Monthly Archives: March 2014




Image courtesy Tufts Observer

Our ABC seems to have changed dramatically before our very eyes and no one is making a fuss. Not that it would matter.

It used to be that the alphabet was a sequence of 26 letters, from A to Z. The letter A came first for reasons that, as far as I gather, are arbitrary. Other than historical loyalty, there is no explanation—neither phonetic nor graphic—why it is at the beginning. The aleph in Hebrew starts the alphabet, and other Middle Eastern alphabets, such as th…


Get Me the Concierge


Image via Wikimedia Commons

“My husband used to be the concierge,” announces the woman in the window, “but he’s dead. Now I’m the concierge.” Movie fans will recognize the moment in Mel Brooks’s The Producers when our hapless protagonists approach the residence of the furtive ex-Nazi and pigeon fancier Franz Liebkind, author of the soon-to-be immortal musical “Springtime for Hitler.”

Liebkind’s apartment building is nothing special. It doesn’t have anything as glamorous as a concierge, just an u…


Are You Feeling It?

I’ve never been a huge McDonald’s fan (my loyalties lie with Wendy’s), but lately the Golden Arches have become a particular bugbear. Many of you will recognize the chain’s slogan of almost a decade, “I’m lovin’ it,” and some will find its grammar grating. Traditionally, after all, English stative verbs—those that describe a state of being, what we think or how we feel—are not conjugated in the present continuous form. Before the lovin’ it campaign, a tasty Filet-O-Fish would have prompted most …


Communicating With the Public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

If I had ever thought that …


That Word

ThatAwkwardMomentthatawkwardmoment30760135750600Any consumer of the broadcast news media will have encountered a certain formulation over the last fortnight. You could have heard it from Erica Hill on the Today Show on March 9: “We do want to get you caught up, though, on the investigation into that missing Malaysian jet.” And you could have heard it from Megyn Kelly on Fox News on March 21: “The new twist in the search for that missing Malaysia Airlines jet that seemingly disappeared into thin air with 239 people on board.”

The formulation c…


Life-Saving Punctuation


Image courtesy The Semicolon Project

You can tell that a semicolon is a dangerous tool in unskilled hands. That bullet on top, that sharp curved blade on the bottom portend trouble. It’s “the most feared punctuation on earth,” The Oatmeal website warns, before explaining how to use it.

And it isn’t really needed anyhow; you can always find some other punctuation to do the job. Put a semicolon in the wrong place, and it shatters a sentence into fragments. No wonder some authorities advise amate…


March Madness Madness!

Everybody wants to get into the actI think we can all agree that March Madness has jumped the shark. In addition to the actual brackets to the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, one can find mock-brackets for such things as public broadcasting hosts, ESPN personalities, and, courtesy of Jezebel, intoxicants. (In early-round action, Champagne topped Smirnoff Ice, weed blew away crack, Margaritas got the better of rubbing alcohol, and caffeine narrowly edged glue.)

I was actually around for the beginning of this trend. …


Scripture for OK Day


Screenshot from the opening credits of the 1957 movie about a fight that took place in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in 1881. “O.K.” was less than 50 years old.

In just three days, on March 23, OK will celebrate its birthday, and it’s a milestone one, the 175th. How to celebrate? I’m going to do it with frosted cookies. But the great thing is, any way you celebrate, it’s OK.

Like the 4th of July, it can be an occasion for reading aloud the Urtext, the document that started it all. In this case, …


Chiming In on ‘Chiming With’

Bell copySee if anything strikes your ear as odd in the following sentence: “A fact like this [that Obama plays golf more with an aide than with John Boehner] can seem to chime with the sort of complaints you hear all the time about Obama. …”

This sentence appeared on Page 49 of the January 27 issue of The New Yorker, in David Remnick’s profile of President Obama, “Going the Distance.” It was pointed out to me by the careful language observer Dave Carlyon, who wrote to me about it because the “chiming” s…


The Sex Class

550px-Censored_rubber_stamp.svgIn the last few weeks, the topic of my class “Love” has been romantic love, and, within that category, the language of sex.

I told students that by language I implied a standardized system of signs that serves to express a wide range of meanings and that by sex—not sexuality but sex—I implied intercourse, that is, sexual intercourse. Sex, then, has its own grammar. Could we analyze that grammar together?

For starters, I asked why, when referring to the act of having sex, we say to make love? Do …