Monthly Archives: June 2017

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Repeal and Replace — or Revise? Obamacare!

dont-steal-medicare-socialized-medicine

So what exactly have those Republican senators come up with to vote on, whenever they can muster enough support?

They have proposed what they call the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, known as H.R. 1628 because it is a revision, indeed a complete replacement, of the American Health Care Act passed by the House last month. And that in turn would have replaced the Affordable Care Act, better known by its nickname, Obamacare, almost since it was proposed in 2007.

So this Republican version …

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English Grammar Day

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This Monday, July 3, I’m an invited speaker at English Grammar Day, an annual event involving nonspecialist talks and discussion on aspects of English, held at the British Library in London, and people have been warning me against full-scale frontal assaults on the general public’s beliefs, or polemics against authorities they respect. Be positive and nonconfrontational, they advise. They want me all soft and kind, as if it’s National Brotherhood Week.

Well, I’ve tried that. My article “50 Yea…

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The Half-Life of Metaphors

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The adjective weaponized — meaning “adapted for use as a weapon, equipped with weapons,” or more broadly, “militarized” dates only to 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the following was published in the journal International Security: “The fourth was an air burst of a boosted fission weapon using a U-235 core which obtained an energy yield of approximately 251 kt. It was probably a weaponized version of the 1953 boosted configuration reduced to a m…

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Apostrophes That Make You Go Hmmm

Apostrophe-Post-Cropped-2Among the conundrums that apostrophes pose, one of the more perplexing is what to do with proper nouns that end in -s. Is it Chris’s mistake or Chris’ mistake? Does it matter for the spelling whether you pronounce that possessive ending on Chris with an extra syllable? Do aesthetics play any role?

Style guides do not all agree. Some favor consistent use of -’s for all nouns. Some guides espouse consistency but with exceptions: For example Strunk and White’s Elements of Style makes an exception f…

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Worst Sentence Ever Seen in Academic Prose

Fitzedward Hall

Fitzedward Hall

Linguists are often accused of ignoring the difference between good writing and bad. But I’m not one of E. B. White’s Happiness Boys: “the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow.”

Just today I was shocked by perhaps the most ill-structured sentence I’ve ever seen in academic prose (not ungrammatical, just hideously clumsy):

Our infinitive, where to precedes it, having been generally, of old, dativo-gerundial, it is pertinent, at the outset, to note…

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The Ken Burns Effect

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Ken Burns is responsible for dozens of distinguished historical documentary films, most famously The Civil War (1990) and most recently The Vietnam War, a 10-part series co-directed with Lynn Novick that will air on PBS in September. One characteristic of these films is zooming in and out of and panning across archival photographs. The device is so striking that it’s come to be known as “the Ken Burns effect”— not only informally but officially in Apple editing programs like iMovie and Final …

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‘This Whirligigging Age’

WG815x260_Updated“This madcap world, this whirligigging age.” That’s Edward Guilpin, a minor Elizabethan satirist, observing that the world is a crazy place and it’s moving too fast.

That was in 1598.

What’s a whirligig?  A toy, a plaything, something that spins? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word’s etymology is what you might have guessed, essentially two words — the verb whirl  and the noun gig, here a toy that can be made to spin. There are wonderful old forms, too, as beautiful as old recip…

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Hunting Witches

1cb71bc07a4e05ec792f8b53f84a8065When my kids were small, we used to recite a little ditty about going on a bear hunt. The hunt involved a belief that there was a bear out there, “a big one,” only we couldn’t see it; we had to get past the obstacles and find it. (And, I suppose, capture or kill it, only we never found the bear; the rhyme was entirely about the obstacles in our way.)

Bears exist; witches don’t. That is, they don’t exist in the fairy-tale or medieval sense of a person (generally female) with magical powers. T…

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Among the Old New Words

4.coverFor three-quarters of a century, the journal American Speech has watched for new words and reported them in a regular feature called “Among the New Words” (ATNW, hereafter). In a recent issue, in celebration of this 75th anniversary, the current authors (Ben Zimmer of the Wall Street Journal, Charles Carson of Duke University Press, and Jane Solomon of Dictionary.com) looked back and selected one word from each of the years since that feature began. (The issue is Volume 91, No. 4, dated November…

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Lexicographers Luxuriate in Barbados

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What happens when you take 50 people who make or study dictionaries and land them on a remote Caribbean island?

The Dictionary Society of North America provided an answer to that question last week, when it held its three-day biennial meeting not within the United States or Canada, as it had all 20 times before, but in the Caribbean, on the island of Barbados.

And that made a difference. The distance from North America discouraged some North Americans from making the trip. On the other hand, th…