Monthly Archives: August 2013


Money and Dames

thumb_COLOURBOX3488636A good piano tuner can tell when a note resonates perfectly. Such was the feeling in some circles when The New York Sun came up with female dollar as a description of the imagined state of things if President Obama were to appoint Janet Yellen as the head of the Federal Reserve. So right-on was the term that The Wall Street Journal, no slavish admirer of the Sun’s journalistic standards, picked it up right away, defining it, in regard to Ms. Yellen, as a “default policy” to “keep spiking t…


Most. Tiresome. Trope. Ever.

This appeared in the paper the other day:









Then, a few days later, I came across this Web posting:

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 11.02.29 AM








(And by the way, the New York Post’s effort here does meet the standards of a good tabloid headline, though “And the Banned Played On” would sound exactly the same as the title of the 1895  song, and thus would be even better.)

More examples could be garnered, but you get the point. The formulation “Best. Noun. Ever.” is in the air.

Where did it come from, and is there …


Dinging for ‘Grammatical Errors’

redxAs many of us prepare to return to the classroom for the fall semester, it seems like a good time to talk about grammar and grading.

Occasionally I poll students about how many of them have had their grade on an essay lowered due to “grammatical errors.” To this day, a significant number say they have experienced this kind of grading. One student this past winter recounted getting a five-point deduction for each use of singular generic they in her first essay for an English class four years ago,…


Being Wrong to Be Right

A local pop-music radio station in Edinburgh (Forth One, 97.3 FM) features a game in which a Saturday DJ called Boogie calls pre-teenage children on the phone and asks them a series of easy questions, with a twist that makes things extremely difficult. A child who can exhibit the correct behavior (I’ll explain in a moment what it is), and can do it five times in a row, wins a prize. The results are fascinating, and potentially relevant to how we choose the older children who become our undergrad…


Ah, Louisville!

If you want to know how Americans speak, the go-to source is the quarterly journal American Speech, published by Duke University Press for the American Dialect Society.

It’s a scholarly journal, written by experts in the study of American English, but a surprising amount of what they write is accessible to anyone. A case in point in the most recent issue (Summer 2013) is the case of Louisville, Ky.

Louisville is on the edge of the South, both politically and linguistically. Linguistically, the S…


Hungarian I Am Not

yodaRecently a magazine writer mailed me to fact-check a story about Yoda in the Star Wars series of films: that his strange syntax was inspired by the speech of a Hungarian technician on the set of The Empire Strikes Back.

I don’t know Hungarian, I’m not a Star Wars aficionado, and I wasn’t there when Empire was filmed. Time to admit that I couldn’t help?

No, of course not. Our job as academic experts is not simply knowing stuff; it’s using what we know to find other stuff out. I had an answer for …


Monitoring ‘Moniker’

Recently in Lingua Franca, Anne Curzan told about her encounters with a new word she didn’t like: impactful. She found it being used more and more and admitted:

“I can choose not to use it, but even that will probably be short-lived; give me another couple of years and I will probably have gotten the hang of impactful and may not even notice it anymore.”

The same, I suspect, will happen with me, in regard to a word that I write here for the first time in my life: moniker.

It’s not a new word. …


There’s Parataxis, and Then There’s Hypotaxis

Long after I’d graduated from college, and after years of trying to help writers craft more expressive sentences, I audited a Harvard course taught by the critic James Wood. It was there I first heard the word parataxis, applied to this unbearably sad passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

“Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless si…


The New Journalism, Redux

51fVe2Uc84L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_It must be coming on 15 years ago that I had a student named Todd in my “Feature and Magazine Writing” class. One of Todd’s stories for the class was about the engineering behind take-out coffee-cup lids, a field then entering an extremely robust and sophisticated phase. That’s what I call a feature idea. I believe it remains one of my three all-time favorite articles written by students in that class. The second was about the then-new trend of students wearing both straps of their backpacks ove…


More or Less a Sterling Selection

article-0-1AF87501000005DC-220_634x431Jane Austen, never out of the limelight, has become the object of controversy. The writer’s face, or what we know of it from her sister’s amateur portrait, will adorn the next issue of Britain’s 10-pound note.

Cue appropriately restrained British jubilation. (In fairness, July was a big month given the birth of Prince George, an event trumpeted by the satirical mag Private Eye with the three-word front cover WOMAN HAS BABY.)

As for Jane, the new currency bears beneath her visage a quotation from…