Monthly Archives: July 2017

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Past Not-So-Perfect

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James Garfield

Sometimes I get tense about tenses. In the past, I’ve vented about writers’ overuse or abuse of the present tense, in general, and the historical present, in particular. (That’s the one where a historian interviewed on NPR says something like, “FDR is inaugurated on March 4 and almost immediately starts to enact the New Deal.”)

My new pet peeve is the past perfect, sometimes called the pluperfect. It’s used when referring to events that took place before past events that are under…

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Travel Ban

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When is a ban not a ban?

Executive Order 13780  (“Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”) and the White House’s stumbling pronouncements on the nature of travel restrictions leave many questions, none of which are clearly answered by the Supreme Court’s temporizing decision.

The word ban is related to banns, those public announcements of the intent to marry.

Banns date back to at least the 12th century, and offered the community an opportunity to object to th…

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Body of Punctuation

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The 21st century has introduced new media for language. And it’s not just the modern electronic technology of the internet, carrying messages via email or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and the rest. It’s also carrying messages on something as primitive and ancient as human history — our bodies.

Well, not everyone’s bodies. But especially those of the millennials, who seem inclined to punctuate themselves with tattooed marks. And while the body punctuation often conveys the sam…

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The Notorious ‘Notorious’

Speak of the devil.

No sooner had I written about The New York Times’s unfortunate decision to cut back on copy editors than the sort of error appeared on the Times’s mobile feed that a good copy editor could have caught in his or her sleep. It’s in the slightly grayed-out subhead below:

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The error, as all good sticklers have already noted, is the use of the word notoriety to mean “fame,” when in actuality, notoriety is fame for doing one very bad thing or repeatedly doing moderately bad things….

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Why I Don’t Ask Students to Write the Thesis Statement First

thinkingwriting4cae69b8a905185b40745c6103a82381_400x400 In the well-intentioned effort to help college writers find strong theses, we as instructors can put the cart before the horse. Let me explain. I was reminded of this problem a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing an assignment sequence for a first-year writing course. The instructor had built in a lot of valuable process, where students would have the opportunity to get feedback on their ideas for the essay and then read drafts of each other’s essays in small workshop groups before turning…

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Heat of Life

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Matthew Desmond wrote that the people he was studying for his book Evicted taught him how to see. (Photo: Scott Brauer for The Chronicle)

If you are an academic, and your manuscript is accepted for publication by a university press, a questionnaire mailed to you will ask for a list of the courses in which your book can be taught. (A similar question is asked of those serving as reviewers of a manuscript for a university press: “Will the book have any crossover appeal?”) The idea is to assess…

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Being a Determinative

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The determinatives of English are the little words that occur at the beginning of many noun phrases, often as a matter of grammatical necessity: words like the indefinite article a and its prevowel alter ego an, the definite article the (notoriously the most frequent word in English running text, as every cryptanalyst knows), and a bunch of other words like all, enough, every, few, little, many, much, no, some, and the demonstratives this and that. And in addition, all of the numerals. (The wor…

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Hemingway’s Cuban English

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I can speak and read French but cannot write it; nor Italian, nor German. But can write Spanish. English sometimes too, maybe. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

Here, in the house, we talk Spanish always. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

“I have often wondered what I should do with the rest of my life,” wrote Ernest Hemingway aboard a steamship, just after leaving Paris and divorcing his first wife. “Now I know — I shall try and reach Cuba.” The writer, born 118 years ago Friday, would go on to spend ove…

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When Is a Proper Name a Proper Noun?

From “Baby Listens” by Esther Wilkin, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin (1960)

“Tum, tum, tum dee dum, Baby’s beating on his drum.” That’s a line I repeat at least three times a day at the moment — from Page 6 of the Little Golden Books classic Baby Listens. And usually, charmed as I am by the earworm chant, the glorious Eloise Wilkin illustration, and my daughter’s intense engagement with the material, when I read it, I think about work.

Specifically, about my job at the Technische Universität Mün…

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Hohumland

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Homeland.
Has this word really been with us for nearly 15 years?
Yes, it has. Congress voted in November 2002 to bring this rarely used word to our attention by establishing the United States Department of Homeland Security.

For naming the new department, Homeland was an excellent choice: little used in everyday speech or writing, but a transparent word which had been in the English language for some time and whose meaning was easy to discern: a land that was someone’s home.

After that, homelan…