Words On The Web: Alt.Usage.English FAQ

If you’re not familiar with Usenet, you’re missing out on a rich part of the Internet experience. Usenet (short for “Unix User Network") is a hierarchy of discussion groups on all manner of subjects. It got its start back in 1979 when the Internet was still known as Arpanet. The discussion groups range from 3dfx.game.discussion to z-netz.wissenschaft.technik. Every subject under the sun has its own discussion group. The one we’re interested in is alt.usage.english (or AUE).

As you might guess, AUE is all about English grammar and style. The group discusses the English language (and also occasionally other languages); how particular words, phrases, and syntactic forms are used; their origin; where in the English-speaking world they’re prevalent; and how they should be used.

Recent topics of discussion include comma splices, why wormer and dewormer mean the same thing, and is there a Russian bias in OED etymologies?

The group is quite an active one, and keeping up with all the daily messages can be time-consuming. But the FAQ is available to all, not just those who read the group.

Most of these discussion groups have lists of frequently asked questions (FAQ) for newcomers to the particular group. Supposedly these FAQs exist so that regular contributors don’t have to answer the same questions over and over again. But often these FAQs are more than lists of questions and answers. They often contain detailed information on all aspects of the group’s topic, as well as conventions and idiosyncrasies of the group. For example by reading the FAQ on alt.folklore.urban, you will find out that posting smileys in your messages to that group is frowned upon.

The AUE FAQ is no exception. Compiled by Mark Israel, it was last updated in 1997 (an eternity in Internet time, but given the subject it’s hardly outdated; one notable exception is the discussion about when the new millennium starts, which is vestigial at this point).

The FAQ includes:
• Guidelines for posting
• Recommended dictionaries & books
• Artificial dialects
• Pronunciation
• Usage disputes
• Punctuation
• Foreigners’ FAQs
• Word origins
• Phrase origins
• Words frequently sought, and
• Spelling

Even if you never visit the AUE newsgroup or post a question or reply, the FAQ is a valuable on-line resource. There’s not much that you won’t find in other references, but it’s a one-stop shop for English language info.

It does have some specific Internet-oriented advice. A section of the FAQ discusses how to represent pronunciation in ASCII text. Also the section on specific problems that non-native speakers frequently encounter is useful and not found in many style or grammar manuals. And buried throughout are puzzles, wordplay, and fun forms that make the FAQ suitable for leisure reading (if you’re into this stuff that is).
So, if you want to find out how to pronounce ghoti, how many words end in –gry, the origin of golf, or whether it’s “company is” or “company are,” the AUE faq is only a mouse click away.

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