Monthly Archives: November 2013


Not Whether, but When


Odysseus before Scylla and Charybdis, Henry Fussell, 1794-1796

When the Stanford sociolinguist Penelope Eckert read my “Lying About Writing” post, she was just approaching the end of her writing-in-the-major course, so she already had her mind on what undergraduates need to learn about writing well. Agreeing with my criticisms of a silly list of don’t-do-this maxims handed out by an unidentified English department, she commented that “this kind of no-no advice is not just stupid but de-skilling”…


Nonknowledge (and Why It’s Good in Editors)

LondonmapLondon taxi drivers are required to have “the knowledge,” an almost photographic memory of the city’s topographic intricacies. Editors have something else, and maybe just the  opposite.

What makes a good editor? In particular, a good scholarly editor? Every author of a scholarly book is likely to believe that the project was a success because of the editor’s involvement. “She got it.” “He knows this stuff—and he saw what I was doing.”  “How smart of the editor to recognize my brilliance.” Well, …


Louisville, Anyone?

Louisville skyline, Wikimedia Commons

So how do you say the name of the biggest city in Kentucky, home of the Derby and Urban Bourbon?

The spelling is easy enough. All agree on Louis-ville, that is, the city of Louis XVI of France. The settlement at the falls of the Ohio was given that name in 1780, shortly after its founding, in gratitude for the Bourbon king’s support of the American revolution.

(As it happens, the town fared better than Louis did. When the French Revolution came, the monarch …


The Import of All Caps


Let’s be clear: using ALL CAPS in texting and on Facebook isn’t just about yelling anymore.

Now, I must admit that I don’t actually have definitive evidence that in the early days of email and texting, writing in all capital letters was used only to express anger, but that was certainly all caps’ reputation. And typing in all caps, by accident or on purpose, might elicit the response: “Stop yelling.”

You can still find netiquette advice online about why it isn’t nice to type in all caps becau…


So Long, Solon!

Solon of Ancient Greece

As the Kennedy retrospectives this week remind us, 50 years ago our legislators were solons. Especially U.S. senators.

That’s solon with a lowercase “s.” It comes from Solon with a capital “s,” a renowned Athenian legislator of some 2,600 years ago. Speaking to the American Newspaper Publishers Association in April 1961, President Kennedy invoked his principles:

“Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed—and no republic can surviv…


That’s Why I’m Here

“Fortune and fame’s such a curious game/
Perfect strangers can call you by name/
Pay good money to hear ‘Fire and Rain’/
Again and again and again.
That’s Why I’m Here,” James Taylor

A couple of months ago, a journalist e-mailed me asking if I would talk to him for a language piece he was working on. His topic: why some people feel the need to point out to others that they have (supposedly) made mistakes in grammar or usage, such as saying “decimate” when they didn’t really mean that one in 10 were…


Dear #Writer

letter_writi_24714_lgThe New York Times’s “Draft” column began about 18 months ago with an essay by the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri on the power of sentences. It’s been going strong since. Its contributions run the gamut, from well-known writers like Lahiri, Colm Tóibín, Philip Lopate, and the like to newbies who sometimes sound silly or self-indulgent but who occasionally, as in a recent contribution from Mason Currey, get a mind to thinking.

Currey’s topic was the letter. We’ve all wrung our hands to dishrags with …


When We Do Not Agree

Many commenters on my post of last Thursday did not agree with me. They debated many topics; they cast various slurs. Ivy hinted at a drinking problem (!). Concerned Humanist seemed to imply that I might not know fiction from nonfiction. (I do; the distinction was not relevant.) And minnesotan came close to equating me with “the fellow who claims that anything goes.” (Don’t my contributions to the 1,860 pages of rules in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language count for anything?)

One subs…


A Whole Nother Juncture

A_Whole_Nother_Story-_SimonFor some reason, my ears were tuned to a whole nother frequency last week. That is, I heard the word nother everywhere I turned. Mostly it followed the word whole, though I’d swear someone said, “That’s an entire nother story” once, and someone else dismissed “a complete nother idea.” There’s even a children’s book series by someone suspiciously named Dr. Cuthbert Soup that includes A Whole Nother Story, Another Whole Nother Story, and No Other Story (Whole Nother Story).

I knew the word was re…


Lying About Writing

202750507_448f2d6ca0[1] (2)A long time ago in a university far, far away (which I will not name), the English Literature department added a page of grammar and usage advice to its undergraduate writing guide. That page, still reprinted every year, contains a well-known list of “common errors” stated as self-violating maxims (with droll intent). I will not repeat all of these tongue-in-cheek ukases, but here are a dozen samples:

1 Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2 Prepositions are not words to end sentences …