Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Readers’ Questions

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: In a sequence of adjectives, English speakers and writers know in what order the adjectives should go, as in “a big, beautiful statue,” rather than “a beautiful, big statue.” Why do we not have to be taught “rules” like this? -Janet Stern

To begin with the most basic of questions, how do we ever learn what words are? Language is like a flowing stream sweeping onward with few discernible breaks in the flow. When we hear someone speaking a foreign language that we do not understand, we find that we cannot pluck words from the rushing river of speech. To an infant in the early stages of development, what ultimately becomes its native tongue is at first also a foreign language. Studies show that even for adults, who already have a vocabulary, thephysicalcuesthatdividespokenwordsarevagueandunreliable. Try, for example, to stake out the boundaries between no notion and known ocean, buys ink and buy zinc, meteorologist and meaty urologist and cat’s kills, cat skills and Catskills.

Even when we acquire our words and their meanings, how do we learn to string words together into statements? In order to speak, we humans must possess a highly complex set of internalized rules that enable us to utter any of (and only) the permissible sequences in a given language — although we are unlikely to have any conscious knowledge of the rules.

I’m thinking about a group of scholars. There are five of them, they are from Lithuania, they are old and they are experts on Shakespeare. Now describe these men, using all the information I have just provided. Voila! Your cluster of words is, almost certainly, “those five old Lithuanian Shakespearean scholars.” Every native or experienced adult speaker of English knows to put the adjectives in the order above. How do we learn the exact order of that sequence — demonstrative pronoun-number-adjective-nationality-adjective-noun, marching in a line?

Now picture a building. Five feet from that building is parked a bicycle. Now state the relationship between the building and the bicycle using the phrase “next to.” Just about every speaker of English will say, “The bicycle is next to the building,” rather than “The building is next to the bicycle.” Yet in the physical world there is a reciprocal relationship in which the bicycle and the building are equidistant from each other.

Young children are as likely to say, “The building is next to the bicycle” as they are to say, “The bicycle is next to the building,” but somewhere around three years of age, they learn to prefer “The bicycle is next to the building,” even though no teacher teaches them such a sequence. Apparently some internalized rule informs us that we place the larger object or more important person second in a sentence, in the same way that we know to say, “My sister met the Pope,” rather than “The Pope met my sister.” But who teaches us such a rule, and how do we learn it? Even if we have never studied the “rules” of grammar in school, we know them, deep down in the circuitry of our brains.

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This past Sunday’s Super Bowl was the lowest scoring in the 53-year history of the extravaganza — 13-3. I call that game the Stupor Bowl,

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February is the perfect month to point out how often, when we speak and write, we drop an r from the middle of a word. While some dictionaries accept “Feb-yoo-ary” as a standard pronunciation, I urge you, gentle readers, to reflect the spelling of the word and to sound it as “Feb-roo-ary.” Please don’t come foward and mispronounce the San Bernadino liberry. There is no foe in forward and no berry in library, and you have to wonder why we pronounce both r’s in the second word of Rancho Bernardo, but only the first r in the second word of San Bernardino.

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The bitter cold temperatures that recently engulfed most of the United States evoked the word arctic, as in arctic cold and arctic vortex. Did you notice that many broadcasters dropped the first c in arctic? In Hell, Michigan, the temperature plummeted to -14.8 degrees F — so, literally, Hell froze over. And places like Chicago and Grand Forks, ND, were colder than Hell. Clearly, nobody from San Diego wants to go to Hell!