Monthly Archives: February 2012


Silence Is Silver (at Least)

The backlash against The Artist started well before it won Best Picture (and a slew of other Oscars) on Sunday night. “Feel-good lightweight nostalgic bathos,” is the basic idea. I disagree. I think it’s a fantastic movie for a number of reasons, but the one that relates to this blog and which I will talk about today is the sheer pleasure of its (spoiler alert for those who have been on holiday in Papua New Guinea for the past few months) wordlessness.

It’s a common theme bordering on truism of …


Birth of the Teenager

Until the last century, there were no teenagers.

Romeo and Juliet weren’t teenagers. Jane Austen’s characters, and Austen herself, were never teenagers. Nor were Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, or Dickens himself. Huckleberry Finn was 13 when he had his adventures, but even he wasn’t a teenager. In fact nobody, fictional or real, was a teenager until after the turn of the 20th century.

What a difference now!

Nowadays, upon turning 13, a young person is acutely aware of entering a special phase …


A Fish Is to a Catholic as …

In 2005, bemoaning the College Board’s decision to drop analogies from the SAT in order to make room for the writing section, Adam Cohen observed, “Nowhere are analogies more central than in politics.” That truth has been echoing for me in the latest round of analogizing in the debate over insurance coverage for contraception.

Carving out one tiny corner of that debate, readers’ responses to my local newspaper’s coverage, I find the following analogies:

1. Under your logic the government should …


Hot Dog! ‘Comments on Etymology’

This week something rare, old fashioned, scholarly, and entertaining arrived via the U.S. Postal Service. As usual, I’m postponing other tasks until I have read it cover to cover.

It’s a journal you’ve probably never heard of: Comments on Etymology.

Rare I call it, because the journal has very few subscribers. And old fashioned, because it’s only on paper. It’s not available on the Internet.

For more than four decades, Comments on Etymology has been one of the least known and most enjoyable scho…


Legitimate This!

“It used to be called illegitimacy,” began last Sunday’s lead article in The New York Times, “Unwed Mothers Now a Majority in Births in 20’s.” Indeed, it did, until the Times Style Book and, now, the AP Stylebook got hold of it.

The phrase “illegitimate child,” according to the AP’s perhaps belated entry in its online version, is “stigmatizing, and unfairly so,” according to the Stylebook editor David Minthorn. Like those following The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (which made up its …


How to Argue for Foreign Language Instruction

Lucy Ferriss recently mentioned here on Lingua Franca some comments of former Harvard president Larry Summers. He questions the importance of foreign-language instruction in 21st-century higher education:

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gain…


Shall I Drive This Writer Crazy? A Copy Editor Decides

Photo courtesy of Jonathan

Although I may have a reputation for breaking the rules, when I set out to copy-edit a manuscript, my default tactic is to follow the stylebook until I have a reason not to. It’s the most sensible way to work. Since few writers are consistent in their stylings, few will object when I favor our house style and edit their departures from it accordingly.

Occasionally, however, a writer is relentlessly, reliably consistent in violating a style rule. And inevitably, I don…


Between You and I, I Didn’t Just Make a Mistake

I’ve gotten very familiar with the geography of my local grocery store. That’s because of the grammar mavens, with which my town is peculiarly well-stocked. There’s the lawyer who’s obsessed with the dummkopfs who use which instead of that, and another fellow—also a lawyer, come to think of it—who’s on a one-man crusade against singular they. When I glimpse either of these two on the borders of my peripheral vision, I like to be able to dash into the cereal aisle and go incognito behind a jumbo …


Notes of Note

It’s dangerous to post a column on work avoidance. You’re likely to receive e-mails, as I did after my post on Pootwattle, proposing even more ways to fritter away the time you should be spending writing your book or grading your students’ papers. Of all the proposals I received, none has tempted me more than “Letters of Note,” an Internet assemblage of notable epistles from the past six centuries.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a famous person in possession of e-mail should be in w…


Why Your Printed Book Isn’t an E-Book (Yet)

Photo courtesy of ginnerobot

If you have recently published with an academic press, or if your book is in press now, you might have been disappointed to learn that your work won’t be available on your e-reader anytime soon. While novelists take for granted that their new books will appear in all the electronic formats simultaneously with print publication, for scholars there are no such assurances. Why?

The answers fall into three main areas: (1) technology, (2) rights, and (3) money.