Monthly Archives: April 2012


Old Age, Sissies, and Fishless Bicycles

Let’s start the week off with a little quiz! Who first wrote or uttered the following statements?

  1. “If you make it here, you make it anywhere.”
  2. “Follow the money.”
  3. “A ball game is never over till it’s over.”
  4. “In the long run, we are all dead.”
  5. “Give peace a chance.”
  6. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
  7. “Old age is not for sissies.”


I’ll give the answers in a minute, but it would ruin the fun if they appeared so close to the questions, so first a few words about the soon-to-be-publ…


By Ear or by Eye

Photo courtesy of Enokson.

When I hang out with writers or editors, conversation inevitably touches on working with music in the background. There are always listeners and nonlisteners, but the most passionate are those who never work while listening. I think I understand—they read and write “by ear,” so their “music” is on the page; additional music clashes and distracts. Those who work more visually, on the other hand, can afford to add a music track. They might listen or not; it’s optional.



I Stand Corrected

Hoo boy, did I goof.  In a piece I recently wrote about commas for the online New York Times, I made a mistake that was seized on and adumbrated by Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Awl, Craig Silverman’s “Regret the Error” blog and The Huffington Post, whose headline was “Is This the Funniest Newspaper Correction Ever?” (I was gratified that most of the comments agreed with the person who said, “No it’s not really that funny at all.”) I provide no links, except for Regret the Error, which is a v…


‘He Seems to Be Enjoying Himself’

What is it with people who, because they know a language, presume that they know exactly how the language works?

They are like those who, because they can drive a car, presume that they know how the engine works. Except in that case, we all know better. You can be an expert driver without knowing the parts and connections that make the car go.

Similarly, you can be an expert user of a language without knowing the parts and connections—at least, not knowing how to explain them. But in the case…


Fishing for the Meaning of a Sentence

Most people I know don’t want to like Stanley Fish. They cite with manufactured displeasure his unctuous blog post on Sarah Palin, as if his praise of her autobiography were the greatest betrayal of liberal values since David Mamet came out as a conservative. But I fell in love with form in seventh grade, when I diagrammed a sentence from Silas Marner that covered four blackboards and came out perfect. And so I avidly followed Fish’s New York Times series on using syntax, rather than self-expres…


‘Hopefully’: Five Decades of Foolishness

In the annals of prescriptivist poppycock, a century is not very long, and a development spanning only 50 years from beginning to end counts as speedy. Let me describe one such incident, which concerns a small and very natural syntactic change in the use of a single adverb.

Many adverbs are used as manner adjuncts: He saw her clearly uses clearly as a modifier specifying the manner of the seeing. Some are used as what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls modal adjuncts, necessaril…


‘Speak … as I Pronounced It to You, Trippingly on the Tongue’

It was in Robert MacNeil’s TV series The Story of English that I first heard the rumor of Shakespearean English being alive and well on certain islands off the coast of the southeastern United States. MacNeil went there, as I recall, and several locals declaimed in the Bard’s language, all of them sounding fairly colorful and convincing—and a whole lot less respectable than the upper-class accents we had cultivated for my high-school production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Now the estimable Briti…


When the Book Is Too Big, Are Online Supplements a Good Idea?

Photo courtesy of marlèned

In book publishing, each project begins with a financial projection that takes into account everything that affects costs and revenues: the number of words and illustrations in the manuscript, author royalties, subventions from financing bodies, printing costs, estimated sales, and so on. The trick is to juggle all these data until the math adds up to at least the minimum acceptable profit.

If it doesn’t, the editor must tinker, adjusting anything that can be adjuste…


Not Rage So Much, but a Modicum of Fear

Ben Yagoda, who knows me only from my writing, imagines me as “a sort of linguistic Yosemite Sam, constantly being provoked into a near-apoplectic rage“—the target of my fiery temper being stupid grammatical claims rather than pesky rabbits.

Well, I’m proud to be a cartoon character in the vivid dreamworld of a linguistically savvy colleague like Ben, but it ain’t true about the rage, pardner. I’m a calm, contented, and happy man. I hope people haven’t been reading the simulated towering fury at…


‘Only’ Love Can Break Your Heart

Sam: "Be you the mean hombre that's a-hankerin' for a heap of trouble, stranger? Well, be ya?"

Sometimes I would like to channel my Lingua Franca colleague Geoffrey Pullum. Not because of his support and sage counsel, which I have long valued, but because of the way he is perpetually ready, willing, and able to fulminate. I have never met Geoff face to face, and I sometimes imagine him as a sort of linguistic Yosemite Sam, constantly being provoked into a near-apoplectic rage by some dim editor …