Monthly Archives: May 2014


Medical Misspelling?

medical_brushes____by_hecticlife-d5cx8guThis past weekend I received an email asking if I might comment on a heated debate about spelling at a School of Medicine. The email came from a professor in the “Department of Orthopaedic Surgery”—and I use quotes here because the spelling matters. The spell checker in Microsoft Word puts a red squiggly line under orthopaedic. It prefers orthopedic, and that’s the crux of the problem.

The department is fighting to retain the “a” in orthopaedic, in the face of a higher-level administrative decis…


What’s in a Name?

“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet. And Romeo, a few lines later, replies, “My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself.”

Onomatology, also known as onomastics, is the discipline that studies proper names. In the United States, that discipline borders on extravagance, although it never ceases to amaze me how, in spite of the rapid transformation of American society, things remain constant.

Is there something to be said about the names of our students? …


Bait-and-Switch Comparisons

I recently asked readers to think of a technical term for a kind of rhetorical structure for witticisms like the classic lawyer joke: “Q. What’s the difference between a catfish and a lawyer? A. One is a bottom-dwelling, scum-sucking scavenger, and the other is a fish.” It’s very familiar. But, I wondered, is there a suitably exact rhetorical technical term for the device?

I got some interesting suggestions in the comments. Some felt far too general: Gavin Moodie suggested counterpoint; a commen…


Elizabeth Yagoda Is Excited for a Hamburger

Where’s the outrage?

People never stop getting upset about changes in the use of pronouns (“thanks for inviting my wife and me/I”), verbs (comprise/compose), and nouns (data is/data are), but, with the exception of occasional squawks about those who say “different than” (or, in Britain, different to”) instead of “different from,” they don’t seem to give a hoot about the pervasive phenomenon I call “preposition creep.”

Three examples come to mind. First is the change from enamored of  to enamore…


Caricaturing Descriptive Grammarians


Image via Teacher’s Journey and


Professor Stefan Collini of the University of Cambridge says in a recent review article in Prospect Magazine:

For some time now, it has been customary to label those who write about grammar and usage as either prescriptivists or descriptivists. The former think there are “right” and “wrong” ways to say or write, while the latter claim that we can only record how people actually use language, since any widespread successful usage is, ips…


The Botch Is Back

John Kerry

John Kerry

In eight years, we’ve gone from Kerry to Perry.

The “Kerry” would be John, who, in 2006, said this in a speech to a group of students:

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” Kerry staffers’ damage control on the line—which many people took as insulting to current, former, and future troops—wasn’t stellar. They said the end of the quote was supposed


Putting On the Kibosh

“Ssshhhhh: Put the Kibosh on Annoying Twitter Users Without Them Knowing,” reads a headline on the Entrepreneur  website (May 2).

“Rangers Looking to Put Kibosh On Flyers’ Season In Game 6” (they did, in Game 7) says the website of CBS New York (April 29)

“Are Your Board Advisors Putting the Kibosh on Your Biz Dev?” asks the B2C website (May 1).

“Uncle Sam Even Puts Kibosh on Popcorn,” complains The Packer (April 22).

“Cornell student government puts the kibosh on divestment debate,” says Mo…


Questionable Behavior

Wallace Shawn and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless (1995)

You should have been reading this post yesterday. That, at least, was the plan a week ago, before William Germano and I traded slots—a move our editor forgot, because she sent an email on Thursday politely prodding me for copy. At first, I panicked: Could I rearrange my busy Friday schedule to get her something before the weekend? If not, would she mind editing it out-of-hours? Then I remembered the switch, and so wrote back: “I thought…


His Very C’s, His U’s, and His T’s


The Shakespeare world has been abuzz recently with news of a 1580 copy of Baret’s Alvearie, a four-language dictionary, heavily annotated and, according to its owners, possibly by Shakespeare’s own hand. There has been much in the press, popular and professional, on the plausibility of the claim.

Jennifer Howard has covered the story in these pages. Adam Gopnik has used the event as the basis of his recent New Yorker meditation on the inexhaustible cult of Shakespeare.

Regarding the Alvearie,


The Importance of Not Knowing

Graduation_cap copyIt’s graduation season, a time when we celebrate the academic accomplishments of students. At this moment when we are celebrating learning, I think it is important to remember the importance of not always knowing—a message I had the opportunity to share a few years ago at a high-school commencement in Cleveland. I wanted to share part of that speech here in hopes that it might be meaningful for some of this spring’s high-school graduates and students already in college. So, a few thoughts…