Monthly Archives: September 2011


Typos and Worse: When E-Books Need Correcting

Photo: New York Times, May 10, 1914, p. 21

Not long ago an author e-mailed us in dismay: An image in his newly published book was wrong.

The book, which I had copy-edited, was so new it was still on my desk: oversized and gorgeous, Edward W. Wolner’s Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago: Architecture, Institutions, and the Making of a Modern Metropolis.

But in Chapter 12, in place of an image of the renovated Times Square Heidelberg Building (1914), a skyscraper of “high slenderness,” there appeared a …


Curate for What Ails Ya

It’s only September but I’ve already got my nomination for Word of the Year: curate. This transitive verb is a back formation from the venerable noun curator, and is first cited by the Oxford English Dictionary in a 1934 use. From that point till fairly recently, it has been exclusively (or nearly so) used to refer to organizing a museum or art exhibit. However, as Bob Dylan once sang, things have changed. I just searched for curated on The New York Times’ Web site, and only two of the most rece…


Do You Like Like?

We're not talking about this "like."


A colleague visiting us this summer was engaging in that well-worn pastime, complaining about students, and focused her ire on the verbal tic “like.” Our discussion went back and forth, with me in the devil’s advocate role. “They’ll say, ‘Queen Victoria ruled for like 63 years,’” she said, “and I ask them, ‘Was it like 63 years, or was it 63 years?’”

“And how do they respond?” I asked.

“Well, it shuts them up,” she said.

Which was exactly my point. Students…


Jack Reacher Flunks Phonetics

In Chapter 54 of Lee Child’s novel Gone Tomorrow an evil terrorist at an unknown Manhattan location says over the phone to our hero, Jack Reacher: “Tell me where you are.”

“Close to you,” says Reacher, bluffing: “Third Avenue and 56th Street.” The exposition continues thus:

She started to reply, and then she stopped herself immediately. She got no further than an inchoate little th sound. A voiced dental fricative. The start of a sentence that was going to be impatient and querulous and a lit…


The iPad of Words

OK is the iPad of words.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad in January 2010, it wasn’t in response to a call for “filling a gap” in computer technology. There were laptops and smartphones already. Who needed something in between?

It turned out that many people realized that they did. In barely a year and a half, the in-between device has become the main device for millions of people who discovered that they preferred something bigger than a smartphone but lighter than a laptop. Nowadays it…



I got a kick out of my fellow Lingua Franca blogger Lucy Ferriss’s observations on how a spell-check error—a word that is approved or offered up by a

For $15.95, you can by, I mean buy, an "Ode to a Spell Checker" mug.

word-processing program, but is very much the wrong word—can produce a sort of verbal serendipity. She writes:

Relying on spell check and its sibling autocorrect, my fiction students have staged countless scenes of family quarrel in the dinning room. Ignoring how a college stude…


Sing Me Subjunctive

Professionally trained linguists, please put your fingers in your ears and say “La-la-la-la-la” for the remainder of this post. Using terms that are no doubt clunky and antiquated, I want to point out a distinction in English that occasionally gives me a flush of pleasure.

Remember the subjunctive and the conditional? We throw these terms around. We bemoan the evaporation of the subjunctive, and we speak of conditional sentences in terms of counterfactuals. But when asked to describe the verbs …


Chasing Me!

In a quiet square in Edinburgh’s Old Town the other day I came upon a little girl of about 2 or 3, running happily around trying to catch a fairly unperturbed pigeon, and as she ran after it she repeatedly and delightedly chanted: “Chasing me! Chasing me!”

What on earth was going on there? Was she confusing subject with object, getting the roles of chaser and chasee wrong? Was she confusing self and other, visualizing herself in the pigeon’s role and voicing its conjectured thoughts? Was she…


Fancy or Skunked: Is the Wrong Word Sometimes Right?

Erin Brenner’s recent post at The Writing Resource, “Nine Words to Avoid in Your Writing,” wasn’t about banning words. It was about avoiding the kinds of words that Bryan Garner calls “skunked”: those whose meanings are so controversial they’re guaranteed to provoke reader fury. Bemused, comprise, data, hopefully—you know the type.

Conservative writers might feel that using such words “correctly” (that is, in their traditional sense) is a matter of principle and a way to educate readers. On …


But vs. Though: a Distinction That Matters

OK, class, listen up. This lesson is important. It’s about the most important word in a writer’s vocabulary, and how to use it right.

As I said in a previous post, the word is But. And not the little but that pairs items within a sentence, like adjectives (“tired but happy”) or verb phrases (“won the battle but lost the war”), but the big But that connects across sentences and paragraphs, and that begins with a capital letter because it comes at the start of a sentence.

(All right, time out for …