Monthly Archives: May 2017

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The New ‘Ding’

dinged car

Is this car dinged? It can depend on your dictionary.

In 2013 I wrote a post here on Lingua Franca titled “Dinging for ‘Grammatical Errors,’” and while I put a lot of thought into the argument, I didn’t put a lot of thought into the use of the verb ding. For me, it was a familiar way to describe the act of docking points or reducing the overall score of something.

It never occurred to me to look up the verb ding in a standard dictionary — and if I had, I wonder if I would have kept the word in…

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Pump Priming

priming_pumpI imagine most of us have a story about a time we used a word or an expression that we thought we’d invented, only to discover that it had been around for hundreds of years. In my case, my vivid memory is of feeling nauseated on a long car ride when I was about 8 years old. I had heard of people being seasick. But we weren’t at sea. So I thought I would coin a new term for how I felt. “Mommy,” I said from the back seat. “I think I’m carsick.”

My mother was a relatively patient woman. She had lis…

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Being a Declarative (or Interrogative, or Imperative, or Exclamative)

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Above: a genuine exclamative clause

Grammar books, and hundreds of websites out there, are appallingly confused about statements, questions, orders, and exclamations. Most of the problem lies in their failure to distinguish syntax from semantics. I want to try and sort things out a bit, and provide a little homework exercise.

Clause type is syntactic, not semantic. It shouldn’t be confused with any elemen…

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Grade-Grubber in Chief

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Mayor Koch would famously ask, “How am I doing?”
But his was a rhetorical question. Getty Images

A friend posts on social media, “Is it grade-grubbing season already?”

Grade-grubbing combines pleading with outrage, supplication with casuistry.

Even if you love teaching (and, please, if you don’t, do find some other line of work), one part of the job that will age you fast is grading. Or, if we can speak frankly, defending the grade you’ve assigned when confronted with an indignant or self-rig…

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These Oftentimes Times

oftentimes_3My colleague Ben Yagoda predicted it a year and a half ago: Oftentimes is on the rise. I just returned from South Carolina, where I was struck by its ubiquity. A server at a restaurant told me that oftentimes people preferred their salad dressing on the side. In a nature preserve, a fellow walker told us he had oftentimes seen alligators sunning themselves on that patch of weeds. Most surprising, my son, who’s moved to South Carolina for work, peppered his speech with oftentimes, an expression I…

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News, False and Fake

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The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu

“Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace. But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”

Recognize this sentiment? It’s more than three decades old, predating Twitter (2006), Facebook (2004), Google (1996) and the internet (1990s) by a wide margin. But it shows that even in the good old days, there was concern about the validity of news reports, as well as eagerness for them. At least there was tha…

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The Importance of Being a Prince

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The thing about being a prince is that you can say anything you feel like, and they don’t make you resign. In a democracy it’s different: You can be laid low politically for one thoughtless remark.

Do you remember Trent Lott’s lighthearted remarks at a convivial birthday party on December 5, 2002? “When Strom Thurmond ran for president,” said Lott of the birthday boy, “we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these probl…

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Blogger Ben Yagoda on False Titles

henry luce

Time founder Henry Luce, friend to false titles.

 

A few years back, linguist and Lingua Franca contributor Geoffrey Pullum wrote a post on Language Log where he set out the first sentences of two books by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Geoff went on to observe:

This use of a person’s name preceded …

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Trump: Down to Earth but Not Dignified

Andrew Jackson was the first down-to-earth president.

When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, coincidentally both on July 4, 1826, half a century after the Declaration of Independence, they must have thought that the character of the presidency had been thoroughly established in the mold of George Washington. After Washington came Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and then the start of the next generation of college-educated, well-to-do gentlemen: John Quincy Adams.

Adams and Jefferson could…

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Grammar Blunders and Journalistic Discourtesy

Draft design for the new £5 banknote

Nearly every week some journalist calls me, always on a tight schedule, to get a quote for some story about language or grammar. I help whenever I can, despite knowing that most likely they will slightly misrepresent me, and will not alert me when or if the story appears. Last week I helped Katie Morley of The Telegraph with a story about a supposed grammar error on a banknote. In the story that appeared, which ignored my advice, two linguistic errors of hers…