Monthly Archives: November 2012


All Passion Spent

Have a passion for learning? Well, maybe. But it’s possible you have some other more nuanced responses, too.

Remember  the scene in Some Like It Hot where Marilyn Monroe sings that she’s through with love? Me, I’ve had it with passion.

Not strong feeling or romance, just passion, this multipurpose, newly purposeless word that is—if you haven’t noticed—engulfing us. Students and professors, workers and managers, politicians and citizens, parents and children, and those personlike things called …


That’s Right

How and why would an adjective meaning “correct” turn into an adverb meaning (1) “accurately” or (2) “completely” or (3) “immediately”? I recently spent an hour with my class on English grammar at Brown University trying to figure that out. It was an instructive reminder of how interesting undergraduate teaching can be when the students are smart.

The item we were looking at was right. Ignore the fact that it’s occasionally a verb (you can right wrongs) and sometimes a noun (you have certain ina…


A Point So Nice, They Make It Twice

A New York Times front-page headline on November 9 drew my gaze in like a magnet. It reads: “For Romney, All His Career Options Are Still Open. Except One.”

The sentence fragment at the end would be the grabbiest element for most people, but the headline caught my attention because it contains the most prominent instance I’ve yet seen of a construction I call the preposition-possessive-pronoun combo—PPPC for short. I’ve been following the PPPC because I’m more broadly interested in the country’s…


Grammatical Relationship Counseling Needed

When you find yourself fighting the same battle over and over again, and it’s about something of no real importance, and you’re battling someone you really shouldn’t be at war with, and you never win, you just reactivate the painful scars of previous fighting and set up for the next pointless round, it’s time to get counseling. You need to break the cycle.

Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards over at The New York Times, is locked into an iterative dispute with the writers for …


Flexiptivists of the World, Unite!

A flexible approach can be advisable in matters of language as well as food.

Some weeks ago, in discussing such “incorrect” idioms as not too big of a deal, can’t help but think, and I could care less, I suggested that I could care less whether or not people used them.

That was not, in fact, true. That is, while I recognize that standards of correctness in usage matters are constantly changing, and therefore that it would be foolish, as well as fruitless, to hold to the forms I learned while (me…


Elect (Name Here) in 2016!

Come hell or high water—and the latter surely did come—the 2012 campaign for the United States presidency is finally over. So it’s time to get started on Presidential Election 2016. Already it’s less than four years until Tuesday, November 2, 2016.

In my book about the presidents (Presidential Voices, published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin), I gave useful advice to would-be candidates, including the speech styles they should master. I even provided an all-purpose inaugural address for the winner.


Something Incomprehensible

Sitting on the runway at Dulles, about to fly up to State College on one of United’s Dash-8s, I found myself behind two rows of university students, one on each side of the plane. It was the day of the Penn State-Ohio State football game and as we backed away from the terminal, the young people began a familiar cheer: They shouted, “WE ARE,” and waited for the response, for the small plane to rock with a matching-in-pitch-and-intensity, “PENN STATE!” The response didn’t come—a few …


Anthimeria You!

“What verb,” asks Helen Sword in the latest “Draft” column in The New York Times, “describes the act of creating a new verb from another part of speech? Verbify, of course—or, simply, verb.” She’s right—to an extent. She goes on to give examples that add the usual suffixes to nouns and adjectives to create verbs—prettify from pretty, Mondayize from Monday, Californicate from … well, let’s not go there. She then proceeds to produce the more academic terms zero derivation, functional shifting, and…


The Real Thing

I sometimes start my fiction-writing class off with an icebreaking exercise stolen from NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me. I call it “Bluff the Class” (cf. “Bluff the Listener”), and its purpose is to demonstrate to students that we all have a certain storytelling talent at our fingertips—we can make up a fake outrageous news story in 10 minutes or less. The exercise is similar to the parlor game Dictionary, in which players often discover their other talent, for creating fake dictionary…


Love! Valour! Punctuation!

My morning’s first e-mail. Your Amazon order has shipped!

It hadn’t just shipped. It had “shipped!” Which brings me to Broadway.

In 1994, Terence McNally’s play Love! Valour! Compassion!— a summer-house drama about eight gay men—opened in New York. What could such a title promise?

Written a generation ago, the play spoke from within a world that the AIDS crisis had made newly visible and newly fragile. Love! Valour! Compassion!  turned out, in fact, to be about love, valor, and compassion—and…