Monthly Archives: April 2012


OK, Pay Me

Maybe you bought a ticket for the Mega Millions lottery a week or two ago and dreamed about what you’d do with the grand prize of $656-million. Or maybe you heard last week’s news about Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a cool $1-billion and wondered how you’d spend all that money if you invented something like it.

Well, forget about it. A billion dollars would be chump change compared to what you would make if you had invented OK and held the patent on it. Or the copyright.

The 1935 copyrigh…


Repetition Compulsion

Why are pronouns like a low-calorie sweetener?

Carol Saller’s recent post on repetition inspires me to say just a little more about the subject.

Let me take the sentence I just wrote, and you just read, as a path to talking about the basic issue and the various ways it can be addressed. My meaning was, essentially, “Carol Saller’s post on repetition inspires me to say some more about repetition.” To state the obvious, the word repetition is repeated. How, as a writer, should one deal with that? …


Nicknames for the Heroic and Divine

Blizzard Entertainment

As Lucy Ferriss, Ben Yagoda, and Carol Saller have recently remarked here, writers sometimes strain too hard for variety in their vocabulary.

But there is a realm where variety is not just apt but necessary: epic poetry.

The elevated style proper to a proper epic includes elegant variation, especially in reference to the actors. The epic poet gives them nicknames—not slangy versions of their names like “Oddy” for Odysseus, but characterizing alternatives, “eke-name…


O Starry Night

Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax, has been running a series of columns in The New York Times whose simplicity boggles the mind.  I agree with everything she writes, though some might not. Yet needing to effect a transition with “Switching to the predicate, remember that it is everything that is not the subject” or “When a sentence lacks one of its two essential parts, it is called a sentence fragmentmay reveal something about the Times’ readership.

More interesting than Ms. Hale’s at…


A Great Space for Nitpicking

Updated at 3:50 p.m. to include a link to a Daily News article analyzing the grammar of George Zimmerman.

Trenton Oldfield wrecked the Oxford-Cambridge boat race last week, plunging into the Thames and swimming right under the oars of the boats. The crews stopped dead rather than risk battering him to death with multiple oar blades. But this was not mere incompetent route planning on Oldfield’s part. It was a protest. Oldfield runs a Web site called Elitism Leads to Tyranny. He holds that the m…


Repetition Redux

Photo courtesy of Rusty Clark

The other day, my colleague Ben Yagoda wrote about “elegant variation”—that is, the way writers sometimes strain to avoid the repeated use of a mundane word. He had fun with the colorful terms invented by sports writers in particular. It’s clear to me, however, that all kinds of writers feel the compulsion to avoid repeating words when they write.

The English language, after all, has a great many words in it. (Having my photo on the wall here with professional lingu…


Being a Verb

On Tuesday, March 6, the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia sponsored a lecture by an interdisciplinary artist and educator, Amy Franceschini. Her title was “Art Is a Verb.”

Now, I am of course going to do my pedantic duty qua grammarian: You wouldn’t respect me if I didn’t go ape, or at least bristle a bit. But first let me briefly note that I am not too stupid to understand what she meant: Art doesn’t just sit there like a thing, it’s a practice, something yo…


Forewords, Prefaces, and Introductions: Where to Begin?

Photo courtesy of efeikiss

Grab the nearest monograph from your shelf and turn the first pages: half-title page, series page, title page, copyright page, dedication, table of contents … then what? Almost certainly not Chapter 1.

It’s a rare work that presents itself without preamble, because an academic work is always part of a longer journey through a discipline. Scholars have a lot of baggage, and they like to unpack up front the story of the research: what inspired it, how it was nurtured b…


‘Arc Frays’ and Other Elegant Variations

For some reason, baseball writers are especially prone to the infelicity H.W. Fowler called "elegant variation"

With today being Opening Day, my thoughts naturally turn to elegant variation. Hey, what can I say? I’m a word geek but at least I admit it. Anyway, the subject has been on my mind since a few days ago, when I read this Tweet by the journalist Bryan Curtis (@curtisbeast):

Love the political reporter tic where you must use a state’s nickname at least once per article. This week: The Bad…


Gems of One Syllable

In a response to my post of last week, Robert Lane Greene provided a link to an editorial in The Economist consisting entirely of one-syllable words. It’s an impressive feat, but after a bit, with no relief from polysyllables, it’s like a hammer pounding relentlessly on your head.

Nevertheless, there is much to be said for words of one syllable when set against a background of polys. They are like gemstones set in a bracelet, rather than a heap of gems.

So today I’m offering a few of the gems …