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How COVID Changed the Way We Think About Words. How to Write Dates. Prefeed.

Episode Summary

909. In honor of 2023, we’ll talk about writing dates. And then we talk about a fascinating study about how COVID has changed the way we think about certain words.

Episode Notes

909. In honor of 2023, we’ll talk about writing dates. And then we talk about a fascinating study about how COVID has changed the way we think about certain words.

| Transcript:

COVID Words Segment

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. Today, we’ll talk about writing dates, and then about a fascinating study about how COVID has changed the way we think about certain words.

Can you believe it’s already 2023? I feel like I hadn’t even gotten used to calling it 2022 yet. But another year is gone. Since a new year gets people thinking about the date, I’ll answer a few date-related questions.

Pronouncing Numbers

by Mignon Fogarty

Here’s a question from a long time ago from a listener named Michael to get us started. (It will seem as if he’s getting a little off track, but it will all make sense in a minute.)

"Grammar Girl, I have some concerns regarding the correct grammar for wedding invitations and wedding announcements. My fiancee and I have two main questions. The first regarding a year. A year such as 2007 often written as ‘two thousand AND seven.’ We both believe this to be grammatically incorrect, yet prevalent among examples that we’ve seen in print. Our second question is regarding the use of British English in the states. We live stateside, and yet we seen in these examples, many words written in the British spelling versus in American spelling, and we don’t know what to do. Thank you for your help."

The reason Michael’s question about British English in wedding invitations is relevant to how to pronounce dates is that as a general rule the year is pronounced “two thousand AND twenty-three” in Britain and “two thousand twenty-three” in America. That’s the general rule; it’s quite common to hear people use the and in the United States, although from the number of e-mail messages I get complaining about it, I’d say a lot of Americans have been taught that it’s wrong.

So back to Michael’s question, I believe the reason you see the year written as two thousand AND twenty-three  in wedding invitations is the same reason you see the other British spellings on invitations—Americans tend to think British English sounds more formal, and they want their invitations to sound special. Some people may consider it an affectation, but it’s hard to fault people for doing something unusual when they’re already walking around carrying flowers and dressing up in a suit or gown that’s nothing like they’d wear in real life. There isn’t much about weddings that is normal.

Back to dates.

Ordinal Numbers Versus Cardinal Numbers

There are two kinds of numbers you can use to talk about a specific day: an ordinal number and a cardinal number. Cardinal numbers represent amounts like one, two, and three. Ordinal numbers represent a place in a series like first, second, and third. I think of cardinal numbers as the numbers you see on playing cards.

When you’re writing out a date like January 1, 2023 (in the American style), the day is written as a cardinal number. So you should never write January 1st, 2023. The weird thing though is when you’re speaking, even though it is written as January 1, you say, “January first.” So when you are reading a date that is written January 1, 2023, you say “January first, two thousand twenty-three.” That’s probably why a lot of people get confused about how to write it.

The instance in which it is OK to use an ordinal number is when you are writing the 1st of January, because you are placing the day in a series: of all the days in January, this day is the first. For example, your invitations could say, “Please join us for a party on the first of January.” In that case, it’s correct to use the ordinal number, first.

Commas and Dates

Next, there are some rules about commas and dates. When you’re writing out a full date in the American style, you put a comma between the day and the year, so New Year’s Day was January 1, 2023. Different style guides make different recommendations about whether to put a comma after the year. Some say to put a comma after the year in a sentence like January 1, 2023, was an exciting day, and some say to leave the comma out after the year. So do check your style guide.

Starting a Sentence with a Year

And what about starting a sentence with a number? Although the general rule is that you shouldn’t start a sentence with an Arabic number—that you should write out the words instead— some (but not all) sources make exceptions for years. Therefore, some people may object, but you wouldn’t be completely out of line to write a sentence like 2023 will be the year I keep my resolutions, with 2023 written as a number instead of written out with words. Still, if you want to be super safe, it’s better to rewrite the sentence so the year isn’t at the beginning.

Apostrophes and Dates

If you want to abbreviate the year, you can use an apostrophe to replace the initial two and zero, for example, writing, “What are your plans for ’23?” If you want to refer to a whole decade, for example if you want to reminisce about the ’80s, you write ’80s with an apostrophe replacing the 19 and with an S at the end. I loved the ’80s. And you don’t need an apostrophe before that final S. It’s apostrophe, eighty, S.

Language in a Pandemic 

by Valerie Fridland

To figure out how we understand language, we need to understand how people learn words and organize them in their minds so we can understand how they identify relationships among the words and how they quickly come up with the right words when they want to say something.   This may sound simple since we do it every day, but, in reality, it is part of a pretty complex language processing system that researchers would like to understand better.  

For example, think about the last time you had one of those ‘tip of the tongue’ experiences — where you knew you knew a word, but just couldn’t come up with it.  Why are we able to quickly come up with some words but not others?  How are they triggered and connected in our brains? These are central questions in understanding human language.

And, with the pandemic came not just coronavirus, but also a massive change in what we talked about.  Words that normally we would rarely hear — words like "mask," "social distancing," "isolation," "vaccine" and "quarantine" — became commonplace almost overnight, and even more unusual, this happened all over the world.  

