Monthly Archives: January 2012


A Dead Language Dies Anew

Why, oh why, does Latin tug at the heartstrings? It was a language of empire; of lawmakers, yes, but rarely of bards or poets. And yet when I read of the decision by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature to allow plant classification in English rather than Latin, I felt a tinge of nostalgia. No longer, writes the botanist James Miller in The New York Times, will he need to describe his new Mexican species as “Arbor usque ad 6 m alta. Folia decidua; lamina oblanceolata vel elliptica-…


‘Really!?!’: the Story of a Buzzword

A mousepad for our time

*Mitt Romney’s PAC is airing a commercial in which Newt Gingrich is heard defending his employment by Freddie Mac: “And I offered my advice. And my advice as a historian.” To which both the offscreen narrator and some onscreen text reply: “Historian? Really?”

*In a recent New Yorker profile, Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein mocks a Portlander who complains that a grocery store sells fresh pasta from Seattle, rather than something more local. “Really?” Brownstein says…


Shock: Writer Avoids Mentioning Passive!

Here’s part of a 2007 blog post by Melissa McEwan, talking about the way some news sources write about the rape and murder of young women in a way that almost makes it sound as if women were just out there playing the rape-victim role and becoming murdered without any male intervention at all:

In a second homicide that summer in the city involving a young woman who had been drinking to excess, 18-year-old Jennifer Moore left one of the city’s most exclusive lounges intoxicated. Walking alone in…


Dead End for a 19th-Century Linguist

He was one of the most notable linguists of the 19th century. Yet since his lifetime he hasn’t merited even a footnote in the history of linguistics (or philology, as they said then).

Edward H. Rulloff was so well-known in his time that he was the subject of two contemporary biographies. And the biographies were no dry-as-dust treatises, but best-selling books chronicling the exciting life of a philological genius.

He was expert in Latin and Greek, as well as French and German. But his claim to …


Responding to Electronic Editing

Last week I wrote about what writers can expect when their manuscripts are edited on screen with the changes tracked electronically. This week I’ll explain what a copy editor can expect from writers in return.

(Of course, your editor will tell you in an e-mail or cover letter exactly what she expects, which might differ from my advice here. But knowing the odds of a writer actually reading a cover letter and following instructions, I’ll carry on.)

If the e-files you receive are not locked, you w…


A Grammar Geek Reads the Newspaper

This past Saturday, in the tradition of John Allen Paulos’s 1997 book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, I picked up the papers delivered to the front door—the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times—and read them, even more so than usual, with an eye to grammar, usage and other language trends they might reflect.

I suppose I was struck, first, by how relatively few the mistakes or nonstandard usages were. Think of it: The papers contained I don’t know how many thousands of sentences, yet the…


Who Speaks for the Words?

Brought up in the Episcopal Church, I found religion only when we got to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Plenty of theologians have parsed that sentence, but to me at 13 it meant simply that language came first, that we made the world with our words. Now there, I thought, was a faith I could avow.

Now, along with my fellow Lingua Francaphiles, I blog weekly about the nuts, bolts, and idiosyncrasies of language. We’ve been up…


Totes Cray-Cray Abbrevs

Elizabeth Yagoda suggests "nom nom" originated in the world of "I Can Has Cheezburger"

The digital-communications maven Arik Hanson recently posted on his blog a list of what he called “terms we obvi need to totes elims from our lexi forevs. It was basically a diatribe against some slang, abbreviations, and acronyms he feels are “totes” overused on Facebook, Twitter, texts, and e-mail.

I found I was familiar with some of the terms (including maven) but not others, and in a flash of inspirat…


Palling Around With Pootwattle

Pootwattle(TM), created by the Writing Program, University of Chicago

You’d think that Facebook, Twitter, Timescast, and Youtube would provide ample opportunities for work avoidance when one is on leave and trying to write a book. You’d be wrong. The devil who sits on my shoulder was delighted to discover Pootwattle the Virtual Academic™, created and managed by the writing program at the University of Chicago. Complete with scruffy white locks, spectacles, a pipe, and a collar-length beard, Po…


Normal and Formal

It is time to address the commenter whose reaction to my remarks about they with singular antecedents was to say this:

Too bad this article about pronoun agreement has a grammatical error in the first sentence: “… who I will call Mary” should be “whom I will call Mary”. Even the lead-in had a similar error: “Who are you supposed to trust on grammar if you can’t trust a native-speaking grammarian’s own considered usage? Geoff Pullum wonders.” Shame on you, New York Times and Geoffrey Pullum.

My …