Monthly Archives: March 2012


Language Purity? Woof!

If you go online to The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank and enter the keyword “woof,” you’ll be taken to a page with a cartoon by Charles Barsotti showing a bird, a pig, a fish, a cat, and a duck all seated at a round table looking at a dog. The bird, the pig, the fish, the cat, and the duck all say “Woof.”

To which the dog replies, “Everybody gets a raise.”

In other words, to get along with the boss, you have to speak the boss’s language.

And that’s why the English language does not have an Academy…


William Blake in Airportland

March 18: I am sitting in the Charlotte airport, which seems to be my home away from home these days, and I’ve just had a tiny moment that left me, as the French say, bouleversée. Traversing the moving walkways and mottled industrial carpet from Concourse C to Concourse B, I noted how the temperature of the air increased as I turned from the high-ceilinged atrium onto the more crowded concourse, and it occurred to me that most of the heat was being generated by the hundreds of warm-blooded creat…


The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute

In a Chronicle article last week Tom Bartlett spoke of “a deeply factionalized group of scholars who can’t agree on what they’re arguing about and who tend to dismiss their opponents as morons or frauds or both.” Words like “brutal,” “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish” kept coming up. Not quite the image we linguists were looking for!

He was investigating an unusual case, nastier than any I have previously seen in linguistics: a peculiarly fractious and bitter fight originally about propert…


Are You a Difficult Writer?

"Of Flames and Shadows," by Markus Röncke

Difficult writers and difficult people tend to share some characteristics; you might already know whether you are one or not. If you feel that being difficult is something you do well and rather enjoy, then carry on. Otherwise, here is a bit of self-examination and amateur therapy.

First, let me point out that difficult writers are often good writers. Reasonably protective of their prose, they unreasonably see editing as an assault.

They are defensive. T…


The Blind Spot (or Is It Blind-Spot?)

I’ve always been partial (in a slightly ghoulish way) to the the notion of the vehicular blind spot. This is the idea that, while driving, you cannot see some areas of the road through  your rear-view or side mirrors or through looking due left or due right, and thus you have to turn around to see if it’s OK to change lanes, a risky move at high speeds.

This speaks to me because I feel that there are all sorts of blind spots in life: important things that are, almost by definition, very hard to …


Citing a Tweet (It’s Not Just for Twits)

Icons by

There was online chatter recently when the Modern Language Association posted its style for citing a tweet. This didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was the amount of backlash from commenters who are still shocked at the idea of Twitter as a legitimate source of information for scholars; who cling to the idea that Twitter data consists only of what millions of users ate for breakfast; who not only choose to remain stubbornly ignorant of the technology, but are wi…


Double Standard, Double Whammy

Like many who charge their foes with a double standard, Rush Limbaugh fell into a logical trap

I love it when it’s said that o/”>folks on different ends of the political spectrum should “talk out” their differences. This sounds good in theory but is fatally flawed in practice. Number one, as I have learned from Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, humans are really, really bad at grasping causation, trends, and statistical reality; at any sort of prediction; and at the other…


Death of a Dictionary? Or an Abduction?

Something odd has happened to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the dictionary of choice for journalists. It’s still there, like the grin on the Cheshire cat, but its body—the editor and editorial office—seems to have vanished.

The dictionary is still listed by its adopted publisher, John Wiley & Sons. From Wiley, or from Amazon or your friendly local bookseller, you can still get a copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, in print or on CD-ROM. There’s even an iPhone and iP…


Show Me da Money—Oops, the Tuition Arrangement

The Bard is rolling in his grave—with laughter, we hope, but a sad, ironic sort of laughter. Project Rose, the effort by for-profit colleges to rebrand their institutions by changing “call center” to “enrollment-assistance center” and “write some business” to “accept applications” turns Shakespeare’s aphorism on its head. The intrinsic nature of a thing, he was suggesting in Romeo & Juliet, is unchanged by its label. For-profit colleges are betting that their target constituency is more like th…


Passives, Pandas, and Dangling Modifiers

The Aspen Handbook for Legal Writers by Deborah E. Bouchoux supplies the following “Tip for correcting dangling modifiers”:

“Most sentences that include dangling modifiers are written in the passive voice. Changing to active voice corrects the dangling modifier because an actor or subject is identified in the phrase that begins the sentence.

“When a boy, my father changed careers (passive voice).
When I was a boy, my father changed careers (active voice, actor identified in modifying p…