Monthly Archives: February 2017

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What if the President Couldn’t Read?

2E131CE400000578-3303860-image-m-27_1446654140207A rumor has been circulating about our new president’s level of literacy. First suggested (I think) in a blog post for The Times of Israel, the notion that the president not only doesn’t like to read but cannot read above the fifth-grade level of his campaign rhetoric has made the rounds of Samantha Bee, the Daily Kos and other left-wing opinion makers. I am not here to spread that rumor, but to ask what it might mean for our understanding of both this unusual president’s character and the fut…

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Happy Valentine’s Day! (With the Intelligent Basketball)

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Anita Reeves as Mrs Malaprop in “The Rivals,” by R.B. Sheridan,
Abbey Theatre, 1998. Photo: Amelia Stein.

So much for that greeting. If you’re happily in love, you need no further meddling from me. If you’re not, the last thing you need is a reminder of the day.

So I have a better idea, thanks to some files I was clearing out the other day. Yes, real cardboard folders with paper inside, the way they used to be before the cloud. And they have nothing to do with V-day.

One of the folders was labele…

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Will Rogers Said That. Except He Didn’t.

The other day, a friend forwarded to me an e-mail that had been forwarded to him and 17 other people. It had the look of having been been forwarded many, many times. Here’s how it started:

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It continued with more “gems:”

4. Never miss a good chance to shut up. 5. Always drink upstream from the herd. 6. If you find yourself in a hole, get smart &  STOP your digging immediately. 7. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back into your pocket. 8. There are three kinds of me…

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Diagramming Gorsuch

Judge-Neil-Gorsuch-of-the-U.S.-Court-of-Appeals-for-the-Tenth-Circuit-in-DenverI don’t know why the Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch diagrammed part of a sentence in one of his legal opinions. Following the Reed-Kellogg norms that Mark Liberman of Language Log once described as “intellectually obsolete for a hundred years,” Gorsuch diagrammed his selection sloppily. It’s unclear how the diagram really informed his opinion. But more to the point, those merry few who have followed this revelation of Judge Gorsuch’s affinity for diagramming seem to be judgin…

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Trumping the Extremists

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Barry Goldwater

O tempora, o mores!

The language of politics used to be so straightforward.

More than 50 years later, I can still hear the echo of Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Goldwater lost the presidential election to Lyndon Johnson that year, by a considerable margin. You can argue what Goldwater …

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‘Better’ Days Are Here

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The company I worked in the ’80s employed as chief accountant an older man (probably younger than I am now) named Ed. Ed was known as a card. When you encountered him in the hallway and asked how he was, his answer was always the same:

“Better.”

This was amusing the first time or three, but eventually grew so wearisome that I determined never to say, “How are you?” to him again, but instead make a noninterrogatory greeting (surprisingly difficult to carry off).

Ed has been on my mind lately bec…

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How Not to Teach Chinese

Chinese_characters_logoVictor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the …

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Sewer Trouble

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Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, shown by a red line: not the sewist’s realm.

A friend writes that she’s looking forward to putting energies into being a sewist, a word that made me reach for the Oxford English Dictionary, the smelling salts not being handy. While the OED was silent, the subject, and the term, have recently been discussed on the Grammarphobia blog.

Sewist seems to be a relatively new coinage — a decade or so old — providing an alternative to sewer, meaning one who sews, either professional…

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When Two Negatives Don’t Make a Positive

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Image via Wikipedia.org

Many English grammar advice sites on the web are so dire that it almost seems rude to link to them. I don’t want to fail in my duty to clarify things by deconstructing them; yet it seems cruel to humiliate the poor well-meaning people who wrote them. So let me just say that somewhere out there is a dreadful page of confused drivel on a website maintained by a world-famous dictionary publisher, and its author begins by confessing a…

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Trump’s ‘Use’ of ‘Quotation Marks’

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American presidents have often been noteworthy writers.  Jefferson was an audacious native version of an 18th-century philosophe. Lincoln’s precise yet visionary style was the subject of a 2008 book by Fred Kaplan. Grant’s plainspoken memoirs were admired by Mark Twain, who, contrary to rumor, didn’t ghostwrite them. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, the first President Roosevelt published 33 books (damn him), and that’s counting the four-volume The Winni…