Monthly Archives: June 2014

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The (Melo)drama of English Grammar

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Title page of Bullions

I’ve been browsing through 19th-century grammar books. Yes, on purpose.

On my desk is an 1846 copy of The Principles of English Grammar; Comprising the Substance of the Most Approved English Grammars Extant, With Copious Exercises in Parsing and Syntax; and an Appendix of Various and Useful Matter, a popular text by the Rev. Peter Bullions, D.D., professor of language in the Albany (New York) Academy.

I hope the reverend’s royalties had an escalator clause. The copy I’m ho…

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Sono Tornata!

Casa Dante in Perano: good wine, bad Wi-Fi

Having left my post at Lingua Franca four months ago to work on a book and (very incidentally) dabble in Italian, I thought I’d launch my return (Sono tornata = I have returned) with a report. Thanks to a Lingua Franca commenter, I spent about 10 minutes a day from February to late May on the website Duolingo, earning lingots and hearts and wondering why this website seemed so obsessed with cooking in the kitchen. (Where else would you cook?) When I was…

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Yesterday’s Errors

Last week I listened to a conversation on “All Things Considered” between National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel and author Ammon Shea about his new book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. It was fundamentally a discussion of language change and attitudes about language change, running the gamut from—to quote Siegel—“linguistic scolds to the most permissive writers on language.”

Shea, who puts himself at the permissive end of the spectrum, explained how some words that we now cons…

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It’s a Grand Old Bargain

Keeler and Powell: "It was grand of you to come!"

Keeler and Powell: “It was grand of you to come!”

I read in USA Today  on Tuesday that Detroit’s Big Three auto makers have “committed $26-million to the grand bargain on which much of the city’s exit from bankruptcy is based.” The “grand bargain,” the newspaper went on to explain, is a complicated arrangement in which the Detroit Institute of Arts “and its masterworks will be spun off to a nonprofit trust for the equivalent of $816-million, with proceeds set aside to help reduce pension reducti…

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Bad Spell

Rayse your hand yff you prefer reedying olde wrytynges in olde-fashionede spellyng. Anyone for Shakespeare’s Sonnette 73?

That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaues, or none, or fewe doe hange
Vpon those boughes which shake against the could,
Bare rn’wd quiers, where late the sweet birds sang. …

No, thank goodness we usually get it in modern spelling. Same words, different look:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those…

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Mere W*rds

In a post on May 19 I contrasted two cases of language use in the British newspapers recently: an objectionable word in an old record played by a DJ (he lost his job), and sexist remarks and attitudes expressed in office emails by a top executive (he wasn’t even disciplined by his board).

I suggested that people had the wrong priorities: Use of taboo words was being treated as more significant than expression of objectionable attitudes. But lately I am beginning to think that the general public …

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Story Time

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Copyright MousePlanet Inc.

I’ve been working recently with a Romanian-German engineering student with business-school aspirations who is trying to improve his English writing skills. My student’s spoken English is excellent, and he can write fluently when talking about himself (in particular, about his rather impressive tennis career; the kid’s multitalented to say the least). But whenever he shows me a report, a formal letter, or a research paper, the work is a mess: The grammar falls apart und…

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New Book, Same Old Grammar-Babble

DSC_5529-2A complimentary copy of a popular book on grammar appeared in my mailbox recently, with a personal note from the authors. They express firm agreement with views of mine that they had seen in Tom Chivers’s article about me, and they say they hope I’ll like their book.

I wish I could respond positively. I don’t want to hurt the authors’ feelings, or condemn a well-intentioned project, or look a gift horse in the mouth. I wanted it to be good: I long to see a popular book on English grammar that ge…

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Language Anarchy

Twitter_logo_blueWhat happens when a language is cast adrift? When there is no one to keep the language in line?

As we all know, these aren’t idle questions for the English language today. True, there are countless software programs, books, websites, teachers, editors, and just plain busybodies straining to keep our language within bounds. They endeavor to make sure the sign in a supermarket reads “15 items or fewer” instead of “15 items or less; to make sure it is whom you are addressing, but who addresses; to …

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Commencement, Anyone?

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So we’ve made it through commencement, many of us, anyway. I had two in May—the graduation of my son, Chris (with honors—hey, I am a parent),  from Northeastern with a double major in computer science and video-game design, which means two fields too difficult for his father. A couple of weeks later I was at Cooper Union’s own graduation rites, where I get to sit on the stage and try not to fidget under hot lights. Janet Napolitano spoke at the Northe…