Monthly Archives: November 2011


Diversionary Tactics, or How to Lose Your Readers

Photo © Atom Smasher

Having a number of deadlines last week, I resorted to my emergency ploy of watching more television. As always, it was revelatory. This time I was struck by screenwriters’ never-ending resort to the ancient and lame “Look over there!” strategy to extricate heroes and villains from tight spots.

A diversion can be simple and improvised on the spot, as in Alias, when Jennifer Garner confuses the bad guy by causing her phone to ring a few yards from where she’s standing. Or it…


I Will Never Be a Ranter

I realized the other day that I’m not qualified as a ranter. I used to think I was, but I was wrong. I’m just a bland, easy-going guy. Things are just great, everyone’s OK, have a nice day. I changed my mind when I chanced on a real piece of rant, on a level I will never attain.

It’s a fairly well known passage, though I happened not to have seen it before. It appeared as an unsigned comment about Oscar Wilde in a column headed “Prattle” in a satirical magazine called The Wasp on 31 March 188…


Are Copy Editors Bullies?


Chase bank is bullying me.

The other day I received a threatening letter informing me that unless I notify them by December 15, they will begin mailing me “offers” for their products and services in nine (9!)  categories, including auto financing (I don’t have a car), education (done that), mortgage (I’m set), and a raft of others. From Googling the return envelope’s address, I’m convinced the letter is authentic.

In order to prevent Chase from blanket-bombing my mailbox, I…


Yeah. ‘Right.’

Listen, rabbit, it's curtains for you, right?

A couple of weeks ago, I reflected on the related phrases kind of and sort of, which I described as academics’ crack cocaine. I am here now to suggest another commonly abused substance, right? The question mark belongs to the speakers, not to me, as they use the word at the end of sentences in order to ascertain whether the meaning has been comprehended:

Whitman’s poetics were reflexively transgressive, right?

Actually, my observation is that in spee…


The Halloween Snowstorm: an Avalanche of Apostrophes

Saturday morning, October 29: Storm predicted. A friend forwards the link to Henry Hitchings’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Is This the Future of Punctuation?” I jot down his remark, “Defenders of the apostrophe insist that it minimizes ambiguity, but there are few situations in which its omission can lead to real misunderstanding.”

Saturday evening: Snowflakes the size and weight of squash balls hurtle down on Hartford, where I live. Power goes. Light a fire; get out the wine. Fr…


You Guys!

Hey, you guys!

Guy Fawkes didn’t succeed in his terrorist plot four centuries ago. And it remains to be seen whether the Guy Fawkes masks recently worn by Occupy Wall Street protesters will terrorize the 1 percent. But Guy has succeeded beyond a doubt in one thing: changing the English language.

We talk about him all the time. He’s the guy of you guys.

Changing the language wasn’t part of his plot. But if it weren’t for his attempt to blow up the British Houses of Parliament in 1605, we woul…


‘Citation Obsession’? Dream On

Kurt Schick’s recent article about what he perceives as overattention to citation formats in the teaching of undergraduates drew passionate replies on every side of the issue (along with the usual number not really having much to do with the issue).

Some of Mr. Schick’s claims surprise me. At James Madison University, he says, “academic departments and even whole colleges consistently beg the library and writing center for workshops to rehabilitate their worst citation transgressors.” Real…


Going Short


The English language is unusual and I believe unique in having hundred and hundreds of pairs of precise or very nearly precise synonyms in which one of the words is plain and the other fancy. Often, the longer word is Latinate in origin and the shorter one Anglo-Saxon. A few examples would include:

Purchase buy; humorous funny; possess have; appears seems; transpire occur happen; signify mean; reference refer to; individual person; subsequently later; speak talk; lengthy long; utilize us…


Make Mine Factitive

Of the many mean tricks I pulled on my children, a particular favorite (of mine, not theirs) took place when they popped into the kitchen and said, “Mommy, make me an ice-cream sundae!”

“Poof!” I would say, wiggling my fingers. “You’re an ice-cream sundae!”

The joke relies on one of those slippery English-language phenomena, wherein the same syntax can have two different grammatical structures and hence two meanings. My children wish me to create (transitive verb) a sundae (direct object) for th…