Monthly Archives: December 2015


Macbeth, the Novel

Classics Illustrated MacbethWhen is Shakespeare’s play not a play but a novel?

I don’t mean adaptations of Macbeth. There are lots of those — Paul Illidge’s Macbeth: A Prose Translation, the filmscript to Akira Kurosawa’s classic Throne of Blood (or, in Japanese, Spider’s Web Castle)the Classics Illustrated comic-book version, the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø’s forthcoming noir fictionalization — to name just a few.

That’s already a lot of nonplays. At least one even sounds like it might be a novel.

So let me put the questi…


No. 1965977

51YxgZIvcpL._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_Last February I got a typewritten letter from inmate No. 1965977 (not her real number) in a state prison. Authors often get such letters, usually with detailed and hard-to-follow accounts of how the writer of the letter was unjustly accused, convicted, and/or treated. This one was different. It was clearly written (more so than much of my students’ work) and mentioned nothing of jurisprudence. Rather, the writer said she was interested in learning about journalism; she had no access to the Inter…


Sing We

carol_1541986cI grew up singing carols, and I am still singing them, these days in an interfaith chorus that gives an annual holiday concert with audience participation. Returning to the songs of one’s youth is always a sentimental experience. But with carols, particularly, I recall simultaneously relishing the rich language in these little ditties and feeling confused by what I came to understand as inverted syntax.

Poetry, and poetic language, often move the parts of a sentence into places different from or…


Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular ‘They’

They mugI have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by the graduate students in the Joint Program in English and Education (JPEE) and celebrates my advocacy of singular they—with the explanatory footnote.

But when can we stop including the footnote?

We got one step closer two weeks ago, when Bill Walsh, chief of the night copy desk at The Washington Post, sent an email to the newsroom announcing some changes in the style guidelines. In addition to eliminating the hyphen in email and endorsing the spel…


‘Shall,’ ‘Should,’ and the Fate of the Earth

Words matter. An obvious proposition, but never so obvious as in the agreement recently adopted in Paris by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Deconstructing Paris, a New Zealand website devoted to analyzing the various drafts leading up to the agreement, noted that the penultimate draft contained more than 1,000 sets of brackets, offering alternative wordings from which the delegates had to choose. Here’s one particularly brackety paragraph:

[Each Party][All Parties] [re…


Digital ‘DARE’ Update: Half-Price Holiday Special


Illustration by Ellen Winkler for The Chronicle

OK, word lovers. Here’s the perfect gift for yourself, or any other logophile: A whole year of the complete online Dictionary of American Regional English at your fingertips for only $47.50, half the usual subscription price.

Yes, for that price you can leave the six monumental volumes of DARE reposing majestically on your shelf and access their contents with a few keyboard commands. And there’s much more in the interactive digital version. For a s…


The Footprints of a Gigantic Hound


Fred Shapiro’s magisterial Yale Book of Quotations cites 39 quotations from Arthur Conan Doyle, but surprisingly, only one comes from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902): “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

Shapiro does include the most famous Holmes saying of all, the famously spurious “Elementary, my dear Watson!” It is absent from Doyle’s stories, but (Shapiro notes) The New York Times printed it on April 30, 1911. (It was used in later Holmesian stories by other hands, and turn…


Let’s Call the Whole Thing ‘Often’

How did Robert Frost pronounce "often"?

How did Robert Frost pronounce often?

I was listening the other day to “Reply All,” a podcast about the Internet, and P.J. Vogt, the reporter/host, had occasion to say the word often. I was pretty confident that I knew how he was going to pronounce it. After all, Vogt is young (I would judge in his early 30s), and speaks with vocal fry, list lilt, uptalk, and, generally, a pronounced Ira Glass-esque lack of slickness.

In other words, I knew he would say off-ten, pronouncing the t.

And he did.

A …


Why Early Etymologists Embarrassingly Err


Martin Van Buren was nicknamed after his birthplace, but that wasn’t the first use of OK.

You would think that someone closest in time and place to the emergence of a new word would be the best authority about its origin. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

Well, it may stand to reason, but in case after case it doesn’t stand to fact. Time and again the earliest etymological pronouncements about the origin of a word are just plain wrong.

Take the case of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word — …


‘People of Color’

It’s slightly surprising that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly, still (even in the 2015 Kindle edition) turns its nose up at the phrase people of color:

people of color
Except in direct quotations, the expression is too self-conscious for the news columns. Substitute a term like minorities or, better, refer to specific ethnic groups – black and Hispanic authors, for example.

Some copy editors think the phrase has moved into the mainstream a…