Welcome to the Idiot's Guide to the English Language

otherwise known by its more official title

English 402, Descriptive English Grammar

Fall 2012

Instructor: Dennis BaronWelcome English Teachers. Can opener, $9.95; may opener, $19.95
office: 251 English
email: debaron@illinois.edu
office hours: Monday and Wednesday, 1:00-2:00 pm and by appointment

class meets MW 2:00-3:15 pm; 108 English Building

Read the Web of Language

This is a course in English linguistics. We will study the English language: how we use it; how it uses us. We will learn and practice techniques for describing English, both its words and sentences and larger elements of discourse in context. We will look at the social, historical, and political forces that shape language and its use. And we will suggest ways to use what we learn about language both in the classroom and in the professional world.


Class policies --


Attendance: This is a discussion course. Your presence is essential, as is your participation. Excessive absence and poor preparation will affect your final grade.


Assignments: there will be a midterm quiz and a final exam.


Grading: midterm quiz, 40%; final exam, 50%; class participation, 10% (attendance is not participation).

Text: Curzan, Anne, and Michael Adams, How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. 3rd ed., New York: Pearson. (C&A in the syllabus)




Week 1

Mon Aug 27: Do you watch Dr. Who or Dr. Whom?, or, What is grammar good for?

Read: What is YOLO? Only teenagers know for sure.

Merriam-Webster list of new words for 2012 includes f-bomb, sexting.

OED list of new words for 2012

Watch: Sherlock Holmes, prescriptive grammarian

Sherlock Holmes

Now, pedants have their own version of Twitter:

Tweet "whom" to follow

Read the excerpt from The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Read Grammar sticklers may have OCD

Then read, Why did 20,000 readers misread this?

Then read: Language lessons: It's time for English teachers to stop teaching that the world is flat


Wed Aug 29: How a Supreme Court ruling on gun control illuminates the construction of meaning
Read: Baron, Guns and grammar: Parsing the Second Amendment


Slide show: The grammar of the second amendment. 

Week 2

Mon Sep 3: Labor Day -- no class


Wed. Sep 5: What do you know about language?


The NASA plaque.


Nasa plaque














and this just in, from the Washington Post, on the record placed in Voyager 1 and 2

Here's what NASA has to say about the Golden Record:

Voyager golden record


Assign: the language of Fug.


Week 3


Mon Sep 10:  The language of Fug. What have you been told about language? How do you know if it’s right? Read C&A ch. 1.

Randy Cohen on Axe for ask

George Washington on profanity

George Washington is shocked, shocked to discover
that soldiers swear and use profanity.

Taboo: Watch the swearing scene from The King's Speech

From the King's Speech

Wed Sep 12:  Language and authority-- What is standard English, and who said so? Read C&A ch. 2

Lets go Illini Old Navy t-shirt with no apostrophe

Old Navy offers 30% off this "Lets go Illini" women's t--you only get the apostrophe if you pay full price. The company will replace the defective shirts and offer remaining stock in Old Navy Outlets as factory second's. These t's with typos were "made in USA," not in some third-world country by child laborers too poor to have apostrophes. To insure quality control, the retailer announced plans to hire unemployed English majors as clothing proofreaders. Or should that be ensure?

In further correctness news, Weird Al Yankovic (left) edits signs over express lanes in fine grocery stores everywhere, but at Whole Foods in Lincoln Park (right), less is always fewer:

Weird Al corrects 10 items or less to 10 items or fewer

Grammar news for 9/11/12: from Google News

Sir Philip Sidney on the Double Negative

John Witherspoon on don't, an't.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary entry for ain't

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 11e, entry for ain't

American Heritage Dictionary 5e, entry for ain't

Week 4

Mon Sep 17: Rosh Hashanah -- no class today  


Wed Sep 19: Phonology


Read C&A ch. 3 English phonology. How the sounds of English combine to make words.

the anatomy of speech; consonants and vowels

Descent of the larynx: it allows for great variety of sounds, but increases risk of choking: human babies and dogs can swallow food while breathing through their nose; adult humans, whose larynx is descended, can't do this (don't even think about trying this!).

