Category Archives: Editing


How Dangerous Are Danglers?

starfish-purple-color-420x280I don’t remember many grammar lessons from junior high school, but for whatever reason, one sentence from the lesson about dangling and misplaced modifiers has stuck with me. Here’s the sentence: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.” Poor Mary! It is exhausting to have to cling to the side of an aquarium that way.

Now, of course, if we heard this sentence, we would probably assume it was the starfish clinging to the side of the aquarium, as this is the most logical and sen…


For Want of a Copy Editor the Sense Was Lost


Yuri Matiyasevitch in 1969

When a Russian mathematician collaborates with a French computer scientist on a paper published by Elsevier in the Netherlands, what language do they choose?

English, of course. Unsuitable it may be, but it’s the unavoidable language of science these days.

And that means Elsevier will need to provide expert editors to assist non-native-speaking authors, right?

Wrong. Elsevier’s two and a half billion dollars of annual revenue (only about a billion of it operating profi…


When Two Negatives Don’t Make a Positive


Image via

Many English grammar advice sites on the web are so dire that it almost seems rude to link to them. I don’t want to fail in my duty to clarify things by deconstructing them; yet it seems cruel to humiliate the poor well-meaning people who wrote them. So let me just say that somewhere out there is a dreadful page of confused drivel on a website maintained by a world-famous dictionary publisher, and its author begins by confessing a…


Agency Style, for Your Eyes Only


Recently, in ways I am not at liberty to divulge, I obtained access to the CIA report-writing style guide, Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications. My copy is a hefty PDF, weighing in at around 25 megabytes. I will always be grateful to the brave men and women who got it to me, some at risk of their lives.

A browsable HTML version is said to exist. That would be much easier to consult than an image scan of the hard copy. If you know where there is such a version on the web,…


A Means to a Question

means copyLast week I was writing a memo (as I am known to do when I am wearing my administrative hat), and I suddenly found myself contemplating the grammar of a phrase I had never before given a moment’s thought to. (And no, it did not involve a preposition stranded at the end of a sentence–I already know how I feel about that.) Here is the sentence that captured my attention:

I want to make sure that the [X] fund is on your radar as a means to support your research.

“A means to?” I thought. “Or a…


Where Are the Happiness Boys?

Professor with bubbles coming out of pipeExactly 58 years ago today (I write on December 17, 2016), E.B. White wrote a letter of protest to his editor, J.G. Case, who had been trying to get him to take some grammar advice and modify some of the proscriptive ukases in a usage book that White was revising. White wouldn’t yield an inch to what he called “the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists”:

I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust … to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow….


For Want of an Oxford Comma


The minor yet highly controversial issue of the Oxford Comma (or serial comma) arises solely in one very restricted context: what is known in classical grammar as a monosyndetic multiple coordination, where there is just a single coordinator (a word like and or or) before the last of three or more coordinated items. Should you write You need celery, apples, walnuts, and grapes (which has the so-called Oxford comma), or alternatively You need celery, apples, walnuts and grapes?

In binary coordin…


Bases Loaded

415AduVvBZL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_No, not the Cubs.  (Too late.)  Or the election. (Too soon, and also too late.)

I’m puzzling over the usage shift from based on  to base off  and based off of, a development that has only picked up speed in the student writing I encounter. I hear it in spoken English too, though it makes its strongest impression on me in what is meant as formal writing. My Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan made note of the construction a few years back, but its persistence makes it worth revisiting.

A couple o…


Can ‘Supercede’ Supersede?

Last March, I posted a spelling challenge here on Lingua Franca: Which irregular spellings are you willing to part with? Earlier this term, the graduate-student instructor for my introductory English linguistics course gave this challenge to students, and we got one suggestion that had not occurred to me. And I’m sold.

If one thing replaces another thing, it supersedes it

Is that how you spell supersede? Or do you want the word to have a c and be supercede?

The spellchecker on my computer just b…


The Internet Isn’t Changing English. Nor the Converse.

Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha of The Awl

I don’t buy any of the argument in Katy Waldman’s Slate article about language on the internet. I’m not looking for the most “shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language” because I don’t think the web is changing our language at all. The various headlines, summaries, sharelines, and text of Waldman’s piece compete with and contradict each other in their striking but unsupported claims: “Language took over the internet…”; “the internet is changing langu…