company.  It’s certainly no indicator of stupidity.

The Grammar

In grammatical terms, who/whom are pronouns, they often appear in relative clauses such as:
        The person who/whomyou’re talking to is a blithering idiot.

Grammar “experts” would tell you that because the word is an object here, then it “ought to be” “whom” not “who”. If we follow Grammar Girl’s rule (above) we would say “I’m talking to him” and thus use “whom”. This “ought to be” is what is called prescriptivism. But what does that mean?  Steven Pinker( linguist and cognitive scientist) defines it like this:

The contradiction begins in the fact that the words “rule,” “grammatical,” and “ungrammatical” have very different meanings to a scientist and to a layperson. The rules people learn (or, more likely, fail to learn) in school are called prescriptive rules, prescribing how one “ought” to talk. Scientists studying language propose descriptive rules, describing how people do talk. 

Most of what I write here has been said before, notably by Pinker in his 1994 book The Language Instinct. Although this is a lengthy quote it is worth reproducing here:

[who/whom] is one of the standard prescriptivist complaints about common speech. In reply, one might point out that the who/ whom distinction is a relic of the English case system, abandoned by nouns centuries ago and found today only among pronouns in distinctions like he/him. Even among pronouns, the old distinction between subject ye and object you has vanished, leaving you to play both roles and ye as sounding completely archaic. Whom has outlived yebut is clearly moribund; it now sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say Whom do ye trust? If the language can bear the loss of ye, using you for both subjects and objects, why insist on clinging to whom, when everyone uses who for both subjects and objects?

It also follows that if a person believes “whom” to be necessary when in an object position, shouldn’t they also extend that rule to spoken English? Look at the following sentences:

Who are you looking at?

Who do you think you are?

Both of these, according to the “rule” are incorrect. They should read “whom are you looking at” and “whom do you think you are”. Now if you think that this sounds odd and would rather say “incorrect” things like “who are you talking about?” then why on earth would you insist on using whom at all?

More expertise

Bill Bryson is another such language expert. His popular style guide troublesome words, shows again how keen people are for an authority figure to tell them what the “rules” are. People seem to crave this kind of stuff (judging from the reviews). The section on Who/whom is typical of much of the book. Bryson has done his homework and seems to understand the arguments against this kind of rule but inexplicably always chooses to support the rule anyway, because…well…he’s fond of it:


English has been shedding its pronoun declension for hundreds of years; today who is the only relative pronoun that is still declinable. Preserving the distinction between who and whom does nothing to promote clarity or reduce ambiguity. It has become merely a source of frequent errors and perpetual uncertainty. Authorities have been tossing stones at whom for at least 200 years. -Noah Webster was one of the first to call it needless- but the word refuses to go away. (Bryson 1984: 216)

Bryson then goes on to say, right after this barrage, “I, for one, would not like to see it go”.

As an interesting aside, Bryson also notes Grammar Girls “him/he” rules but then points out that it doesn’t always work. He offers the example of:

“They rent in to whoever needs it”

Apply the rule and we get “they rent it to him” him = whom (but who is correct) 

In order to apply this “quick and dirty” rule you have to have the grammatical knowledge that the clause “whoever needs it” is the object of “rent”, not “him”.That is you should say “he needs it” to reach the correction pronoun “who”.


Language Experts


The problem again with advice like this is that it is not based on any empirical findings, but rather, as throughout history, on the predilections of “authorities” and the recitation of commonly accepted “rules” which usually again originate in the predilections of “authorities” or a mistaken/superficial understanding of how the English language works. The real experts, professors in applied linguistics for example, are usually ignored and words like “whom” are kept alive on the artificial respirator of prescriptivism.

I have shown above that linguistics like Pinker and McWhorter have quite a different take on who/whom than “language experts” like Bryson and Grammar Girl.  The difference is that  Bryson and Grammar Girl are essentially more involved with journalism and publishing than linguistics.  Writers and editors get their ideas from style guides like the Chicago Manuel of Style and Strunk and White who are again often just rehashing of previously held prejudices and blackboard grammar rules.  McWhorter comments that Strunk and White “made decisions based on how nice they thought something looked or sounded, just like arranging furniture.”  And while Grammar Girl and Bryson have made notable leaps forward, accepting, for instance, split infintives, there is still a tendency to let personal preferences dictate rules:


She also tends to accept the word of authorities without questioning them.  In this interview She notes that “like” is frowned upon but she uses it:

MF: I tend to use “like” as a conjunction. Technically, we’re supposed to say “It looks as if it’s going to rain” or “It looks as though it’s going to rain.” I tend to say “It looks like it’s going to rain.” That’s wrong, but I’ve been saying it that way my whole life and it’s a hard habit to break. I’m constantly correcting myself.

To a linguist, the idea of you using something your whole life which is “wrong” is an astonishing notion and one which Pinker gently mocks here:

Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary. The video shows the usual gorgeous footage of animals in their natural habitats. But the voiceover reports some troubling facts. Dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes properly. White-crowned sparrows carelessly debase their calls. Chickadees’ nests are incorrectly constructed, pandas hold bamboo in the wrong paw, the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys’ cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years. Your reaction would probably be, What on earth could it mean for the song of the humpback whale to contain an “error”? Isn’t the song of the humpback whale whatever the humpback whale decides to sing? Who is this announcer, anyway?

I have nothing against Grammar Girl personally. She’s a popular, talented and successful person, if anything I’m a bit jealous, -but I do wish she turn over the grammatical rocks and look a bit deeper underneath. It’s fine knowing the “rules” but it’s more important to know where those rules come from and if they are worth following. Admittedly the facts are perhaps not as crystal clear or as neat and satisfying as the “rules”, but surely the facts are more important.


References (not hyperlinked)


Bryson, B 1984 Troublesome words London: Penguin