by

The Vocative in Crisis

Comma Peter Arkle

Illustration courtesy of Peter Arkle*

Readers can you pay attention for a moment?

I know there was a debate last night, but seriously readers wouldn’t you prefer to think about something less ephemeral than a presidential election? Something as durable as … vocatives?

I bet neither candidate mentioned vocatives. And yet there’s a vocative crisis, illustrated in my first two sentences above. Readers, lots of vocatives are losing their protective commas, the commas that set them off from their nei…

by

Can I Give That Job Talk?

microphoneThe academic talk is on my mind as I sit here on the train back to Berlin, having spent the past three days in Poznań, Poland, at a conference on English linguistics.

September also marks the beginning of the academic job market, which means I am reviewing drafts of job letters and CVs and the like. In a few short months, we’ll be on to campus visits and job talks.

Linguists don’t typically read their talks at conferences. They work from slides — or handouts, although we see fewer and fewer …

by

Destinated Americans

aeneas's travelsThe New York Times urges that “now is a good time to make our own those who have come as migrants and propose to remain as permanent residents.”

At least it did in that editorial, which appeared in 1925.

Written with an open acknowledgment of immigration quotas, the position piece speaks to 21st-century questions, however different the challenges of a different era.

Life then: Two-thirds of America’s immigrants, reports the Times, were coming from Canada and Mexico; a third of the Italians who a…

by

M22: Highway Sign and Trademark

kathleen-mcdonald

Fickr photo courtesy of Kathleen McDonald

M22 is not just another pretty face. In fact, not only is it not a face, it isn’t particularly pretty, unless you think a plain black-and-white road sign with letter M and number 22 on a white diamond on a black background can be pretty. But it stands for all that is beautiful at the west edge of the Michigan mitten. And that designation and design, curiously enough, are private property — as you will discover if you try to sell a T-shirt imprinted …

by

Mensiversaries

solstice

It was her idea. We had met at a winter solstice, on the 21st of December, and subsequently, as our relationship developed, at some point we started treating every 21st as a kind of mini-anniversary. Except that anniversary wasn’t the right word. Anniversārius in Latin meant “repeated yearly” (ann- “year” + vers- “turn”); diēs anniversāria meant “day returning each year.” I was the linguist, so it was my job, she said, to come up with a better word. And I saw immediately what it should be. Just…

by

Have We Reached Peak ‘Peak’?

mrrobot

Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot”

Show of hands: How many watched the Emmy Awards on Sunday? How many had seen even 10 percent of the nominated shows?

I thought so.

In 2015, no fewer than 409 scripted series aired on broadcast and cable TV and online platforms. That’s nearly double from 2009 (211 shows). And a lot of these programs are really good. For some time, the unprecedented combo of quantity and quality coming out of our sets has appeared unsustainable. Speaking to TV critics in August of last ye…

by

Scabby at the University

union rate[2]Unions are slowly making their way back into the news these days, perhaps because it’s a presidential election season, perhaps because graduate students are now considering their right to bargain collectively at several universities, primarily in the Ivy League. To mark this trend, a huge inflatable rat, nicknamed Scabby, has appeared at Long Island University, where stalled negotiations resulted in a lockout before faculty and administration agreed on a contract, and at Columbia University, whe…

by

Good Night, September 22!

resize_1379695571We’re approaching that time next week when the earth under the sun reaches momentary equality with everyone and everything, a moment known to the cognoscenti as the equinox.

On the equinox, to put it simply, everyone on earth gets 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. To put it complexly, there are all sorts of minor exceptions, especially at the equator, where days and nights are close to equal anyhow all year round.

But this is a comment on the word itself, not a treatise on astronomy. S…

by

How Cliché Can You Get?

aj-jsinger-jessel-ph01d

George Jessel in “The Jazz Singer”

I got the first crop of student writing assignments back the other day, and I tweeted out, as I do, some general observations. One was that 100 percent of youth now use cliché for the adjective form of cliché, as opposed to the traditional clichéd. E.g., “That’s so cliché.”

The redoubtable Jan Freeman, longtime language columnist for The Boston Globe, tweeted back, “Yep. I was resigned to it already in 2009,” and linked to a piece of hers that included a refere…

by

Literary Judgment, Literary Luck

0179f6077adad6796a3eac8bfd6cb67aTwenty years ago this month, I was in New Orleans to receive an award for my writing. I’ve been thinking about that moment as we return to classes. Whatever subject you teach, you most likely find yourself in the position of judging the quality of students’ prose. Indeed, for most of us, the grades we award at the end of the term will depend largely on how well our students express themselves in writing.

Here’s how the award I received in 1996 came about. I had published a couple of books in t…