Monthly Archives: December 2011


More on ‘So’

So. That’s no way to start a sentence, much less answer a question. Or is it? “So,” as Ben Yagoda wrote on this blog last month, is a word in transition, taking on newly expanded, assertively vague meanings. Its use as a sentence opener (“So, I just went to Mexico”) instead of a conjunction (“We were hungry, so we ate”) is on the rise, though no one agrees on where it originates or exactly what it means. Jonathan Lethem described his character Perkus Tooth’s use of it in his 2009 novel, Chroni…


It’s Tebow Time . . . Maybe

@Tebowing Nation/Facebook

To use a football metaphor, it’s the fourth quarter of 2011 and the clock is ticking. Less than two weeks left, and no timeouts. In other words, it’s Tebow time.

Thanks to the astonishing fourth-quarter exploits of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (right), his name has become a word—not only a noun, but also a verb.

And that could lead to a last-minute come-from-behind victory for Tebow when the American Dialect Society chooses its Word of the Year 2011 in Portland,…


Pronoun Agreement Out the Window?

I exchanged a few e-mails about grammar with a woman I have never met, who I will call Mary, since that is not her name. In one of my messages I happened to make this passing reference to someone:

[1] She would never be acerbic to anybody until they stepped over the line and really deserved it.

To my amazement, Mary’s reply quoted this back and added a comment:

I avoid having pronouns not agreeing with antecedents. I guess this rule is out the window in Scotland too. No way shall I eve…


Kindness of Strangers

When I was working on a book on the history of The New Yorker magazine, I approached dozens of people for interviews. Almost everybody said yes, including a soberingly long lost of notables who have since passed on, including Emily Hahn, William Steig, William Maxwell, Joseph Mitchell, Brendan Gill, Pauline Kael, and Whitney Balliett. A few people didn’t respond (pocket vetoing the request, as it were), but only one explicitly said, in the manner of Bartleby the Scrivener, that he would prefer n…


Include Needful Words

A close friend told me a few months ago that her 14-year-old son was reading Infinite Jest for fun. “He comes into the kitchen and says, ‘Listen to this, Mom!’ and then he quotes a passage from page 546 or something.” She sighed. “I never made it past page 200.”

We think of ourselves as living in the age of the excerpt. When pressed, most professors I know admit that they assign fewer pages of reading now than they did, say, 20 years ago. We share these statistics and sigh. Pressed further, we a…


Quoting Well, Part 3: Dot Dot Dot

Today, in the last of a series of posts about quoting, I tackle ellipsis—that is, the omission of words, phrases, or longer passages from quotations. The best scholarly writers take care when using ellipsis. First, they use it with restraint and honesty; second, they render it clearly by means of punctuation.

While the first concern is more important, readers here are not likely to need my advice on how not to join two unrelated quotations to manufacture a connection the author didn’t intend. …


From Newt to Tweet: 2 Decades of Words of the Years

As I mentioned in my last post, on January 5, 2012, in Portland, Ore., the American Dialect Society will choose the Word of the Year for 2011. Various others will already have chosen their own Words of the Year, but the American Dialect Society’s is the last word in more ways than one—and also the first, having begun the practice in 1990.

The chosen words don’t necessarily have lasting significance. Rather, they provide snapshots of the preoccupations of the years.

Nowadays everyone, it seems, h…


Fisher Monarchs

We’ve come a long way, baby, and then we’ve gotten stuck. In academe particularly, gender-neutral language is the norm: “chair” not “chairman,” “first-year” not “freshman,” “female student” not “co-ed,” “ombudsperson,” and so on. Sure, cultural stereotypes can override these conscious language decisions. My two sons, for instance, used to insist that a mail carrier (pronounced “cawiwehw” when they couldn’t do r’s) had to be male, though a police officer co…


Words of the Years

If you want to know about American English, look no further than the American Dialect Society. Since 1889, it has been the leading (well, the only) association of experts who study the English language in North America—not just dialects but everything else.

Most ADS members are academics, but anyone with an interest in American English dialects, history, usage, and vocabulary is welcome to join. Here’s a link to the Society’s Web page, with information about membership, meetings, publications—…


Quoting Well, Part 2: When It’s OK, and Not OK, to Meddle

Part 1 of my advice on quoting covered practices widely accepted in scholarly writing. Also well accepted, but perhaps not so well understood, is that it is permissible to make certain changes in quoted text.

The suggestion of tinkering with the original text may strike writers as confusing and dangerous, since the first rule of quoting is to quote verbatim. Altering the original, we are taught, is for the lazy, devious, or even criminal. All true.

Nonetheless, there are some alterations writers…