Monthly Archives: March 2016


Whoo-Hoo for ‘Woo Woo’

Woo-woo tips mingle with practical pointers. “Eat from heart-shaped bowls, and put heart stickers on your refrigerator,” Minich recommends. (Why? “To keep the spirit of love alive,” duh.)

The New York Times, March 27, 2016, review of Whole Detox, by Deanna Minich

… “Valley of Love,” a logy, woo-woo drama about a former couple who, at the request of their son, who killed himself earlier that same year, have come to find answers in the California desert.

The New York Times, March 24, 2016

“I f…


‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare

“It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

“The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be di…


Being a Subjunctive


Teaching them who Buddy Holly was would be more valuable than trying to make them shun covertly inflected mandative clauses.

For grammar bullies “the subjunctive” is sacred ground. Reforms proposed for the British national curriculum in 2012 required teaching use of the subjunctive not later than sixth grade. People seem to think the subjunctive is a fragile flower on which civilization depends; without our intervention it will fade and die, and something…


Pentimento: the Saxon Genitive

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent part of spring break serendipitously immersed in language. We were on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (the “Rich Coast,” as Puerto Rico is the “Rich Port,” neither of which description seems apt these days), among a group of international visitors. I resuscitated my flagging Spanish, interpreted for language-challenged French and German tourists, and tried out my toddler-level Italian with several restaurant proprietors who had relocated from Sicily. I’m not gifted at languag…


Sloganeering for President

jeb-bush-to-donald-trump-im-flattered-that-you-stole-my-tax-planIf you’re running for president, as half a dozen candidates are doing these days, you need money, you need meetings, you need enthusiastic supporters — and last but not least, you need slogans. Right?

Well, maybe. In August 2015, when the campaign was just getting started, the website Tagline Guru conducted a 2016 Campaign Slogan Survey. They asked some 250 “branding, marketing, and advertising professionals” to evaluate the official slogans of the 22 announced candidates in the running then.



Sentences I Hope Never to Use

Trouble with the hardwareOne very specific desire I have is to reach the end of my life (a long time from now) without ever having used the phrase working closely with.

Nothing wrong with it syntactically or semantically, but it strikes me as a repellent cliché that drops like uncontrolled saliva from the mouths of self-justifying administrators under press questioning. A question like “What steps has your agency taken since the explosion and fire?” is answered with: “My office has been working closely with emergency au…


Good on Us

19th_century_slangLike others in this forum, I try to keep abreast of changes in idiom over time. We notice the emergence of vocal fry, the increasing acceptance of singular they, and so on. But for the most part, our observations are those of the disinterested listener. We may note, as I have, our tendency to cling to expressions now considered old-fashioned or stiff. But what of the ways in which we find the expressions of the zeitgeist coming out of our own mouths?

I can’t recall what my husband and I were t…


OK, Presidential Hopeful? Celebrate Today.

> on July 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Bernie Sanders: “It’s not a question of me being OK.”

Happy 177th birthday to America’s greatest word … OK!

Entirely curved O, entirely straight K — put them together and they are the two-letter, two-syllable combination that confirms agreements, certifies that something works, gives lecturers a way to sum up, and expresses the American philosophy of pragmatism. I could write a book about it (and I did).

For 177 years, ever since OK was born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post on March  23, 18…


An Exercise in Bad Writing


The Cathedral of St. John the Divine from Morningside Park

An invitation came by email to contribute to a teaching volume. A brief piece, only a few hundred words long, was needed. Describe a favorite teaching exercise from your literature classes. The word “fun” was also used. I responded immediately. The previous semester I had asked my creative-writing students to do a simple exercise in class. They were required to produce bad writing.

Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants…


‘Huge’ Is Massive

64618100After Yale upset Baylor in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the Bulldogs’ star player, Justin Sears, said, “It’s huge. Just to be among the first guys to get that first big win of the tournament is huge.” After reporting the quote, the New York Times article about the game observed, “It was another huge victory for the Bulldogs.”

As perfect is to goodness, so huge is to literal and metaphorical largeness: the hyperbolic adjective of the moment, supplanting big, grand,enor…