Monthly Archives: April 2017

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‘The Dictionary’

look it up 2 copyDespite my best efforts, I still catch myself using the phrase “the dictionary,” as in “If you look that word up in the dictionary, you’ll actually find. … ” Or, “I need to look that word up in the dictionary.”

I grew up with “the dictionary.” It was a phrase that I heard at home to refer to several different dictionaries scattered around the house (including a very tattered one that must have been 20 years old by the time my sisters and I were using it), and my parents weren’t fussy about…

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The Many First Rules of Politics

Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer“The first rule of X is Y” is a cliché of the sort that Language Log calls a snowclone: a sentence frame with customizable parts, suitable for journalists who can’t be bothered to craft sentences from scratch.

There is, of course, never a unique first rule of X. The Y’s multiply. One of the many first rules of politics, attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, is “You can’t win unless you’re on the ballot.” Somewhat contradicting it is another, from The Gangs of New York (and Josef Stalin before that): “T…

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Seeing What Condition My (Pre-Existing) Condition Is In

Papa's_Delicate_ConditionIt’s impossible to read an article about Republicans’ plans to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, or about the general issue of health coverage and insurance, without encountering the phrase pre-existing condition. For example, The New York Times recently noted that a new proposal by the conservative congressional group the Freedom Caucus “would effectively cast the Affordable Care Act’s pre-existing conditions provisions aside.”

Those provisions prevent insurers from denying coverage to someone wi…

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At the Coalface

AttheCoalfaceDo you work at the coalface? Do you have to work as a miner to feel the expression applies to you?

The coalface is the wall of coal, way down below the surface of the earth, where miners pick away at the poster child for fossil fuel.

The British expression to be at the coalface invites the listener to imagine  brutal, dangerous, and exhausting work. At the Coalface was the title of a memoir by one Joan Hart, a British pit nurse, who spent decades serving the mining community.

Cooked up in the 1…

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The New Clear Option

castle_romeo1_0I’ve heard it so many times my head hurts: the nuclear option. The Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, as we all know, invoked it last week in order to get a vote on Judge Neil Gorsuch, who has now been confirmed and sworn in as a new associate justice of the Supreme Court. And like many phrases you hear every 30 seconds or so if you’re listening to the news, it quickly becomes a word that you don’t think much about. Nuclear option: We know it can mean overriding, by a simple majority, the r…

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Language Birthers

shakespeare

Shakespeare birthers believe that anyone but the Bard wrote the plays and sonnets.

Birther is an excellent word, invented about a decade ago to designate those who claimed, against all evidence, that Barack Obama was born in Africa (or Asia — anywhere outside U.S. territory) and thus prohibited by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution from holding the office of president of the United States. (Nobody claimed that he had not attained the age of at least 35 years, or had not been a resident…

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Done and Finished

baking-cake-tipThe title might suggest that I am following up on Ben Yagoda’s informative post on the expression done and done, but instead I am revisiting one of my mother’s grammar bugbears.

When my sisters and I were kids, at the end of dinner, we at least sometimes described the postmeal state of affairs this way: “I’m done.” And then we would ask to be excused from the table. My mother would remind us, “Cakes are done, you are finished.” Or, she would tease us: “Are you ready to come out of the oven?”

I w…

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Teaching Journalism in the Trump Era

We were fortunate to have Ben Yagoda, one of the bloggers for Lingua Franca, visiting our offices last month. We asked him to share what he’d learned in 25 years of teaching journalism and writing at the University of Delaware. Here’s what he had to say:

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You Say EEther, I Say AYEther

76019either or neitherSay what you will about it, either deserves a second look. Or a second hearing. And neither too, for that matter.

In a usage book like Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, you’ll see that in its written form, either presents usage experts with conundrums, having to do with meaning and verb agreement. Even to summarize those discussions would occupy more space than this entire column, so forget about that. What I’m interested in is a simpler yet more mysterious matter: how you s…

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The World’s Greatest Grammarian

SunshineBeach

Professor Rodney Desmond Huddleston, the world’s greatest expert on the grammar of English, woke beside the South Pacific Ocean today on his 80th birthday. He was, I’m sure, up as usual by 3:30 a.m. (Brisbane time; that’s 1:30 p.m. the previous day in Washington, D.C., so he’s way ahead of Lingua Franca time), and will have gone on his standard predawn five-mile hike in the Noosa Heads National Park a few hundred yards from his home. Then he will have had breakfast, and a postbreakfast nap (put…