Category Archives: Grammar


The Vocative in Crisis

Comma Peter Arkle

Illustration courtesy of Peter Arkle*

Readers can you pay attention for a moment?

I know there was a debate last night, but seriously readers wouldn’t you prefer to think about something less ephemeral than a presidential election? Something as durable as … vocatives?

I bet neither candidate mentioned vocatives. And yet there’s a vocative crisis, illustrated in my first two sentences above. Readers, lots of vocatives are losing their protective commas, the commas that set them off from their nei…


How Cliché Can You Get?


George Jessel in “The Jazz Singer”

I got the first crop of student writing assignments back the other day, and I tweeted out, as I do, some general observations. One was that 100 percent of youth now use cliché for the adjective form of cliché, as opposed to the traditional clichéd. E.g., “That’s so cliché.”

The redoubtable Jan Freeman, longtime language columnist for The Boston Globe, tweeted back, “Yep. I was resigned to it already in 2009,” and linked to a piece of hers that included a refere…


A Postcard From Brno

The Villa Tugendhat in Brno

Brno, Czech Republic — Many months ago I accepted an invitation to give a conference plenary here in central Czechia. (The Czech Republic does have an approved one-word name. People don’t seem to use it much, but I do.) The conference has a discourse-studies theme, and discourse isn’t my usual bag, but I accepted because I was sure that by the time the conference started I would have come up with a suitable talk to give (the usual plenary-invitation gamble). I did not expect shifting fashions i…


This Rule I Learned and Then Unlearned

thumbnail_this what copyLast week, as I was making final revisions to an article for an edited volume, I worked through all the very helpful comments from one of the volume editors in the margins of the document. I accepted all the suggested emendations until I got to this sentence:

If students can also look at dictionaries for world varieties (e.g., Cassidy and Le Page; Muller, Wright, and Silva), this can enrich discussions of the role dictionaries continue to play in standardizing — and legitimizing — new variet…


A Person Who

am-a-simple-person-who-hides-a-thousand-feelings-behind-the-happiest-dGxksS-quoteI heard Barbra Streisand the other day, being interviewed on the radio, describe herself as “a person who likes to live in the moment.” The phrasing made me think of my students, whom I’ll see in two short weeks. We always start our small classes with introductions, and I can no longer count the times I’ve heard, “I’m a person who. … ” To my ear, there’s little difference in basic meaning between I’m a person who likes and I like. Rhetorically, though, the emphasis is different. I decided to dig…


Machine-to-Human Communication: Nobody Cares


Ticketless illegals trapped inside tram

I continue to have bad experiences with the machines that purport to talk to me in everyday life. Recently I took one of the new trams to the Edinburgh airport. The computer-controlled doors closed and the tram moved off. As it glided away, a smooth prerecorded voice told us: “Please note that tickets must be purchased, or cards validated, before boarding the tram.” A bit late for that! Couldn’t the system have been programmed to supply that crucial inform…


What’s the Matter With ‘Me’?

When did we decide that me was ungrammatical? Or if not ungrammatical, then maybe vulgarly self-promoting?

“Sally, who had given the keys to Jim and I, discovered that she was locked out of her office.”

“Congratulations from Susan and I on inheriting that time share!”

“Sadly, the carton of tangelos promised to Mildred, Juan, and I never reached Bushwick.”

The problem is hardly new,  and writers on usage, including Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl), have gently admonished us to mind our I’s and m…


The Linguistics of Assassination Threats

The media have been blandly paraphrasing Donald Trump’s hint about the use of firearms without close reading of the text, and obediently quoting utterly disingenuous spin from supporters as if it were fit to be taken seriously. Four linguistic points are crucially relevant. Three were touched on in a recent Language Log post. Let me review all four somewhat more carefully.

What Trump said in his speech at the rally in Wilmington, N.C., was this (the line breaks roughly correspond with his oddly …


Reflections on the Trivium


Daniel M. Hausman opens the introduction to his anthology The Philosophy of Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1984) with a contemptuous statement about economics quoted from a character in a novel by the satirist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), Crotchet Castle. One character has just referred to “political economy, the science of sciences,” but another, the Rev. Dr. Folliott, demurs, calling it “hyperbarbarous” (there’s a word you don’t see every day!):

“Premises assumed without evidence,…


‘To Boot’

boot copyA friend was describing an eclectic coffee shop slash clothing store that he had discovered. He added, “They sell shoes to boot!” We laughed at his unintentional word play (shoes to boot — you get it). And then I got distracted. By “to boot.”

It’s a funny expression once you think about it (why a boot?), but that’s not actually what distracted me. I learned a few years ago where the phrase comes from — and that it has nothing to do with footwear. The boot in to boot goes back to the Old English …