Monthly Archives: July 2012


At Least 2 Words We Can Do Without

At least one front-page story in Sunday’s edition of the Jacksonville, Ill., Journal-Courier captured my attention. It began:

“At least one Jacksonville citizen and the city’s police chief have a difference of opinion over how complaints against police officers should be handled.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen “at least one.” You’re writing against deadline, and you hear that somebody did something. If somebody did, maybe somebody else did too. So to be safe, you make it:

“At least one vi…


Holmes & Watson Amid the Apostrophes

This past week’s New Yorker featured an article by Jack Hitt on the accomplishments of forensic linguists like Robert Leonard of Hofstra University, whose expertise about language use has brought convictions for accused killers and settlements in tangled cases about libel and copyright. I found the article fascinating, particularly in its report of a “schism” in the world of forensic linguistics. Who doesn’t love a good internecine quarrel? But I was caught off-guard by my own response to …


The Murmuring of Innumerate Nouns

Today’s riddle:

What happens to a noun when it tries to be an adjective?

It doesn’t count.

That’s the shocking result of taking a noun and putting it in front of another noun, so that it takes on the humble role of an adjective.

In its natural habitat, the noun rules. It is the monarch, the head of state of the noun phrase. Behold there the noun in its glory, surrounded by unlimited dependents—determiners, adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, even entire subordinate clauses.

But sometimes…


Love & Grammar

Since Cyrano ghosted those letters for Christian, we women have been susceptible to the well-wrought phrase. Its flip side, obviously, is the clumsy or offensive effort that works about as much romance as a proposal to tip cows. Recently I ran across the 21st-century single woman’s complaint regarding male correspondence in the ongoing blog The Well-Written Woman. In this case, of course, the suitor’s courtly phrasing comes not off the tip of a quill but from the taps of the keyboard and the e…



Hans Christian Andersen, Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889, “Fairy Land”

This summer’s mid-Atlantic heat wave fired up the jetstream, which was pushed southward by warming Arctic conditions. This unleashed devastating downpours on Britain. In Edinburgh in July there were monsoons. I saw the driver of a double-decker bus advise the chauffeur of the queen’s magnificent maroon Bentley to turn back and take a different route to her majesty’s Edinburgh residence at Holyrood House Palace, because of dee…


Patwah, Patois

Jamaica’s Blue Mountains (courtesy of

“a compound of the most heterogeneous description” –F.G. Cassidy

I set out for the International Maroon Conference  by shouldering my backpack and walking across Berkeley to the BART station and then there I was on the train to SFO sitting catty-corner from a woman my age who also had a pack. Mexico,  she said.  Jamaica, said I.  She said, They’ll know you’re an American as soon as they see you. But I’d been before and re…


White Van Man Jumps Pond

White vans, with men, in Oxford

The ABC television network has announced that in 2013 it will air a sitcom called Family Tools. Previously, the show was called Comeback Jack; before that it was called Red Van Man, and before that, it was called White Van Man. And therein lies a tale.

Like many American comedies, including All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Office, this one took its premise from a British original, White Van Man. If you are American, that phrase probably means nothing to…


Nome Sane?

It wasn’t just the Sarah Palin thing. If you’ve been listening, America’s worried about our 49th state’s mental health.

It’s been a concern for a number of years now. You hear it on street corners and in subways. He’s what you might call a terrible human being, nome sane? You believe this weather, nome sane? Man, what I wouldn’t give right now for seats to the playoffs – owner’s box!—nome sane?  People say all sort of things they want you to pay attention to, and then punctuate it with a special…


Call Me ‘Mr.’

In the New York Times, this man is known as "Mr. Pop"

A few weeks ago, Bob Diamond, the ousted chief of Barclays, uttered the following in front of House of Commons, which was investigating his bank’s activities:

  • “John, we have been through this a number of times.”
  • “The investigation—what I would want to point out to you is this—Jesse, can I finish?”
  • “It’s a very, very pressurized situation, Michael.”
  • “So, you know, it’s interesting, Teresa.”

“John,” “Jesse,” and “Michael” are all members of P…


My Mistake? BFD!

Health-care T-shirt, courtesy

It’s salutary to make a mistake. Not enjoyable, but salutary.

If you get something right, that’s that. But if you get something wrong, people take action to set you straight. And you learn more than you would if you were right.

I was wrong about something the other day: BFD. That’s an abbreviation for “Big … deal,” with a familiar four-letter word in the middle as an intensifier.

BFD made it into the news recently with a T shirt for the Obama ca…