Monthly Archives: September 2012


Time Present, Part 2

Last week I delved into the gnarly problem of verbs in students’ critical papers. This week, cracking my knuckles and stepping onto my own turf, I’m tackling fiction.

At the start of each semester of teaching fiction writing, I’m astonished by the cacophony of verb tense. Apparently there are languages that do not indicate past, present, and future the way English does. But we have these tenses and others, all of which most native speakers use competently in conversation. It’s only when stud…


Haf Owre, Haf Owre to Bonny Aberdour

Early in my life I learned some things about geography—by which I mean here where places such as cities and countries are and where border-lines are drawn—from unlikely sources: stamp collecting, an obsession with railway schedules, and popular songs and rhymes. Years later I’m still interested by the ways places appear in song and how the language of songs—and poetry—documents place.

Last summer I found myself in Budapest with my daughter. I had earned some extra money that year so we were taki…


Not Lovecraft’s Providence

As I recently confessed, I found it strangely moving to visit the haunts of cult horrormeister H. P. Lovecraft in his beloved Providence. But why would I care about this man’s erstwhile lodgings? Unmentioned last week was that in much of his life, having drunk deeply from the well of early 20th-century political and anthropological pseudo-science, Lovecraft was a raving foreigner-hating racist nutball. I’m not exaggerating. Read this passage from a 1926 letter he wrote to a young friend:

The New…


Eye-rate About Eye-ran

Three years ago, I wrote a short essay for NPR’s Web site about the pronunciation of Iraq. Each of the two syllables offers choices. The second can rhyme with track or flock. The first can have a long i (to rhyme with eye); a short one, as in mirror; or it can rhyme with see. (In my piece, for the sake of simplicity, I put the second and third first-syllable options in a single category; I’m pleased to see that a subsequent academic study of the issue has followed suit. I will also note, while i…


Freeway, Come Home!

One of the least successful movies of 2012 is Darling Companion, featuring high-caliber actors and a pedestrian script centered around a dog. The dog is found, and then lost, and then found again. You can imagine the excitement.

At the start of the movie, the dog is spotted by Diane Keaton and Elizabeth Moss, as mother and daughter, as they drive along an interstate highway in Colorado. They stop and rescue it. And since they found it by the highway, they name it “Interstate.”

Oops! Rewind! They…


No-Longer-Thin Red Line

Red lines have been all over the news in the past couple of weeks. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on CNN, “I think it’s important to place a red line before Iran, and I think that actually reduces the chance of a military conflict because, if they know there’s a point, a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross because they’ll face consequences, I think they’ll actually not cross it.” That same day, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanya…


With a Nasal Drawl

What do Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, Neil Diamond, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Joseph Mascis Jr. have in common?

A nasal drawl.

Or so they say.

From a Boy’s Life of Mark Twain:

By and by there was another report–this time that Mark Twain was dead. A reporter found his way to Tedworth Square, and, being received by Mark Twain himself, asked what he should say. Clemens regarded him gravely, then, in his slow, nasal drawl, “Say–that the report of my death–has been grossly–exaggerated.”

From a biography of Fie…


Time Present, Part 1

Our man Kant

Nothing says “start of academic year” better than early student papers that get snarled in verbs. Is it “Eliot writes” or “Eliot wrote”? “ “I lived in Vermont, which is always frigid in March” or “I lived in Vermont, which was always frigid in March”? Or, as Neal Whitman discussed last month, is it “The girl who was next to me was named Stephanie,” or “The girl who was next to me is named Stephanie”?

Each discipline probably has its own style guide on verb usage; at the very least, …


Empire of Signs

Travel is a chance to read. I don’ t have in mind the novel you’ve been saving, much less the stack of papers you foolishly thought you’d get to on that family vacation. I’m thinking of something much simpler—just the fact that part of the fun of traveling anywhere is the encounter with signage. (“Wait—I get it! That’s the word for toilet!” or “Look! They have a Cleveland here, too!”)

Reading signage in England, especially for an American academic, is a linguistically overdetermined event. A sim…


Lovecraft’s Providence

As a 14-year-old budding collector of supernatural horror fiction, browsing a bookstore in England, I happened upon a paperback collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. I opened it and read the first sentence of “The Lurking Fear”:

There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.

That must be one of the worst opening lines in all of horror fiction, I now realize. It reads like an entry in San Jose State’s Bulwer-Lytton Fict…