Monthly Archives: November 2011


Quoting Well, Part 1: It’s More Than Just Accuracy

Academics love to quote—as evidence, as embellishment, as filler. Snippets and long blocks. Quotations within quotations. It’s a pity that so many do it so poorly. Here is Part 1 of some advice from a copy editor experienced in tidying up quotations.

—On accuracy. Long quotations in the manuscripts I read seem more error-free than in years past, which I attribute to easy cutting and pasting from online sources (as opposed to inexpert typing). Unfortunately, easy pasting also increases the rate a…


Night and Winter

It’s that time of year again when night encroaches on day and winter looms. Time for a tribute to our linguistic ancestors, the Angles and Saxons and Jutes who brought “Angle-ish” to Britain some 1,500 years ago. Without the consolation of central heating or sunlamps, they knew night and winter.

The Old English language they spoke differs from the English of today like night and day. In fact, the difference is night and day. And winter.

In these northerly regions, long nights in the midst of lon…


Eggcorn or Acorn? Hom/n/ing In

There’s a lot of talk about home over the holidays—about travel, about roots, about family. Add the tendency of family gatherings to conjure emotional arguments about nothing, and you have the makings of a homing/honing debate. It was at a family gathering, about a quarter century ago, that I was informed that my idea of “honing in on” a new idea for a book was nonsense because the proper phrase was “homing in on.” After a lot of bluster and a trip to some dictionary or other, I corr…


Happy Mexico Day!

It’s Thanksgiving. Time for a tribute to that centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, the mexico.

The mexico is so important that it even provides a nickname for Thanksgiving Day itself: Mexico Day. It’s the day when throughout the United States we gather with families and friends to give nondenominational thanks and dine on mexico.

During the rest of the year we don’t seem to care so much for mexico (maybe we eat too much at Thanksgiving), but on Thanksgiving Day it’s roast mexico, fried mexico…


What Ever Happened to ‘You’re Welcome’?

Hakuna Matata: "It means no worries for the rest of your days."

In this holiday run-up, let’s give, not only thanks, but some attention to what one says after being thanked. My observation is that the traditional you’re welcome is as passé as turducken with canned gravy. The roster of alternatives has an Eskimos-words-for-snow-level capaciousness. (And yes, I know this notion is an apocryphal urban legend, but I just can’t quit it, so deal.) Just off the top of my head, there’s:

Sure thing/sure,…


A Thanksgiving for Susie

It’s Thanksgiving this week. For many Americans, the most important time of the year for gathering with those you love. And my friend Susie Bright sent me a thoughtful gift: a list of the top 10 relationship words that cannot be translated into English.

Now, you may be aware that untranslatable-word stories usually bring out my grouchy-linguist persona (my recent Eskimo lexicography post offered a hint). But this list stayed with me and didn’t just go in the trash. There are certain special r…


The Phenomenology of Error

Phono- pheno- what???

Don’t worry, this isn’t about philosophy. It’s about error—grammatical, usage, spelling error—matters on which we all are self-proclaimed experts.

But where does phono- phenomenology come in?

It happens that “The Phenomenology of Error” is the best article I’ve ever read about those errors. It’s the article you have to read if you want to make sense of why we fight so furiously over minutiae of grammar, punctuation, spelling and the like.

It was published 30 years ago, but …


An Aficionado (Connoisseur, Fan, Devotee, Enthusiast) Speaks

A confession: I love Roget’s Thesaurus. Mine is not a popular position to avow. Most writers I know, asked if they use a thesaurus to discover more interesting vocabulary for their essays or stories, bristle with resistance. Haven’t those who look up “say” in the Thesaurus and consequently force characters to “utter,” “breathe,” “pour forth,” “state,” “declare,” “assert,” “aver,” “relate” “murmur,” “mutter,” or “gasp” ruined countless reading exp…


More Linguistic Slush From the Arctic

It seems impossible to stop people babbling on about how the Eskimoan languages have huge numbers of distinct word roots denoting different types of snow, and trying to squeeze conclusions about cognition and culture out of this tired turnip of a factoid. Recently I ran into it again on the Web site of Miller McCune, a magazine based in Santa Barbara. “SMART JOURNALISM. REAL SOLUTIONS.”, says the masthead. (Authoritative periods. After each phrase. Might try that.)

And what sort of smart jou…


I Am What We Are

Poster for a University of Delaware event about issues raised by the execution of Troy Davis

In the days after the Penn State sex-abuse scandal broke, students gathered outside the house of then-coach Joe Paterno. The coach stepped outside to thank them for their support, after which, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Paterno then twice shouted the customary ‘We are!’ and got a roaring of “Penn State!’” Interviewed by the Inquirer, a student in the crowd said, “This brings us together and…