Category Archives: Academe


The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.


I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …


The Safe Space

one-hundred-years-of-solitude-coverIt has become a recurrent motif in academic parlance in the United States to talk about security, not as a discipline but in existential terms. This isn’t surprising given the superabundance of bloodshed today. Campus is frequently called a “safe space.” Violence — physical, emotional, and verbal — has no place in it.

The premise behind this concept is sound, though it sometimes verges on sanctimony. It envisions the classroom as Robinson Crusoe’s island, where it is possible to start from scrat…


Ellipses and I

ellipses-mainI have been thinking about the changing nature of the ellipsis as a grammatical device.

A few days ago, I was going over a draft of a graphic novel I am about to send to the publisher. It is called Angelitos, and it is about a Mexican priest who devotes his life to protecting homeless children. I had written two versions, one in Spanish and the other in English, about a year ago. I had put them aside to simmer. When I looked at them again, I was struck by the abundance of ellipses in the two ver…


A Postcard From Schleswig-Holstein

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 5.23.28 PMKiel, Germany — The Kieler Woche is a huge weeklong festival of art, music, culture, theater, and maritime recreational events, held on the western shore of a fjord, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, that opens to the Baltic. (One tends to think of Germany as being mostly surrounded by land boundaries, but up here it has both an east coast and a west coast, from sea to shining sea.)

My room on the waterfront has a panoramic view of yacht races, processions of tall-masted “windjammer” sailing s…


Liars and Snakes: Plumbing New Rhetorical Depths

Boris Johnson visit to the USA - Day 3

Boris Johnson: Trump with a thesaurus?

Britain is now deep into campaigning for the referendum on whether to back out of the political and economic union defining the world’s largest single market. After about eight years here I still feel mostly like one of the many Americans in Edinburgh, and our focus is mainly on the U.S. presidential election campaign; but the referendum struggle is capturing ever more of a share of the news media here.

I came to hate referendums (referenda, if you insist o…


All Onboard!


All on board: a barge cruise from Castlefield to Salford, England. Not what HR has in mind.

Since the great age of the iron horse, the cry “All aboard!” has rung out from platforms, the conductor coaxing passengers into their carriages.

It’s not just train conductors. James Brown urged us on, too (“All aboard the Night Train”), and you’ve probably heard “All aboard!” in black-and-white melodramas,  usually at a moment of dramatic tension punctuated by a cloud of locomotive steam.

To be on board …


Trying to Write the Mighty Line

sapphicFor years, now, I’ve taught a mixed-genre “Introduction to Creative Writing” course with a very specific poetry component. Each student in the class must choose a poetic form he or she loves; I suggest two dozen of them, and leave books explicating several dozen other choices on the shelf outside my office. Each student gives a short presentation on their chosen form — its provenance, history, development, parameters, and best-known practitioners. They recite from memory at least 12 lines of a…


Grammar-Test Dispute Resolution

hangulI got an email one morning last week from a complete stranger in South Korea. In the From-line the sender’s name was displayed in hangul (my favorite among the world’s writing systems; I may write about it some other day). The message, in impeccable English, said this (I conceal the sender’s name):

Hello Professor, my name is _____ ____ and I live in the Republic of Korea. Recently I took a test in school and encountered a question that puzzled me. Here it is.

Human beings who are capable of sig…


Vivat Academia!

NumenLumen.svgAmong the relics of medieval Latin still venerated by modern American colleges and universities are the mottos inscribed or circumscribed on the great seals that adorn their diplomas. Long before mission statements were sine qua non at institutions of higher learning, their seals evoked their aims.

Harvard, of course, leads the pack with a coat of arms reading ve ri tas: One word for “truth,” in a trinity of syllables. Lest there be any doubt about the nature of this trinity, the coat of arms wa…


Famous Women, Banknotes, and Online Abuse


Mary Somerville

Oxford, England — Last night, as I dined in Somerville College, my host during a visit to the University of Oxford, a chain of thoughts led me to reflect on the linguistic abuse women endure on social media.

Like Caroline Criado-Perez, for example. She was a victim of highly focused Twitter hostility in 2013.

“Die you worthless piece of crap,” said one tweet. “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do,” wrote a troll; “you’re pathetic, kill yourself befo…