Interview with Gretchen McCulloch

Gretchen McCulloch
Gretchen McCulloch

Please meet Gretchen McCulloch, linguist, editor and writer.

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

I’m a linguist and the editor of Slate’s language blog, Lexicon Valley. I write linguistics-related articles for a general audience both on Lexicon Valley and elsewhere (The Toast, Grammar Girl), as well as slightly nerdier posts on my own blog, All Things Linguistic. Perhaps most notably, I’ve written about internet linguistics, including the grammar of doge, the “because x” construction, and interviews about these two constructions with CBC Spark and with the BBC Today Programme.

I graduated from McGill University in 2013 with an M.A. in linguistics, but I’m still attending linguistics conferences and working with academic linguists to bridge the gap between linguistics and the general public.

I live in Montreal, and when I’m not linguist-ing, I like swing-dancing, board games, and experimenting with new recipes.

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you? What about it inspired you to dedicate your studies and career on topics related to language/linguistics?

I’ve been interested in linguistics since I was around 12 years old, and languages even before that. I think part of what’s so fascinating is that language is the type of thing that you can approach very scientifically and try to figure out how it works, but at the same time you can find a lot of data to analyze without a microscope or any fancy equipment, just by having a conversation with someone or overhearing things on the street. I honestly can’t imagine not doing something related to linguistics: every time I think of alternate career ideas, it turns back into “but how could I make this more linguistic?”

You are a blog writer amongst other things. How do you think blogging has changed language? How we get news? How we use language?

One of the things that I think is unique about blogging is that it gives you the opportunity to write long-form pieces where you’re both writer and editor, so you can do everything according to your personal style guide. For example, several years ago, I learned that British style is to put periods and commas outside quotation marks when they don’t belong to the quote, just like you’d do with question marks and exclamation marks. Despite the fact that all through school I was taught to put them inside, which is Canadian/American style, I decided that I liked the British logic better, so that’s what I follow on my own blog and everywhere that I’m my own editor.

Of course, when I write for other places, it makes sense for all the authors to be following a consistent style guide, but I think blogs are an interesting source of more stylistic and linguistic diversity. The same is true for social media in general, but blogs are a unique intersection between news/longer writing and shorter, more personal social media tidbits, like on Twitter and Facebook.

What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

I like to think that I’m introducing people to technical linguistics terminology that they wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. I think it’s very satisfying to realize that “ah, there’s a word for it” when it comes to things like contrastive focus reduplication or Gricean maxims. I also heard from someone recently who said that they were convinced to accept singular they on the basis of something I wrote, which was very gratifying.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar/blogging?

I don’t think I’m remotely finished yet, but for the moment I’m very proud of both my grammar of doge and my protolinguist series, for different reasons.

Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?

I’ve never met someone who isn’t at least somewhat intrigued about why certain people say certain things or how kids can make sense of language when we’ve spent decades building computers that are only beginning to get there. I think people get put off by dull or judgemental explanations, but we all have the potential to be fascinated by language as a living, collaborative phenomenon. I mean, I haven’t taken science since high school, but I still want to read about the discovery of the Higgs boson in the news.

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest? Why does it matter?

I’d like people to relax more about usage and be more open to coining new words and expressions. It’s tremendously fun to verb words and create off-the-cuff-isms, and yet people get really worried about whether something’s “really a word” or not. Who cares? You understood it! Let’s all judge each other less.

What are the three most critical errors made most often?

Criticizing someone’s language unless they’ve specifically asked for your opinion on it, especially as a way to avoid engaging with their central argument.
Criticizing a particular usage based on a knee-jerk reaction rather than researching its history: many of the old classics of English writing advice have never been based on a sound analysis of English grammar, nor reflected in the writing of respected authors.
Assuming that the most formal register of English is the only “real” or acceptable register.

Anything else?

That’s all for now!

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