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Language expert's blog gaining notoriety popularity as 'go-to site'


Dennis Baron
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Photo by Roxana Ryan
Dennis Baron’s “The Web of Language” is the best-read blog published using software created by the university’s Web Services.

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It may not have the circulation of the Huffington Post – yet – but University of Illinois English and linguistics professor Dennis Baron’s “The Web of Language” is the best-read blog published using software created by the university’s Web Services.

Baron, who has written essays for The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers and has long been a favorite source for reporters and columnists tackling topics related to grammar and language, calls his blog “the go-to site for language in the news.”

Since he began blogging two years ago, Baron has been publishing an average of one essay a week; about a year ago, when the application was enhanced to include a graphics component, he began using images to reinforce his messages.

Jim Wilson, the director of Web Services, said his team has tracked as many as 17,000 hits on the site – in a single month.

“That means my posts reached more people in a couple of months than the three books I published with Yale University Press,” Baron said. “Go figure.”

Why all the interest in words about word use?

“People have strong opinions about the language issues of the day, and while many of us have learned to think of language study – especially grammar – as either dull or scary, we discuss issues like minority language rights, bilingualism, the linguistic rights of workers, standard and nonstandard varieties of English, the position of English on the world stage, language legislation, slang, profanity, obscenity, spelling, new words, and many other language issues eagerly, sometimes passionately,” Baron said.

His books cover some of these same topics. They include “The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans?” and “Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language,” both published by Yale University Press.

The English professor – who’s more likely to be found leading discussions about evolving digital writing genres with his students than embellishing their homework assignments with red ink – lists his blog among the suggested readings for the courses he teaches. Those courses include English 300 and 482: “Writing Technologies – Communicating in the Digital Age” and English 402: “Descriptive English Grammar” – otherwise known, he jokes, as “The Idiot’s Guide to the English Language.”

Whether “The Web of Language” is being read by students, colleagues or members of the general public who stumble upon it while surfing the Web, Baron’s motivation for writing and posting the essays – typically crafted with equal parts information and satire – remains the same.

“What I hope to accomplish is to get readers to think more critically about some of the key issues of language policy, so that they can better understand what’s being discussed, and so they can recognize language myth and misinformation and make informed decisions for themselves,” he said.

Baron is working on a book-length study, “From Pencils to Pixels: Communicating in the Digital Age,” and “What Writers Do,” a study of writing processes.

Earlier this year, his linguistics expertise was enlisted to bolster arguments presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. Baron was the chief author of an amicus curiae brief filed in support of the District of Columbia in District of Columbia v. Heller, which sought to overturn a lower court ruling in which the majority decision was based in part on a linguistic argument interpreting the Second Amendment as precluding gun control. The brief by Baron and two colleagues provided a linguistic analysis based on what the framers of the Second Amendment intended when they wrote it, and what it still means today.