All posts by Lucy Ferriss

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Milking a Comma for All It’s Worth

cow and milkThe case of the dairy drivers has captured the world’s attention. From The New York Times to The New Yorker and Language Log, the $10-million award granted (some say) because of a missing comma makes news in which we all — well, maybe not Oakhurst Dairy, in Maine — can delight.

Readers of Lingua Franca may well know the facts already. The workers’ guideline at issue noted that overtime pay would not cover “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for s…

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Thinking in Mayan

wicked-mayan-hieroglyphs-mexico-cityI am writing this in Mérida, Mexico, where my husband and I lucked out in avoiding the snowstorm that hit the Northeast this week. We are baking in the Yucatán sunshine and visiting nearby Mayan sites. Our second day here, in a city park, we bumped into a professor of Mayan studies at a nearby college who wanted to practice his English. Many of the edifices in Mérida were built from the five pyramids of the Mayan city that once occupied this site, and he pointed out to us a series of hierogly…

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X-ing Out Excellence

in-pursuit-of-excellenceIn a former lifetime I served as director of publications for a small liberal-arts college whose ambitious president wanted to put it on the map. The word he asked me and others to promote in articles, in capital-campaign materials, in announcements of scholarship opportunities, and the like was excellence. I wondered at the time what was so special about claiming to be excellent. Were there liberal-arts colleges that claimed to be mediocre, or merely good? Perhaps, I thought, I was influenced b…

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The Enemy of the People Is … (Envelope, Please)

Enemy-artLANDINGrev2Many of us were startled by the president’s recent labeling of the free press as “the enemy of the American people.” Many felt a line had been crossed. But which line, and what it had to do with this particular choice of words, hasn’t been crystal clear. I want to pick it apart here to understand which alarm bells may be ringing and why.

The phrase itself is most recently associated with Stalinist Russia, where, as Nikita Khrushchev put it in his 1956 speech denouncing the term, it “was specif…

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My New Crush on the Dictionary

Trump_Bigly (1)I’m hooked. Merriam-Webster is the coolest thing on social media. In these dark times, where clickbait generally leads down a long tunnel into dystopia, the Twitter resurgence of a venerable dictionary is something to, well, tweet about.

First, there’s M-W’s political savvy. As NPR and other media organizations have observed, the nerdy group in Springfield, Mass., has been having a field day with the malapropisms of the current administration. Just last week, after the president spent part of hi…

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What if the President Couldn’t Read?

2E131CE400000578-3303860-image-m-27_1446654140207A rumor has been circulating about our new president’s level of literacy. First suggested (I think) in a blog post for The Times of Israel, the notion that the president not only doesn’t like to read but cannot read above the fifth-grade level of his campaign rhetoric has made the rounds of Samantha Bee, the Daily Kos and other left-wing opinion makers. I am not here to spread that rumor, but to ask what it might mean for our understanding of both this unusual president’s character and the fut…

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Diagramming Gorsuch

Judge-Neil-Gorsuch-of-the-U.S.-Court-of-Appeals-for-the-Tenth-Circuit-in-DenverI don’t know why the Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch diagrammed part of a sentence in one of his legal opinions. Following the Reed-Kellogg norms that Mark Liberman of Language Log once described as “intellectually obsolete for a hundred years,” Gorsuch diagrammed his selection sloppily. It’s unclear how the diagram really informed his opinion. But more to the point, those merry few who have followed this revelation of Judge Gorsuch’s affinity for diagramming seem to be judgin…

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Pussies and Appropriation

womens-march-pink-1024x676They were hard to ignore, those square-shaped pink knit caps carpeting the Mall in Washington and flooding the streets of New York and other major cities around the world. Weeks before the Women’s March, when I first saw organizers sporting these things, I thought they looked stupid, an awkward flop of pink atop the head. Then a crafty friend knit me one, and it not only kept me warm through a gray, blustery day in Washington; it empowered me.

The Pussy Hat Project is a classic example of approp…

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Hypotheticals vs. Contrary-to-Fact

situational-hypothetical-questionsSomehow I am getting news announcements from The New York Times on my iPhone. I don’t know how I elected this option, but it’s interesting to see what they choose to send me and how they choose to word it. Here’s what floated in on the morning of January 17:

18 million would lose insurance and premiums would soar in 2018 if Obamacare is partially repealed, a congressional study says.

Now, I know we get our panties in an unnecessary twist when it comes to things like the conditional tense and the…

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Seeing Through the Gaslight

manipulate-e1462292001507A confession: Before this political season, I had not understood the term gaslighting, so eloquently explained on Friday by my colleague Ben Yagoda. I may have heard it, but only as a conniving manipulation by some politician of whom the writer didn’t approve. Not knowing its provenance, I thought maybe it had something to do with leakage from old-fashioned lighting, such that those who inhaled it sort of lost their minds.

In fact, as Ben points out, the term gaslighting originated with Patrick …