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Abstaining in Absence

Graduation!

I actually enjoy commencement exercises — the pomp, the circumstance, the grandmothers, the decorated caps, even the speeches. Only one niggling irritation blemishes the day, assuming the day is dry and not too hot. At about a third of the more than two dozen commencement exercises I have attended, the stalwart soul reading the names of graduates before they march across the stage into their futures has noted those who earned their degrees but could not be present by tacking onto their names …

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Fake New Words?

noctes

Noctes Ambrosianae used “truthiness” in 1832.

How can you tell if a word or phrase is really new — or just new to thee?

Easy question. But it’s not easy to answer, especially in this digital age.

It used to be easier. Or so it seemed back in 1990, when the American Dialect Society first began choosing its Word of the Year. For the first year or two, we restricted our choices to new Words of the Year, based on a simple principle: A word was considered new if it was not to be found in the latest e…

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Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage

strunkpic-dracula

Do not place your trust in either of these men.

On May 26, 1897, exactly 120 years ago, Bram Stoker published his dark and gruesome epistolary Gothic novel Dracula. Its fearsome central character, despite his few appearances, has had more impact on the popular imagination, and appeared in more movies, than any fictional character apart from Sherlock Holmes.

On my laptop I keep a small library of late 19th-century and early 20th-century novels (downloaded from gutenberg.org), Dracula being one. I…

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Are You Fed Up of Preposition Creep?

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P.J. Vogt of “Reply All”

Now that my kids are out of the house and I’m in the process of retiring from teaching, I have to be more creative in my efforts to find out how young people are using the language. One place I like to look, or listen, is the excellent “Reply All” podcast, specifically the talk of P.J. Vogt, one of the hosts, who was born in 1985. He says “off-ten,” he’s fond of super as an intensifier and like as, like, a qualifier, and in the most recent episode he used the word overth…

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Hedging One’s Bets

anotherhedgeOne of Shakespeare’s most irritating scamps is the rascally Autolycus, a peddler and trickster-thief whose carryings on slow down the progress of The Winter’s Tale, with its sublime conclusion in which queen Hermione seems to return from the dead.

The Winter’s Tale is a play about a king given to paranoid delusions and capricious anger, with the resulting loss of life. It’s a sadder play than King Lear. I think that’s because it’s a comedy. (Yes, yes, a romance, which is a comedy without laughs….

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‘Crawdaddy,’ ‘Boomba,’ and a ‘Bounce-Around’: an Online Update of Regional Words

DARE9780674425071-lgThe eighth in what we hope will be an unending series of online updates for the Dictionary of American Regional English is now available, free, to all who wonder what else there is to say about the varieties of American English vocabulary already caught in the six massive print volumes of the dictionary.

This eighth update shows there is always plenty to be added, and always will be, as long as we continue speaking (or writing) American English in an endless variety of ways.

But first, some good…

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Fulsome Praisin’ Blues

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Sally Yates (photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

My mother, the late Harriet Yagoda, was a language stickler in the best sense of the word. That is, she very purposefully declined to use loan as a verb, referred to”ant-ee-” (not “ant-eye-) biotics, answered the phone with “This is she,” and, rather magnificently, said “he became bar mitzvah” instead of “he got bar mitzvahed.” But, as far as I remember, she never corrected people who didn’t follow her example. Not even me. Or I.

I frequently think of anot…

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The New ‘Ding’

dinged car

Is this car dinged? It can depend on your dictionary.

In 2013 I wrote a post here on Lingua Franca titled “Dinging for ‘Grammatical Errors,’” and while I put a lot of thought into the argument, I didn’t put a lot of thought into the use of the verb ding. For me, it was a familiar way to describe the act of docking points or reducing the overall score of something.

It never occurred to me to look up the verb ding in a standard dictionary — and if I had, I wonder if I would have kept the word in…

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Pump Priming

priming_pumpI imagine most of us have a story about a time we used a word or an expression that we thought we’d invented, only to discover that it had been around for hundreds of years. In my case, my vivid memory is of feeling nauseated on a long car ride when I was about 8 years old. I had heard of people being seasick. But we weren’t at sea. So I thought I would coin a new term for how I felt. “Mommy,” I said from the back seat. “I think I’m carsick.”

My mother was a relatively patient woman. She had lis…

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Being a Declarative (or Interrogative, or Imperative, or Exclamative)

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Above: a genuine exclamative clause

Grammar books, and hundreds of websites out there, are appallingly confused about statements, questions, orders, and exclamations. Most of the problem lies in their failure to distinguish syntax from semantics. I want to try and sort things out a bit, and provide a little homework exercise.

Clause type is syntactic, not semantic. It shouldn’t be confused with any elemen…