Monthly Archives: January 2016

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Oh, Commas

As the self-appointed watcher of commas, known to some (OK, known to myself) as The Comma Maven, I naturally was concerned when I saw the provisional title of my friend Craig Pittman’s forthcoming book about the weirdness of Florida. The book grew out of the tweets that Pittman (a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times) has been putting out for some time, like this:

 

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And this:

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(Craig is not connected with the person or persons who send out tweets like the following under the handle @_FloridaMan:

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The Soul of Wit

twitter_140I am one of thousands of nontweeters on Twitter, people who signed up for one silly reason or another (mine: my publisher told me to) yet have never found much to tweet about. Trying to work up my enthusiasm for this medium of communication, I asked avid tweeters what they loved about it. Their most common answer? “The messages are only 140 characters long.”

Now that Twitter is moving to a higher limit for tweets, let’s pause on this feature, with a nod to poetic form. Why 140 characters? Appa…

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W.S. Gilbert: Rhyme and Reason

pin1971Rhymes link words. In the hands of a master like Shakespeare, they gracefully tie together the disparate elements of, say, a sonnet. We admire a rhyme that quietly but firmly makes a bridge from one line or sentiment to the next.

One of the true masters of that aspect of the English language is W.S. Gilbert, famous for light verse but especially for “and Sullivan.” In operettas like H.M.S. Pinafore where Gilbert wrote the words and Sullivan the music, the latter’s perfectly straight and sometime…

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Them, Themself, and They

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThe Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).

Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphati…

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Stocking Up for the Blizzard

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Wessex Rd., Silver Spring, Md., on January 24.

It’s rare that I feel lucky to have Michigan’s weather in the winter, but this past weekend was one of those moments, as we Michiganders watched the coverage of snow piling up on the East Coast, from Asheville, N.C., up through New York City. And scattered through the coverage was advice about stocking up on foodstuffs before the storm.

In some cases, I think people were actually talking about foodstuffs in the historical or technical sense of the t…

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They Will Never Forget You …

R-5768580-1402134572-1404.jpegGlenn Frey died in New York on January 18. Viewed from Britain, his death was completely overshadowed by another death in New York eight days earlier, that of David Bowie. Everyone, it suddenly seemed, had been in love with Bowie. You couldn’t tune to the BBC’s Radio 4 (the country’s NPR equivalent) without hearing excerpts of Bowie songs and talk of his endlessly creative self-reinvention. Every radio presenter and journalist seems to have been a lifelong Bowie fan. The Economist did something …

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Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!

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The tiddly oggie is actually of English origin, but it typifies the Australian penchant for diminutives and abbreviations.

I’ve been in Australia for two weeks now, and all I can say is the people here must be extremely busy. Why else would they feel obliged to abbreviate so incredibly many words? I started to write down examples shortly after I arrived, and already my notebook is almost full.

A lot of the abbreviations are diminutives: Tasmania is Tassie, mosquitoes are mossies, politicians are…

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The Awful Chinese Writing System

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Is the Chinese writing system a sufficient reason on its own to guarantee that Mandarin will not become a global language like English? That’s what someone asked me after I discussed the prima facie unsuitability of English to serve as a world communication medium. And while I make no claims at all to sinological expertise, I know enough to tell you that the answer is yes. The system is a millstone round the neck of the whole sinophone world, and should have been ditched decades ago.

Don’t hold…

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Dropping the Subject

Legal_ScalesOfJustice_WEBThere are few sweeter, sourer patches in the academic year than drop and add, an imaginary space in which students do things to their schedules and to the minds of their professors.

In the world of academic registration, drop and add are the scales of justice. We can tell ourselves that there are no value judgments in students’ choice of classes. We can remember that students work, and have other required courses, or commute too far for early morning or late evening classes.

But that sensible pe…

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How We Love Spelling

IMG_0138The illustration at left is from my local walk-in medical clinic, where I finally went after the New Year’s Cold persisted for two weeks. (I’m better now, thanks.) It interests me not only because of the continuing debate about doubled consonants, but also because of its implied narrative.

First, the debate (which isn’t much of a debate). Generally speaking, doubling or not doubling the consonant at the ended of a two-syllable word with the accent on the first syllable is regarded as one of th…