Category Archives: Grammar

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The Strange Language of Harvey Weinstein’s Denial

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Harvey Weinstein in 2010 (Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons)

There is a very peculiar flavor to the grammar of the statement released by Harvey Weinstein (via the spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister) after he learned about the content of the New Yorker article in which many women allege he assaulted them sexually. The syntax writhes in discomfort:

Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any…

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300 Posts, Still Getting It Wrong

geoff_as_dunce I have just arrived at a small milestone: This post is my 300th on Lingua Franca (see the full listing here).
In August 2011 we started publishing every working day of the year, and I’ve done 50 posts a year with no breaks. That’s a lot of practice. But I’ve hardly ever managed to write a post that is flawless in the eyes of our wonderful and dedicated editor, Heidi Landecker.

The Chronicle does serious editing. We were all told from the get-go that we had to follow New York Times guidelines no…

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Hell, Yes, I’m Judging You

Michael-Andrews-Bespoke-gate

I have a smart and popular Facebook friend named Carrie Rickey. I mention those two qualities because her status updates usually draw responses that are clever and many. That was the case recently, when she posted: “Can we please retire the word bespoke?”

One hundred thirty-eight comments ensued. A good number agreed with Carrie’s proposal; as one put it, “I think ‘bespoke’ is fine to use if you’re a British tailor. People assembling a museum exhibit can use ‘curate.’ Everyone else can get over…

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When Will ‘They’ Ever Learn?

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By now Lingua Franca readers should know the position of Lingua Franca bloggers on the OK-ness of singular they, otherwise known as the epicene pronoun. (“Everyone who wants to go to the party should wear their best clothes.”) Anne Curzan, Lucy Ferriss, Geoff Pullum, and I have all laid out why we think the usage is grammatical, nonambiguous, unclumsy, generally better than such alternatives as he, she, or he or she (much less s/he!), and possessed of an impressive literary pedigree. It’s alrea…

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Unapplied Linguistics

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I bought a train ticket online from Virgin Trains recently, to get me to St. Neots, nearest station to the site of this conference, where I’m speaking to an association of freelance editors. The follow-up email from Virgin Trains surprised me. The subject line said: “Your St. Neots journey, your way.”

Your St. Neots journey is a well-formed English noun phrase using the proper name St. Neots as an attributive modifier of the noun journey. Trivial to program: They simply had to take Your _____ j…

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It’s Not a Litmus Test

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Last week I praised the late Michael Dummett for making an attempt at defining “noun” syntactically instead of relying on murky semantic intuitions about naming. Below I discuss a very different book (as American as Dummett’s book is painfully British) that does the same thing in a very different way. I will summarize both, and briefly draw an analogy with chemistry.

Dummett defined noun as “principal word in a noun phrase,” and noun phrase as an “expression that can serve as a subject,” and s…

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A Philosopher-Grammarian Gets Something Right

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I have often excoriated the useless traditional definitions of the “parts of speech” presupposed by all usage manuals and dictionaries (see my “Being a Noun,” “Being a Verb,” “Being an Adjective,” etc.). I seldom praise popular grammar books; too many of them are unredeemed horse dung from cover to cover. But I am not implacable: I did have a kind word or two here for Edward D. Johnson’s treatment of the passive. Today I want to make a positive remark about a grammar book by a fine philosopher.

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Bogus Advice for Op-Ed Authors

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Bret Stephens offers in The New York Times (August 25) a guide for beginning op-ed authors: “As a summertime service for readers of the editorial pages who may wish someday to write for them,” he says, “here’s a list of things I’ve learned over the years as an editor, op-ed writer, and columnist.”

And what does this experienced editor, writer, and columnist have to tell us about how to write? (You know how it usually goes: People who can write very nicely are hopeless at explaining how you coul…

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Didn’t Know I Would Really Go

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Last week Glen Campbell’s six-year descent into Alzheimer’s came to its end. His survival time after diagnosis was roughly the average for that terrible disease. Everyone who enjoys country-flavored popular music or guitar playing will mourn him. But for me the greatest loss is that he was the quintessential musical interpreter of the wonderful poetical and musical work of Jimmy Webb, surely one of the 20th century’s greatest popular songwriters. I think the quality of their collaboration has s…

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

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I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…