Monthly Archives: June 2014

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Beware Hurricane Snooki

Big-BerthaI must love language more than I love truth. Example: The venerable Economist, along with several other publications, recently reported on a study whose tentative conclusion was that female-named hurricanes—or, more precisely, feminine-sounding hurricanes—cause more death than their masculine counterparts. The reason behind this apparent rise of the Valkyries is that those who hear of, say, Hurricane Tiffany fear her far less than those who hear of Hurricane Boris. They therefore take fewer …

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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely pu…

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A Victory Over Genericide

A September 1959 advertisement for the Xerox 914The New York Times has begun a strange new series titled “Verbatim,” mini-docudramas culled from transcripts of court documents. In its inaugural video, the punch line kicks in when the office worker being relentlessly grilled about the presence of a photocopy machine in his office is finally badgered into admitting that a machine exists from which he extracts copies of documents. What is that machine called? “Xerox,” he answers desperately.

To my students, the scene isn’t all that funny, exce…

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Redundant Anniversaries?

yellowexclamationThis past Sunday morning, a listener of Michigan Radio emailed me to correct my speech. My weekly segment of “That’s What They Say” had just aired, and the listener (we’ll call him M) was not impressed with something I said. He wrote:

I just heard your piece … on Michigan Radio. In that discussion you referred to an author who commemorated the “hundred-year anniversary of … ” (your words). Didn’t you mean the hundredth anniversary? I didn’t ever expect to hear that misuse (redundancy…

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List With Legs

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

In March 2013, I wrote a short article for an online publication called The Week. Following the current mode, I composed it in the form of a list: “7 Bogus Grammar ‘Errors’ You Don’t Need to Worry About.” I explained why the following “rules” are no longer supportable, if they ever were:

  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don’t use “which” as a relative pronoun.
  • Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Don’t use the passive voice.
  • Don’t neglect t…
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Like as the Waves Make Towards the Pebbled Shore

stgeorgebig

Una and the Redcross Knight

Whoa, that’s Shakespeare. (Sonnet 60.) But it’s the best description I know of the verse form invented by his contemporary Edmund Spenser for The Fairy Queen, a marathon of a poem set in an allegorical Fairyland full of “fierce wars and faithful loves” (in Spenser’s words) and populated by believable characters. If you get the olde fashyonde spelyng out of the way, and concentrate on the story rather than the complicated allegory, as I have argued in two previou…

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Report From the Front

Ka-ching!

Ka-ching!

A couple of months ago, I was at a party, talking to a couple of lawyers, and the conversation got around to the fact that I write books. The topic of e-books came up, and one of these guys said to me, in essence, “You should love e-books! I could take out my smartphone, and buy everything you’ve ever written with a couple of clicks. It’s so easy to sell your stuff!”

I said it was more complicated than that, but not until now have I realized how true that statement is. About a week ago…

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Spenser’s Allegorical Trap

Spenser WeekLast week I regretted that modern editors use olde fashyondde spelyng for The Faerie Queene, the grand poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary Edmund Spenser. We modernize spelling for Shakespeare and just about every author of that time, but not Spenser. And that puts an unnecessary barrier between Spenser and the modern reader.

And as I noted last week, olde spellynge is not the only barrier for modern readers. To begin with, the title Fairy Queen (to use modern spelling) has connotations today tha…

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Grammatical Shades of Grey

shutterstock_138339137I responded cautiously when my nonlinguist partner, staring at the wording on a supermarket yogurt container, cried “That’s wrong!”

The words on the label promised that the yogurt was made of cow’s milk. “That’s wrong!” she said; “This yogurt didn’t come from just one cow!” It ought to be spelled cows’ milk, with the genitive plural, she insisted.

We happened to have a carton of a different brand of yogurt in the refrigerator, so we could double-check. Sure enough, down in the small-print list o…

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An Epidemic of George

George WillThe fur has been flying the last couple of weeks over a  recent piece by the conservative pundit George Will. Given that Will’s subject is “the supposed campus epidemic of rape,” it may be impossible to discuss his column purely on the basis of language. But I’m game to try.

Will’s word and punctuation choices yield several different sorts of fodder. One might begin, for instance, with his appositive to rape, “a.k.a. ‘sexual assault,’” a term he keeps in quotes throughout his piece, as…