Monthly Archives: May 2015

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George Eliot, Currer Bell, Clara Gazul, and Me

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Clara Gazul

You will recognize the first name as that of one of our greatest novelists, known privately as Mary Ann Evans, author of the immensely satisfying Middlemarch as well as things you were forced to read in high school, like Silas Marner.

Currer Bell requires a bit more familiarity with 19th-century fiction, though hardly a secret. The work published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography is, so the title page proclaims, “edited by Currer Bell.”  Charlotte Bronte embedded her initials — …

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Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.

 

What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…

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The ‘Winners’

d84a3a1c787b467efef89ae73e08f80b_crop_northI didn’t plan to write a follow-up to my spelling-contest post, but reader response prompted too many thoughts to contain in a footnote.

First, by popular vote, the winners from my lists were loose as a misspelling of lose and definately as a misspelling of definitely. A note on each of these:

Sites abound for the loose/lose problem; there’s even a Facebook page. I admit, I find it odd that so many people truly misspell the common word lose. (By “truly misspell,” I mean I think it’s neither a ty…

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The Genius Card

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Joseph Mitchell (Image by Anne Hall/Pantheon)

The phone buzzed on a sunny fall day as I was taking a stroll on the beautiful campus of Swarthmore College, near my home. I looked at the number—it had New York’s 212 area code, but otherwise I didn’t recognize it. I took a chance that it wasn’t a robo call and answered it.

It wasn’t a robo call. It was Gay Talese, the great nonfiction writer. Nearly the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you know about this new biography of Joseph Mitchell?”

I …

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Dumb Copy Editing Survives

Once, when I was younger, I was (you’ll find this hard to imagine) somewhat abrasive, and I openly despised copy editors and all their kith and kin. I had formed the impression that they are all irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.

They would unsplit infinitives that I had split for good reason; they would reflexively change since to because even if I had deliberately avoided the latter becau…

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A Kontest for Speling

pages 3-25B FINAL.inddApparently I subscribe to Quora. I don’t know when my subscription began. Mostly, the posts are the sort of trivia I indulge in only when desperate for work avoidance. But the question, “What is the most misspelt word in the English language?” got my attention. Of course, the first response worried the difference between misspelt and misspelled, but then we were off and running.

Spelling, of course, is a convention to which we cling more fiercely when we have dictionaries at the ready. Before Sa…

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Thugs Like Us

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A tweet by Questlove, the drummer for The Roots.

In a press conference a couple of days after the 2014 Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who had made rather obnoxiously boastful comments after the game, was asked if he was bothered by being repeatedly referred to as a “thug.” (The sports website Deadspin calculated that thug was uttered 625 times on American television the day following the Seahawks’ win.) Sherman, a Stanford University graduate, said he was,

because i…

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Our Own Devices

From The Scottish Pulpit, 1838, courtesy of Google Books:

“For should He, by whom kings reign and  princes decree justice, withdraw that secret influence by which he directs the thoughts of men to the accomplishment of his own objects; … should he surrender the guidance of our concerns solely to the exercise of mere human talents, at the expense of  the glory due to God, even yet, without the imposition of famine, or pestilence, or sword — those more immediate executioners of divine judgm…

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With Good Reason

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Image from the Tango! project icon set.

The query took me by surprise. A few weeks ago an editor who was reviewing a piece I had submitted (for a publication other than this one) wrote:

You start one paragraph: “There’s good reason we associate. … ” It caught my eye — and I figured I better check! It’s such a subtle little twist, i.e., “There’s good logic to support this idea. … ” vs. “There is a specific reason we think this way. … ” which would require one to insert the “a.” Which one w…

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May Day! May Day! May Day!

Today isn’t just any day. It’s May Day, the first of May.

Geoffrey Chaucer knew it was special. In “The Legend of Good Women,” he wrote that he tossed his book aside when May came:

On bokes for to rede I me delyte . . .
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
Farewel my bok, and my devocioun!

And on the first day of May, from before Chaucer’s time to our own, northern countries have celebrated the end of …