Descent of the larynx

Endoscopic view of the larynx at work:

Watch: X-ray movie

X-ray of speech organss


Week 5


Mon Sep 24: phonology, concluded: phonological rules. That nagging question about spelling.

Bonus: Today is National Punctuation Day, to which I say, “!*?#&$@”! This WOL reprise tells why we need to put a stop to it: http://bit.ly/Sipi9j  

Wed Sep 26: Yom Kippur -- no class

Week 6

Mon Oct 1English morphology.

Forming words from meaning-bearing parts. C&A ch. 4. Do "New Word Exercise" for Wednesday.  

Wed Oct 3: How we make words: new words exercise; morphology, concluded.

The class new words list

Week 7

Mon Oct 8: English syntax: the grammar of words put together into utterances. Read C&A ch. 5

The parts of speech (the Greeks called them "pieces of speech").

When is a noun more than the name of a person, place or thing? 

Schoolhouse Rock has one way to view the parts of speech--


A Noun is a Person Place or Thing

But sometimes things get more complicated:

Play the Noun Game to see how a simple grammar lesson leads to a clash of civilizations.

Wed Oct 10: No class today

Week 8

Mon Oct 15: Ch. 5, on syntax, concluded excerpt from Lowth's grammar

Wed Oct 17: More syntax: C&A ch. 6--phrases, clauses, sentences

Crash blossoms

Syntax powerpoint pdf.

Read "Smarter than you think"

Week 9

Mon Oct 22: Syntax, continued

Wed Oct 24: Syntax, concluded

Week 10

Mon Oct 29: Midterm exam -- in class, room 108, today (see midterm review, here).

Wed Oct 31:Semantics, What does it all mean? 

Semantics pdf. C&A ch. 7.

Sir James A. H. Murray on, "the dictionary says..."

Week 11

Mon Nov 5: Semantics, continued.

Wed Nov 7: How to do things with word: Read C&A ch. 8, Spoken Discourse

When do speech acts count? Watch: Excerpt from Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral

And irregular speech acts occur in real life, not just in movies:

Chief Justice Roberts administers the oath of office to Barack Obama

Chief Justice Roberts administers the oath of office to Barack Obama

Read: Chief Justice flubs oath

Speech Analysis Powerpoint

Week 12

Mon Nov 12: We have to talk

Conversational analysis

Scripted and unscripted speech 

Wed Nov 14: Stylistics. C&A ch. 9 Word choice in literature and in life.

Stylistics powerpoint

BBC News: England's Italian football coach uses only 100 words. How many words do you need?

Nov 17-25 Fall Break

Week 13

Mon Nov 26: Language variation.  The more things change, the more they're different. C&A ch. 11.

Variation slides

Wed Nov 28:

C&A ch. 12 American Dialects.

Did you ever notice that people in _____ speak differently from us?

American Dialect slides

tomato film clip

Week 14

Mon Dec 3: Variation and American dialects, concluded

Wed Dec 5: African American Vernacular English:

Read James Baldwin, If Black English isn't a language, then tell me, what is?

Read Baron, Ebonics and the Politics of English

Week 15

Mon Dec 10: There oughta be a law flagposter

Official English and the controversy over the Spanish translation of the "Star-Spangled Banner" 

Read, Baron, "English spoken here."

Wed Dec 12: Language and the schools

Read Applebee and Langer, A Snapshot of Writing Instruction

Baron, "Language and Education: The More Things Change"

Read: Common Core Language Standards


Final Exam: Saturday Dec. 15 1:30-4:30 pm Note: the exam is a take home, to be completed over email. Questions will go online after class on Weds, 12/12 and will be removed at 5:00 pm today..

Your final exam essay is due via email at 4:30 pm. Early submissions will be welcome.


Click here for the Final Examination