All posts by Ben Yagoda

by

Past Not-So-Perfect

1200px-James_Abram_Garfield,_photo_portrait_seated

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…

by

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:

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 2.11.38 PM

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….

by

Blessed Are teh Copy Editors

010517-badams-wapo2

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. …

by

‘All the Good Meetings Are Taken’

Paulie4377fc7a0cb8c63b5dddeadec7bbcd81

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…

by

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…

by

The Half-Life of Metaphors

220px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_portrait

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…

by

The Ken Burns Effect

middle_02

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 …

by

Comey, I Salute You!

gettyimages-632412476

Trump pressing Comey’s flesh the day after his inauguration. Photo: Andrew Harrer via Getty Images

Last week’s congressional testimony by James Comey was fascinating to anyone interested in politics, human relations, or, to the point, language. A monograph could probably be written about President Trump’s use of the word hope in his remark (in Comey’s recollection), “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” and in fact another Lingua Franca blogger may explore …

by

Brother, Can You ‘Anodyne’?

Thumbnail-No-104-Single-Shoe-Shoes

Sometimes a word is just ready for its close-up. My friend Jim Ericson commented to me that this is now the case with anodyne, and he was right. The Google News database charts 102 uses of it in the past 30 days, including six posted on June 2 alone:

  • A New York Times article called “How to Raise a Feminist Son” was ” … promptly excoriated by right-wing trolls, none of whom seemed to have actually read the article, which is filled with such anodyne nuggets as ‘let him be himself’ and ‘teach him…
by

Ain’t It Hard

WhiteClaw1-300x244

Plain words have rich histories and variegated trajectories. One of the plainest, hard, accounts for 75 separate Oxford English Dictionary definitions in its adjective form alone, and continues to go forth and multiply.

Consider some of the phrases in which hard appears. You can give someone a hard time, be hard of hearing, play hardball, do something the hard way, take a hard look, or go in for the hard sell. We speak of hard bargains, cheese (the British expression meaning “tough luck”), copi…