To researchers, this offered a unique opportunity to see if such a drastic and widespread shift might have some long-lasting effects on how we process language. So, a group of language scientists from both industry and academic backgrounds designed a study to see how the uptick in the use of less common words — like "mask" and "screening" — during the pandemic changed how we mentally organized and processed words.  Their finding? That COVID has indeed changed the way we understand and see relationships between words.

Previous research has found two important things that help us store and easily access the meaning of a word:  First, how frequent that word is in our environment and, second, whether it has any other words or sounds that are linked with it in our minds.    For example, words like “squeaky toy” might cause us to pull up the word “dog” because we've learned to associate their meanings (in what linguists call a semantic network or neighborhood).  So, hearing one word improves how quickly we can come up with another related word in a process called semantic priming.  And even recognizable sounds, and not just words, can be part of these semantic networks and have this effect.  For example, coughing, a fairly innocuous sound before the pandemic has now taken on connotations of COVID-spread. So, it is possible that, because of this association, hearing a cough leads us to more quickly access words like "mask," "screening" and "quarantine" since that link has recently become part of our shared experience.

Testing the effect of this sudden change to our language over the past few years, the researchers wanted to find out if the sudden and dramatic increase in pandemic-related words, words that had not been very frequent before the pandemic, had changed how these words were stored and activated in our minds and whether there had been changes in our semantic networks.

To look at this, they used what is called a phoneme restoration task where a sound in a word is replaced with a noise that obscures part of the word’s pronunciation (like abra#adabra, with the ‘k’ sound you'd normally heard in "abracadabra" obscured by noise).  What we find is that often people can “fill” in the missing sound without even realizing it to match a word they know, relying on the knowledge they have about existing words in their language.

Taking advantage of this ability, the researchers played a series of words all of which had a sound or two obscured by a noise.  So, participants would hear something like (noise)-ask or (noise)-ockdown and then were asked to type the word they thought they had just heard.  Here's an example with the word obscured by fuzz: [(noise)-ockdown] [(noise)-ockdown] And here's an example with the word obscured by a cough:[(cough)-ockdown] [(cough)-ockdown].

You might notice that in these cases with the first sound being impossible to make out, participants would have to choose among a number of what are referred to as ‘competitors” in terms of which word they thought they heard – for example, between "mask" and "task" for "-ask" or "lockdown" vs. "knockdown" for -ockdown or "rung" vs. "lung" for “-ung.”   

Looking at these competing words in terms of their pre-pandemic use, the study discovered they occurred at about the same rate in our speech.  But, post-pandemic, the rate of words like "mask," "lockdown" and "lung," as well as a number of others like "injection," "isolation," and "clinic," had dramatically increased.  And what the study found was that people’s increased experience during the pandemic with words like "mask" or "lockdown" biased them to hear those words instead of competitors like "task" or "knockdown."

Even more interesting, when a cough obscured the first sound instead of just random noise, it increased the rate at which COVID-related words were perceived even more.  So, it seems, we have learned to link the sound of a cough with COVID, which then triggers access to other words, things like "injection," "isolation," or "mask," that we also see as COVID-related.

As a result of this research, we see how it is that we learn connections between words based on not just shared meaning (like for synonyms, e.g., "car" and "auto") but also shared experience and that shift in how we understand words and the connections between them can happen suddenly, triggered by a major event like the pandemic or a war.  This also means that the things we talk about with sudden increased frequency weigh more in how we organize words in our minds than the things we used to talk about – in other words, our recent experience seems to matter more than whatever previous experience with other words or associations we might have had.  

That segment was based on a study by Daniel Kleinman, Adam Morgan, Rachel Ostrand, and Eva Wittenberg at the NYU School of Medicine and was written by Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of a forthcoming book "Like Literally, Dude" on all the speech habits we love to hate. You can find her at

Reference: Kleinman D, Morgan AM, Ostrand R, Wittenberg E (2022) Lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on language processing. PLoS ONE 17(6): e0269242. 

Finally, I have a familect story from Tammy:

"H, Grammar Girl. My name is Tammy. I'm calling from the tiny but beautiful country of Israel. I'm a long time listener and particularly love the episodes where you discuss word origins and the history behind them. So thank you so much for that. I'm calling in with a family word that we have which is to prefeed, p-r-e-f-e-e-d. When we go to a restaurant to celebrate something with the family. We've six children and half of them are hungry teenage boys. So before we head out, we prefeed them. They have a little snack because otherwise they will leave the restaurant hungry. We conjugate it, I guess, by calling out to each other, “Hey, did somebody prefeed so and so?” or “Don't worry someone was prefed, so we can head out now.” And the word probably only has meaning to us, but thought you might get a kick out of it. Have a wonderful day and thank you for your great work."

Thank you, Tammy! I love that, and prefeeding seems like a very practical thing to do with hungry teenagers. It also reminded me of when I was in college. We called our parties “functions,” and when we would get together before the parties, we would call them “prefunctions,” and we also used it as a verb. For example, I remember talking about “prefunctioning.” Thanks again for the call.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show. Be sure to tell me the story behind your word or phrase and call from a quiet place.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, and our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, who recently joined a pickleball group and is nervous about exposing her beginner skills but excited to get better. And our intern is Kamryn Lacy.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.