Monthly Archives: September 2017

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A Child’s Garden of ‘Verses’

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Middle schoolers playing soccer: “White versed red.”

You learn all kinds of things on Facebook. The other day, my friend Michael Regan, a suburban dad who in his other life is a journalist for Bloomberg News, posted: “Are my kids the only ones who use the word ‘versus’ as a verb? Like, ‘What team are we versing at the game on Saturday?’”

Uh, no. That was clear from the torrent of comments — 67, to this point. Here is the first bunch (names cut off on purpose):

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My own kids’ sporting days are lon…

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The Lesson-Plan Challenge

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“But what do you do when the material you’re teaching is just boring?” The question came about halfway through an informal workshop I was running on public speaking. We had been talking about the importance of passion in effective public speaking: If we aren’t passionate about what we’re talking about, how can we expect the audience to be engaged and perhaps even excited?

For TED talks, presenters are asked to focus on one idea worth spreading. Implicit in that catchphrase is the idea that we…

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The Case Against Flashback

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I’ve been thinking, this week, about daydreaming and fiction.  A recent article in The Atlantic estimates that people may daydream through nearly half their waking hours. That seems like a lot to me, but I readily admit to my mind “wandering” during weddings, funerals, classical-music concerts, long drives, and the line at the DMV. The relationship between dreaming — the REM sort as well as the daydream — is one that writers have evoked many times, from John Gardner’s notion of fictio…

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What’s a ‘UPenn’?

UPenn_logo.svgI have a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. My wife worked there for more than 20 years. I have lots of friends and acquaintances who graduated from the institution. Until fairly recently, the only informal name for it I ever encountered was “Penn.”

Then “UPenn” appeared. I believe I first started hearing the term 10 years or so ago, from my daughters and their friends when they were applying to college. Since then it has spread, so much so that I investigated and wrote an arti…

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Who’s Entitled?

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Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the GI Bill in 1944

 

A word I’ve been thinking about recently is entitlement, a term that has played a role in the vigorous and painful American conversation about rights.

This past week has seen the federal government announce — with certainty but hardly with clarity — the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Then Secretary of Education DeVos announced her department’s intention to rethink Title IX.

Both issues — the protection of thousand…

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I Am Not Resilient

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Following close on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, as Hurricane Irma leaves devastation in her wake that now awaits Hurricane Jose, more than a few of us are talking about the relationship of climate change and extreme weather events.

Oops. My bad. I meant to write, “More than a few of us are talking about the relationship of resilience and extreme weather events.” There. All fixed.

Or is it? As Slate’s Henry Grabar noted in March, resilience has become the term of choice in a political atmosphe…

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It’s Not a Litmus Test

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Last week I praised the late Michael Dummett for making an attempt at defining “noun” syntactically instead of relying on murky semantic intuitions about naming. Below I discuss a very different book (as American as Dummett’s book is painfully British) that does the same thing in a very different way. I will summarize both, and briefly draw an analogy with chemistry.

Dummett defined noun as “principal word in a noun phrase,” and noun phrase as an “expression that can serve as a subject,” and s…

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A Name for It

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National September 11 Memorial, by PWP Landscape Architecture

About 13,000 young people who were born on September 11, 2001, are turning 16 on Monday. That makes most of them now eligible to get their drivers’ licenses. And also to admonish the rest of us: “It’s 9/11 day. Remember to do one good deed.”

Like the rest of us, the new generation of young people keeps the designation 9/11 for the day that the United States suffered its greatest terrorist attack. And the memory of that day may be help…

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Sweet Freak

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Politics seems to dominate American discourse in 2017, making it likely that in January 2018, when members and friends of the American Dialect Society choose the Word of the Year 2017, their vote will go to a political word or phrase. One week sheetcake has everyone’s attention for its new political meaning; the next week it’s Dreamers, and so on.

But despite the preoccupation with politics, it’s still possible that WOTY 2017 could be something quite different, and a lot sweeter: the freakshake

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A Philosopher-Grammarian Gets Something Right

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I have often excoriated the useless traditional definitions of the “parts of speech” presupposed by all usage manuals and dictionaries (see my “Being a Noun,” “Being a Verb,” “Being an Adjective,” etc.). I seldom praise popular grammar books; too many of them are unredeemed horse dung from cover to cover. But I am not implacable: I did have a kind word or two here for Edward D. Johnson’s treatment of the passive. Today I want to make a positive remark about a grammar book by a fine philosopher.