How much do you know about the right and wrong ways to use words? You know that usage and grammar rules in English are complicated and often counterintuitive, and it can be surprisingly easy to make a mistake. You know it's important to learn these rules, both so you'll appear intelligent and well-educated and also because there's a right way and a wrong way to use words, and you want to do it the right way.

Only, it turns out, there isn't. Yes, it's important to know all the rules governing English usage (including the stupid ones). But don't think of English, or any language, as having definite, unchangeable right-and-wrong rules. The language and rules that govern it are constantly changing--because all of us are changing them together, all the time.

You can learn a lot more about how the language is changing--and other fascinating things that may make you rethink most of what you learned in high school--from a new TED Talks playlist that is all about words. Enjoy these fascinating talks. And forward them on next time someone criticizes you for using words wrong.

1. Ever wonder who wrote the dictionary?

English professor and language historian Anne Curzan poses this simple question to the audience and, predictably, few hands go up. In this lively talk she explains how words become legitimate, who decides what goes in dictionaries (she's one of the people who does), and why words like "hangry" and "adorkable" really do belong in them.

 

2. Why do we use 'x' to represent the unknown?

It will take you less than four minutes to find out. And if you don't already know, you will never, ever be able to guess.

 

3. No, texting is not ruining the English language.

If you have teenagers at home, or even know any, texting and its odd code words and abbreviations are likely the bane of your existence. They may also lead you to lament the decline of the proper use of English. But in a thought-provoking talk, linguist John McWhorter argues the opposite is true. Far from ruining English, today's texters are creating a new form of our language, one that is written but happens at the speed of speech.

4. How--and why--you should make up new words.

Ever wonder if something you want to use "really is a word?" If it isn't, maybe you should make it one. That advice comes from lexicographer Erin McKean who advises, "Words are great. We should have more of them. I want you to make as many new words as possible." And then, in this fast and fun talk, she suggests six different ways you can create new words.

 

5. Is proper verb usage making you poorer?

It sounds crazy, but the answer to that question is probably yes. Behavioral economist Keith Chen explains his intriguing study of how the way we speak influences what we do. Not all languages have a future tense. In some, there is no difference at all between "I go" and "I will go." Surprisingly, people who speak such futureless languages are better at doing things today, such as saving money or avoiding cigarettes and unhealthy food, that will make things worse for them in the future. This talk explains why, and it will leave you wondering how else the language we speak shapes the things we do.