Monthly Archives: October 2012


The Leisure of the Theory Class

When I was a magazine editor, I yearned (in vain, I might add) for someone to submit an article complaining about people’s misconceptions concerning Japanese drama. Why? So that I could give it the headline “What Part of Noh Don’t You Understand?”

Yes, I have a fatal weakness for puns—not the aptly-named nod-nod-wink-wink groaners (“I think I can Handel that,” said the musician about “Water Music”) but the clever unexpected variations on familiar expressions, which, for some reason, tickle my fa…


Weird Words Won’t Win

Weird words get no respect.

They are the class clowns. We laugh at them, we cheer them on, we enjoy the mischief they make, but we don’t let them into our word-hoard.

That’s why newly invented words rarely become part of anyone’s vocabulary. Most inventors can’t resist the temptation to make them weird. The result is, they don’t look like they belong.

A very important criterion for the success of a new word is that it shouldn’t raise eyebrows. It should be inconspicuous, unobtrusive, camouflag…


Malarkey, or the New Loose Talk

Ah, the wearin’ of the green. I lay claim to one-quarter Irish blood, which yields the in-group privilege of getting my Irish up when I want to and also provokes delight in Joe Biden’s recent use of the term “malarkey.” Biden has greater rights to Irishisms, being half-Irish; Ryan, who grew up “lace-curtain Irish” according to Irish Central, may have an even greater claim.

But moments after Biden used “malarkey” to describe Paul Ryan’s criticisms of the administration’s handling of the e…


One for the Usage Books

What a heartwarming response to my latest contest! Earlier, when I invited limericks about language, there were all of 85 responses. But for this contest, for a new bogus rule of usage, as of the close of the contest yesterday, there were 192. Clearly there are more usageasters (to use a word coined by the late Thomas Clark) than poetasters entering the fray. (Perhaps I should say “language mavens” and “limericksters” in the sentence just past, so as to offend nobody.)

Why do it? Well, as jpk77 …


Revolving around the Writing Revolution

I’ve been following a raging debate in The Atlantic over the pedagogy of writing, a subject dear to my heart but clear as mud when it comes to formulating a position. The leadoff to the online debate, which continues through mid-October, was an article by the education reporter Peg Tyre about a new approach taken at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School.

The follow-ups—more than a dozen as I write this—have been from people who have a stake in this matter of writing instruction. They range fr…


A Girl Gets Sick of a Rose

“Freight Cars Under a Bridge,” Charles Burchfield (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Recently on the radio I listened to a piece about the planned phaseout of nuclear power in Germany. Wind-based energy will call for “an expanded power grid” and “new high-capacity overhead lines.” Eric Westervelt, NPR’s man in Berlin, said, “The rise of the ‘Not in My Backyard,’ or Nimby, movement was perhaps inevitable.”

The acronym began to appear in print in the U.S. in the 1980s. In my relatively brief career on th…


Passive Writing at the ‘Daily Planet’

Early in the graphic novel Superman: Earth One (by J. Michael Straczynski; DC Comics, 2010), as Clark Kent interviews at the Daily Planet, the editor, Perry White, makes a remarkable statement (thanks to David Errington for noticing it). I’ve collected dozens of weird perversions of the grammatical term “passive,” but this one surprised even me. Perry reads aloud from Clark’s résumé and comments:

PERRY: “Freelance reporter/stringer for the Smallville Daily Express.” I didn’t know Smallville had …


Thanks for ‘Reaching Out’

Last January, Forbes ran a clever feature called “Jargon Madness,” in which various egregious business catchphrases squared off against one another in a March Madness-style mock tournament. The champion was drinking the Kool-Aid, in a close win over leverage (the verb form). Interestingly, I recognized only three clichés as having crossed over to (from?) academe, two of them being best practices and robust. (Transformative and service learning may be too specific to higher ed.)

The third term in…


More Grammar Hate Mail

I got another piece of academic hate mail not long ago. Once again it was triggered by my 2009 Chronicle article about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. A total stranger tracked me down to tell me this, under the subject heading “Elements of Style Critique” (recorded here, complete, exactly as he wrote it):

Dear Dr. Pullum,

As you so aptly indicate, the authors cannot reply, comment or feel remorse for your lambasting of their little book so I will take the liberty to do so. As opposed t...


Ahead of the Game

For chronological purposes, nothing beats “before” and “after.”

Before and after are such clear, sturdy, unassailable words. Why do we feel such a need to scuttle them? When the lawyerly prior to or previous to or subsequent to appears before me, I have always taken considerable (probably unseemly) pleasure in excising it with my professor’s or editor’s red pencil.

The latest up-and-comer is ahead of, meaning before. Admittedly, it flourishes in the special lexicon of headlinese, the realm of “A…