Monthly Archives: March 2015

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Swinging for His Supper

Jeremy Clarkson, suspended from “Top Gear”

The Chronicle’s strict profanity policies, as I explained last year, bar mentioning offensive or obscene words, even in linguistic discussions where the details are crucial. Asterisk-respelling tricks are unapproved under the New York Times style guidelines that we follow. But let me try, despite having my linguistic hands tied behind my back, to tell you a bit about the latest high-profile free-speech crisis in Britain’s media.

Jeremy Clarkson is the l…

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Ineluctable Modality of the Visible

54447829I’m always coming late to the party. Over the weekend, traveling through Arizona with a clogged computer, I stopped in at the Apple store, 12 minutes late for my appointment at the Genius Bar. They hold the appointments for 10 minutes, after which you go into the queue. There were about 300 people in the store. Standing in line, I asked a roaming Apple person how long she thought the wait might be for those of us who had trouble making our way through the desert to this oasis.

“You need to tal…

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And Now ‘This’

I came upon this at an online question-and-answer site:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 1.59.56 PM

The most popular answer was this: “There’s nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with starting a sentence with ‘this.’  It’s essential,  however, that it’s clear what the ‘this’ is referring to.”

This sentiment is widely endorsed by writing authorities. The Penguin Handbook counts “Vague use of this” as a “common error” and counsels: “Always use a noun immediately after this, that, these, those, and some.… Remember: Ask yourself ‘th…

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‘History Is Happening’

HAMILTON

“Hamilton,” a grammatically creative musical

The first line of the third paragraph of Ben Brantley’s review of the new hit Broadway play Hamilton delighted and shocked me. Following up on a line from the play, “History is happening in Manhattan,” he writes: “’Happening’ qualifies as both an adjective and a verb in this instance.”

Wow. Just wow.

For those who don’t get Brantley’s observation or my reaction, a quick lesson. The verb to be, followed by a present participle, often means some form of…

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Mewling Quim

Loki

Loki

It started with an e-mail in 2012 from a Londoner named John Stewart. He was writing to me because I conduct a blog called “Not One-Off Britishisms,” which deals with British words and expressions that have gained currency in the U.S.

Stewart directed me to a post on the Bleeding Cool website about a moment in the then-current film The Avengers, written by the Americans Joss Whedon and Zak Penn. Loki (a bad guy) addresses Black Widow with the two-word epithet that’s the title of this post…

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Coming and Going

GrizzlyThe complexity of language mirrors the complexity of life.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the so-called deictic words, those that connect a particular situation in language directly to a situation in life. Consider this and that, for example. This is something closer to the speaker or writer; that  is something more distant.

Similarly, here and there depend on who or what’s closer, whether to the speaker or to something the speaker is discussing. Now and then require decisions about time. 

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Attending to Gender

plane copyI’ve been doing a lot of flying recently, which has me thinking about the term flight attendant. It is undeniably clunky. And yet here it is—an odd little success story in the larger narrative of nonsexist language reform.

Given overall trends in  these reform efforts, I don’t think it’s odd that American English speakers have found a gender-neutral alternative to stewardess and steward (the latter being relatively uncommon but possible). We’ve opted for gender-neutral terms over gender-specif…

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Lain, the Whom of the Verb World

lain_shot

The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

I first need to summarize certain facts about…

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This. Is. Really. Important.

I know I’m not the only one who’s noticing display text—advertising, announcements, and the like—angling for the reader’s attention by placing a period after each word. So that you have to read it slowly. And feel the importance. Of every word. Of. Every. Word.

This is, I hope, a momentary infatuation with the beleaguered full stop, which typographers and art directors are enlisting to add emphasis to anything, provided the anything is brief, and preferably composed of words not in excess of two…

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The International Phonetic Alphabet

phonsymb

In a Lingua Franca post a few weeks ago, I needed to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to represent the different pronunciations of the English word garage. I didn’t explain much about the IPA; I took it for granted. We do with chemistry formulas using the element symbols in the periodic table, trusting that an educated public will understand CO2 or H2O (and maybe even NaCl or H2SO4). You get a certain amount of basic chemistry in high school or even earlier. However, my treating kn…