English 402, Descriptive English Grammar

or, Everything you wanted to know about the English language, but were afraid to ask . . .

Spring 2015

Instructor: Dennis BaronWelcome English Teachers. Can opener, $9.95; may opener, $19.95
office: 251 English
phone: 217-305-0067
email: debaron@illinois.edu
office hours: Tu Th 11 am - 12:00 pm, and by appointment

class meets Tu Th 2 - 3:15 pm; 119 English Building

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 take-home 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

Tu Jan 20: Why do you watch Dr. Who, not Dr. Whom, or, What is grammar good for?

Watch: Sherlock Holmes, prescriptive grammarian

Sherlock Holmes

And this clip, from "The Book Group":

And don't forget "Flight of the Conchords":

And "The WIre," season 2:

And this, from "Take the Money and Run":


Th Jan 22: But there have to be rules, right?

Read the excerpt from The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Now, pedants have their own version of Twitter:

Tweet "whom" to follow

The State of the Union (SOTU) 2015:

Merriam-Webster list of new words for 2014 includes tweep, hashtag, selfie, and big data.

OED list of new words for 2014 includes: g'day, bitchingly, and un-PC

The Words of the Year for 2014: culture, vape, overshare, photobomb, shirtfront, torture, ♥, polar vortex, and more.

Week 2

Tu Jan 27 What do you know about language?

What's in a sign? If it's in Welsh, not what you think:


The NASA plaque.


Nasa plaque













and this 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

Can you identify this mystery language: The language of Fug.

Th Jan 29 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

"Enough of this [expletive deleted]": cursing in the 21st century

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

Week 3

Tu Feb 3:  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

Back to school special: In 2011 Old Navy offered 30% off this "Lets go Illini" women's T-shirt -- apparently you only got the apostrophe in "let's go" if you paid full price. The company quickly replaced the defective shirts and offered anything still on the shelves in Old Navy Outlets as factory second's (sic). These t's with typos were "made in USA," not in some non-English-speaking 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? Hey, it's better than driving a cab.

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

Th Feb 5: Language and authority, continued: the nature of correctness

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

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

Tu Feb 10: 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 of the speech organs:

X-ray of speech organss

Th Feb 12: Phonology, continued.

Week 5

Tu Feb 17: phonology, concluded: phonological rules. That nagging question about spelling

Th Feb 19: English morphology: forming words from meaning-bearing parts; C&A ch. 4.

Assignment: "New Word Exercise" for Tuesday.  

Week 6

Tu Feb 24: Morphology, concluded: How we make new words.

Th Feb 26: English syntax I: 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.

Week 7

Tu Mar 3: Ch. 5, on syntax, concluded

Th Mar 5: Syntax II: Read C&A ch. 6, on phrases, clauses, and sentences

Week 8

Tu Mar 10: syntax II, cont'd.

Crash blossoms

Syntax powerpoint pdf.

Read "Smarter than you think"

excerpt from Lowth's grammarTh Mar 12: Syntax continued.

The midterm study guide

Week 9

Tu Mar 17: Midterm Exam

Th Mar 19: Syntax II, concluded

Spring break, March 20 - 29

Week 10

Tu Mar 31: No class today

Th Apr 2:Semantics, What does it all mean? 

Read C&A, ch. 7

Semantics pdf.

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


Dr. Johnson's definition of man (1755)

Week 11

Tu Apr 7: How to do things with words: Read C&A ch. 8, Spoken Discourse

A Literal Paradox

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

Th Apr 9: We have to talk

Conversational analysis

Scripted and unscripted speech 

Week 12

Tu Apr 14: Stylistics. C&A ch. 9 Word choice in literature and in life.

Is "Double Falsehood" really a play by Shakespeare?

Stylistics powerpoint

Th Apr 16: Language variation.  The more things change, the more they're different. C&A ch. 11.

Variation slides

Week 13

Tu Apr 21: American Dialects.

Read C&A 12 Did you ever notice that people in _____ speak differently from us?

American Dialect slides

Th Apr 23: African American 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 14

Tu Apr 28:

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. 


Th Apr 30: There oughta be a law: Minority languages in the United States

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

Read, Baron, "English spoken here."

The English Language Unity Act (2015 version)

Tu May 5: Language and the schoolsflagposter

Read Applebee and Langer, A Snapshot of Writing Instruction

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

Read: Common Core Language Standards

And once again: Language lessons: It's time for English teachers to stop teaching that the world is flat

Final Exam: due 4 p.m., Friday, May 15

The exam is a take-home, open-book test with three short essays, to be submitted via email attachment. Instructions for submitting your test appear on the exam link.

Questions will go online (see link below) at 5 pm on Weds, May 6, and will be removed at 4 p.m. on May 15.

Your final exam essay is due via email no later than 4 p.m. on May 15. Early submissions will be welcome.


For the bonus: defining marriage


Click here for the Final Examination