Monthly Archives: May 2013


Spit That Image Out

ASB-spitting-man_smallQuickly, now, without checking any dictionaries or usage guides: which of the following expressions is original, standard usage?

  • Once and awhile
  • Set and stone
  • Try and get
  • Spit and image
  • All and all
  • Hand and hand
  • Tongue and cheek

I’ve run into all of these recently, mostly in student papers, but also in published work. So many of our habitual expressions have lost their connection to the original meaning that students—and sometimes professional writers—set them down as they sound without …


Never Abolish the To-Die-For Sentence

Word came—via Twitter, Tumblr, I don’t remember, something that starts with a t—that The New Yorker has been featuring on its Web site the five best sentences of the week. That was good to hear, as I collect great sentences, the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.

I was disappointed to find, however, that “Backblogged: Our Five Favorite Sentences of the Week” consists of sentences from a rather small subset of published work, The New Yorker itself…


In Art No One Can Hear You Scream

“The Scream” (1893), by Edvard Munch; mug from

Last summer I had the chance to see two versions of a work by Norway’s greatest artist, Edvard Munch. If you go to Oslo you can see it in one version at the National Gallery (no photos, please) and another in the lovely Munch Museum (cameras welcome). In recent years each of them has been stolen and recovered. A third version of the work has been on view this year at MoMA.

Of course, you know the picture—it’s an icon of modernity’s anxiet…


Keyword Search, Plus a Little Magic

I promised last week that I would discuss three developments that turned almost-useless language-connected technological capabilities into something seriously useful. The one I want to introduce first was introduced by Google toward the end of the 1990s, and it changed our whole lives, largely eliminating the need for having full sentences parsed and translated into database query language.

The hunch that the founders of Google bet on was that simple keyword search could be made vastly more usef…


Singular ‘They’: a Footnote

SingThey (3)Over the past two decades, the use of they  as a singular generic pronoun has been defended often and eloquently by linguists in various venues, including here on Lingua Franca. Geoff Pullum has written about the topic twice in the past year and a half: “Dogma vs. Evidence,” and  “We Do Not Seek to Rule.” Pullum and others have written about the use of they  with a singular antecedent extensively on Language Log. The Lousy Linguist, in yet another defense of the construction, provides a useful l…


Why Are We Still Waiting for Natural Language Processing?

Try typing this, or any question with roughly the same meaning, into the Google search box:

Which UK papers are not part of the Murdoch empire?

Your results (and you could get identical ones by typing the same words in the reverse order) will contain an estimated two million or more pages about Rupert Murdoch and the newspapers owned by his News Corporation. Exactly the opposite of what you asked for.

Putting quotes round the search string freezes the word order, but makes things worse:…


Adam’s Folly

adam names the animals

Image from Aberdeen Bestiary, 12th-century collection, U. of Aberdeen

“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Adam was the guy whose first job, on direct orders from God, was to name all the animals. Not so easy, at the rate God created them! Thanks to his rush job, today we’re left with lots of animal misnomers.

(And don’t try to tell me that Adam didn’t speak English. What language do you think the Lord used when he inspired King James to write the Bible?)

Here’s the full story, as reported in the …



LOL-Face-MemeWe may be seeing the death spasms of lol, and few will mourn its passing. Emerging a couple of decades ago as an initialism for laugh[ing] out loud, it suffered misuse through most of its brief life by well-meaning parental units who construed it as lots of love. Since the millennium it has devolved through irony to sarcasm until it arrived, as Katie Hearney at Buzzfeed points out, at meaninglessness.

What’s brought lol into prominence recently is its appearance in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s e-commun…


The Comic Stylings of POTUS

Obama at the Correspondents' Dinner: "But I kid Mitch McConnell..."

Obama at the Correspondents’ Dinner: “But I kid Mitch McConnell. … “

At 10:14 PM on April 27, Barack Obama took the podium at the Washington Hilton to the tune of “All I do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled. According to the official White House transcript (which includes indications of laughter and applause), the president began by telling the crowd at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

How do you like my new entrance music? (Applause.) Rush Limbaugh warned you about this — second term, baby. (Laughte…


Graduating Teachers, Teaching Graduates

graduating-collegeAs we approach the annual rites, the degree of dudgeon rises again. Obama may say it; Barbara Walters may say it; our beloved children, on whom we have showered more than half our income annually over four years of university education, may crow it, but we as a nation of tut-tutters get the heebie-jeebies when we hear it: She graduated college. “I immediately went to the bathroom to be sick,” wrote one online commenter about hearing the term on a news broadcast. Another suggested that one can gr…