Monthly Archives: July 2017


‘The Americans Have No Adverbs’


I still remember the awful woman I met at a reception during an English Speaking Union meeting on George Street, Edinburgh, in 2008 (I mentioned her here once before). She told me loudly and confidently, as if playing Lady Bracknell on stage, that English was rapidly degrading; for example, “The Americans have no adverbs. Absolutely none. They’ve just got rid of them.”

I wanted to explain about my American citizenship and quarter-century of living and teaching linguistics in California, and the…


Blessed Are teh Copy Editors


Copy editors AWOL? The Washington Post was embarrassed this year when it placed the wrong gender symbol on Page One of its Express.

In a recent Lingua Franca post, I had reason to mention Rogue Riderhood, a character from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. Even though I had just perused the relevant passages, I wrote the name as “Rough Riderhood.” The mistake did not appear in the published post. That’s because a copy editor, Heidi Landecker, caught it and fixed it.

It wasn’t a rare occurrence. …


Got a Great Joke About Language? Enter This Contest


A funny thing happened on the way to today’s Lingua Franca. Well, actually it didn’t, but I’m still hoping.

It’s all the fault of the Linguistic Society of America, which is sponsoring a “Friday Funny” series on Facebook (see the Linguistic Society of America website) and Twitter (@LingSocAm) this summer.

“Linguists love humor,” the LSA says, “but can we practice what we study?”

To answer that question, the society is holding a contest with a deadline very soon: this coming Monday, July 17. “En…


The Much-Needed Gap


A few mornings ago I was half-listening to a radio piece that I think may have been about women’s kick-boxing in Jordan. (Forgive me for the vagueness, but it was way before 6 a.m., and I was half dozing to the early morning sound of my bedside clock radio playing the BBC World Service magazine program Boston Calling.) As my mind slowly rebooted, I heard someone quote an inspirational saying:

[1]   Be the kind of woman that when you get up in the morning the devil says, “Oh crap, she’s up.”

‘All the Good Meetings Are Taken’


Peter Paul (Paulie Walnuts) Gualtieri,
of The Sopranos

A particular phrase was all over the news on Monday and Tuesday.

  • “Why did Donald Trump Jr. take a meeting with a Russian lawyer?” (CBS News headline)
  • “Trump Jr. previously acknowledged taking the meeting to learn damaging information about [Hillary] Clinton.” (The Associated Press)
  • “He reportedly took a meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton that he knew was coming from the Russian government.” (Vox)

Facing increasing criticism about his be…


Susurrating in Your Ear


Susurrating pines

My niece looked up from her book. “What does susurrate mean?” she asked. The other adults on the beach looked at me, because that’s what happens if you are an English professor. “Spelled how?” I responded, buying time and thinking perhaps something about the word would become familiar. “S-u-s-u-r-r-a-t-e.” The spelling did not help at all. “I don’t know that word,” I concluded. Her mom ventured, “Whisper?”

Bingo. One of our friends had pulled out a phone and looked it up. While…


Nina in Siberia


Elif Batuman and her new book


Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language:…


Stopped-Clock Eloquence

time-is-broken-2-by-applepo3-320x214The saying “A stopped clock is right twice a day” is popular lately, perhaps because we have a president who might possibly be bested by a broken clock in tests of intelligence, sophistication, and sensitivity. (According to the Quote Investigator, Joseph Addison originated the maxim back in 1711, with slightly different phrasing.)

Once in a while, through the stopped-clock formula, Trump is right. And though his vocabulary is spectacularly limited, once in a while he perpetrates actual eloquenc…


Impactful, Impact-Empty

Lydia Davis, short-story writer

Lydia Davis: Unlikely to stand up for “impactful.”

I’m one of those readers and teachers who find impactful really ugly, and that’s not an argument I can win. It’s not even an argument.

The last — or at least the most recent — straw was a social-media post from Penguin Random House announcing a new book aimed at writers of short stories.  The message included this sentence:

“Signature’s exclusive Short Story Writing Guide features advice from favorite authors on how to craft slim, impactful writ…


Beyoncé, Cute Kittens, and Titles That Draw You In

Silly season is approaching — that late-summer period when so little is happening in the serious worlds of politics and business that newspapers start running front-page stories about flying-rodent attacks and ice cream socials for dogs. Except the definition is breaking down: Politics in the Trump era is simultaneously absurd and deadly serious year-round, and academe may be one of the few professional enclaves left where summer brings with it an across-the-board vacation (let the enraged co…