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Dear Grammar Police: Kindly Cease and Desist

Mirriam Webster’s Kory Stamper explains just how words end up making the jump from the popular vernacular to the dictionary.

KORY STAMPER: So these are two main approaches to language. There’s prescriptivism and descriptivism. 

Prescriptivism is a belief that the “best practices” of English will prevail. And so you champion the best practices of English. And the idea of the best practices of English—they sort of take a very broad look at the established canon of literature and use that. 

Descriptivism is another approach to language and it’s one that dictionaries use. And that is that you are a chronicler of language. You record the language as it’s used and not as you want it to be used. 

So editors are prescriptivists, for instance, because they’re trying to establish a standard way of writing or a standard tone or a standard voice for a publication. 

Dictionaries are a descriptivist because the goal of a dictionary is to record as much of the language as you can, and even though prescriptivists and writers and editors champion the best practices of English, the best practices of English aren’t all the things that end up in print. 

So as descriptivists we sort of look at everything that makes it into print—so good, bad and ugly—and enter those into the dictionary when they meet the criteria. 

I didn’t identify as a descriptivist before I got to Merriam Webster. I was a prescriptivist, because when you grow up—the way that our American educational system works—you grow up inside of this set of grammar rules. And those grammar rules are prescriptive. So when I started my job one of the first things that they said is: “You have to be willing to let go of any linguistic prejudices you have to record the language.” 

So I moved from being a prescriptivist into being a descriptivist. And I still have – there are still times when I’m a prescriptivist, and there’s still times when I see a word and say, “Ugh, I don’t like it.” 

But yes, I wasn’t a descriptivist before I started this job. 

I think there is value in defaulting to a descriptivist view of language, because what a descriptivist’s view of language assumes is that the person you’re speaking with has an equal command of the language that you do, and that their English is just as good as your English. 

And particularly in a business setting when you’re dealing with employees or your vendors or customers from all over the place that has to be the basis for any kind of communication—that you’re both on equal footing. 

So, and I think when you do that you also get a chance to learn more about people in your organization. So if I have an employee that says “y’all,” I can ask, you know, “Oh, did you grow up in the South?” And I get to find out more about the people in my organization that way. 

Whereas if you just say, “‘Y’all is not appropriate in a business setting,” that immediately shuts someone out and it puts a moral charge on their own language that you don’t necessarily want. It doesn’t foster communication—or respect, even. 

When you decide that words like “irregardless” or the pronunciation “nuculer” are wrong you are excluding a whole group of people who use those words naturally. 

And they might not print “irregardless” and they might be very careful when they say “nuclear” to make sure they’re saying nuclear. But those words actually have – irregardless has a really long history. It’s over 200 years old, and it has appeared in print all over the English-speaking world. And the pronunciation “nuculer” is actually—though we think that it’s sort of, we say it’s an uneducated pronunciation, it’s actually used by some of the most highly educated people in the public domain. 

So nuclear physicists will say “nuculer,” and “irregardless” has been used in oral arguments on the Supreme Court. So when you say “irregardless isn’t appropriate” or “it’s illiterate” or you say “nuculer isn’t how you say that word,” it’s just a way of pushing out people’s experiences and pushing out sort of other-ing people’s identity really, because these are parts of who they are. 

And you can say, “irregardless isn’t appropriate in formal writing,” which is true. And you can say most people say “nuclear,” which is also true. 

But to say “irregardless is wrong, nuculer is wrong” really brings morality into an area where morality doesn’t have any place.

If you’ve ever used "y’all" in a business setting, you might be get an odd look from your colleagues but you might actually be helping the word get into the dictionary. Mirriam Webster’s Kory Stamper explains just how words end up making the jump from the popular vernacular to the dictionary. Sometimes society just keeps saying words wrong until they’re right (‘nuclear’ vs ’nuculer’). And sometimes these small decisions make a big difference. Which would explain the use of "irregardless" in the Supreme Court. Join us as Kory explains us the big difference between being a prescriptivist and a descriptivist.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
  • One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.
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