Category Archives: Academe

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Heat of Life

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Matthew Desmond wrote that the people he was studying for his book Evicted taught him how to see. (Photo: Scott Brauer for The Chronicle)

If you are an academic, and your manuscript is accepted for publication by a university press, a questionnaire mailed to you will ask for a list of the courses in which your book can be taught. (A similar question is asked of those serving as reviewers of a manuscript for a university press: “Will the book have any crossover appeal?”) The idea is to assess…

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When Is a Proper Name a Proper Noun?

From “Baby Listens” by Esther Wilkin, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin (1960)

“Tum, tum, tum dee dum, Baby’s beating on his drum.” That’s a line I repeat at least three times a day at the moment — from Page 6 of the Little Golden Books classic Baby Listens. And usually, charmed as I am by the earworm chant, the glorious Eloise Wilkin illustration, and my daughter’s intense engagement with the material, when I read it, I think about work.

Specifically, about my job at the Technische Universität Mün…

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Nina in Siberia

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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:…

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Worst Sentence Ever Seen in Academic Prose

Fitzedward Hall

Fitzedward Hall

Linguists are often accused of ignoring the difference between good writing and bad. But I’m not one of E. B. White’s Happiness Boys: “the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow.”

Just today I was shocked by perhaps the most ill-structured sentence I’ve ever seen in academic prose (not ungrammatical, just hideously clumsy):

Our infinitive, where to precedes it, having been generally, of old, dativo-gerundial, it is pertinent, at the outset, to note…

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Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?

evidence

My title asks it in words of one syllable. But if you will allow polysyllabicity: How can I persuade dyed-in-the-wool grammar conservatives to consider it at least possible in principle that their claims might need support from evidence? You wouldn’t trust a physician who ignored all evidence gathered in the past two centuries of medical science; but the analogous behavior regarding language and writing is happily accepted by academics who in other domains seem sensible.

Consider the responses …

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Clear Skies Acts Abounding

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The changes in language, under the current administration, come thick and fast. Even before George Orwell pointed out that “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” people paying attention noticed the distinct and often disturbing intertwining of political purposes and language manipulation. Prior administrations had their self-contradicting legislation, like George W. Bush’s ill-fated Clear Skies Act. But Chris Mooney and Lisa Rein, in The Washingto…

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Abstaining in Absence

Graduation!

I actually enjoy commencement exercises — the pomp, the circumstance, the grandmothers, the decorated caps, even the speeches. Only one niggling irritation blemishes the day, assuming the day is dry and not too hot. At about a third of the more than two dozen commencement exercises I have attended, the stalwart soul reading the names of graduates before they march across the stage into their futures has noted those who earned their degrees but could not be present by tacking onto their names …

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Grade-Grubber in Chief

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Mayor Koch would famously ask, “How am I doing?”
But his was a rhetorical question. Getty Images

A friend posts on social media, “Is it grade-grubbing season already?”

Grade-grubbing combines pleading with outrage, supplication with casuistry.

Even if you love teaching (and, please, if you don’t, do find some other line of work), one part of the job that will age you fast is grading. Or, if we can speak frankly, defending the grade you’ve assigned when confronted with an indignant or self-rig…

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The Risky Business of Deadpan Humor

ChinoDino

Sometimes on the first day of April, someone at Language Log will inject a trace of levity into what can be a fairly nerdy blog by posting a joke news item about language or linguistics. This year there was no such effort, so (since I occasionally contribute to Language Log and felt the urge to provoke mirth creeping up on me) I created a new genre: the retrospective metahoax. But I must be honest: It failed catastrophically with at least one reader. The case is really quite instructive. In thi…

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‘The Dictionary’

look it up 2 copyDespite my best efforts, I still catch myself using the phrase “the dictionary,” as in “If you look that word up in the dictionary, you’ll actually find. … ” Or, “I need to look that word up in the dictionary.”

I grew up with “the dictionary.” It was a phrase that I heard at home to refer to several different dictionaries scattered around the house (including a very tattered one that must have been 20 years old by the time my sisters and I were using it), and my parents weren’t fussy about…