Monthly Archives: February 2013


Predicting Prudence From Tense Marking?

munich in the rain800PX-~1

Neuhauser Steet, in Munich. Do Germans save more than English speakers because of grammar?

Keith Chen, an economist at the Yale School of Management, recently gave a TED talk about his claim (in a forthcoming paper in American Economic Review) that certain of people’s prudence-related behaviors are attributable to the grammar of future time-reference in the languages they speak.

English speakers say “It will rain tomorrow” (with the future-marking modal auxiliary will), where German speakers wou…


The Poetry of Headlines


In the composing room of the “Daily Mail” in 1944, a newspaperman locks the blocks of type into place on the metal frame or “form,” which will be inked and used to print the newspaper page. UK Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection.

Newspaper headlines, as I said last week, are prose poetry. Not only do they have distinctive grammar and diction, they also have a tightly constrained form and even more tightly constrained content. Compared with a headline, a sonnet is a piece…


Biodestiny and All That Jazz

dog-menstruation-L-9egYD3Hard-core discussions of gender have their own lexicon, as do hard-core discussions of anything. Like other vocabularies, this one has made its way into broader discourse as the relevant issue—gender—has entered public discussion. For most of us, terms like intersex, transgender, transsexual, heteronormative, and gender identity disorder have become clearly defined only in the last quarter-century. And it took a fair amount of what seemed, at the time, like ridiculous discussion before such term…


The Agony (or Not) of Writing

Roth: “Awful”

In November, a waiter at an Upper West Side deli was thrilled to see sitting down at one of his tables none other than Philip Roth. You see, the waiter, whose name is Julian Tepper, is also a novelist, and had recently published a book called Balls. As Tepper described the encounter in a Paris Review piece, he handed a copy to Roth, who had recently announced his retirement as a fiction writer. “Great title,” the novelist said. “I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.” Tha…


What’s in Style

I love reading the New York Times editor Philip Corbett’s After Deadline blog, not so much for the gaffes he’s willing to expose in his weekly “newsroom critique” as for the glimpses he provides into the arbitrary nature of style manuals. His examples tend to send me squirreling into the OED or harrumphing over student usages that hadn’t bothered me until that moment. Three were of particular interest last week:

1. Almost one million of these $35 machines have shipped since last February, captur…


The Luscious Language of ‘Lincoln’

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

The Academy Awards ceremony is on Sunday, and once again my thoughts turn to the language of film. (And I mean language-language, not the lingo of tracking shots, jump cuts, montage, and such.) Last year in this space I opined that

the tendency in Hollywood is to have [characters] talk in such a profoundly false and uninteresting manner. Screenwriters (pardon me while I grossly generalize) have a poorly thought-out notion of linguistic realism, toward which they refle…


Being an Adverb

John Lewis ad from ABC Copywriting

Dictionary publishers these days try to maintain Web sites that do more than just advertise books. They offer word-of-the-day features, blog posts, English lessons, hints for teachers, educational technology news, all sorts of things. Macmillan offers Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where a January 17 post on writing asserted that “adverbs are monsters,” and made an explicit recommendation:

Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your o…


An Appeal for Inclemency

It is a rainy, blustery day sometime in the 1950s, and at our little school desks we are preparing for lunchtime recess. Mr McHugh, my grammar school’s principal and a man of priestly aspect, announces in solemn tones that recess will take place indoors “due to inclement weather.”

Inclement weather. Not stormy weather, not a lovely day to be caught in the rain. The phrase “inclement weather” felt then—feels now—mysterious and official.

Looking out my window as snow drifts over Manhattan more tha…


The Grammar of (Newspaper) Headlines

Newspaper headlines are prose poetry. They have a spare grammar of their own, and they are constrained in size and content more strictly than a sonnet.

Indeed, there was a time within living memory, before computers and the Internet, when newspaper headline writing was recognized as an art (and a science) more difficult than writing a sonnet. More about that in another post. Here I just want to celebrate the basics of headline style, the rules for headlines.

1. Use present tense for past events:


The Mixed Blood Project

This will be my last post for Lingua Franca. It’s been a good experience but I need to put my shoulder to some other wheels.

Last month, in Berkeley (at University Press Books), we launched the third issue of Mixed Blood, the national publication I started with two friends at Penn State. (Mixed Blood began auspiciously—it’s the result of a series of late afternoon conversations at Whiskers, the company bar at Penn State. The publication continues to reflect the interests and involvement of i…