Category Archives: Journalism

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The Ken Burns Effect

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Ken Burns is responsible for dozens of distinguished historical documentary films, most famously The Civil War (1990) and most recently The Vietnam War, a 10-part series co-directed with Lynn Novick that will air on PBS in September. One characteristic of these films is zooming in and out of and panning across archival photographs. The device is so striking that it’s come to be known as “the Ken Burns effect”— not only informally but officially in Apple editing programs like iMovie and Final …

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Of Cadillacs and Prairie Dogs

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On a summer evening years ago, I dined with a group of friends at a rural Midwest restaurant where the parking lot was a patch of rough ground without marked bays. We came out to find a Cadillac parked close in beside our car. Edging into the gap between the vehicles (the other side was also tight), we did our best to get the doors far enough open to slide in without dinging the Cadillac. Our close approach triggered the Cadillac’s motion-sensitive theft alarm. A loud synthesized voice told us:…

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Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?

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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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How Much Covfefe Is Enough Covfefe?

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The hashtag #covfefe has spread across the Twittersphere, prompting some creative interpretations of the latest from the tweeter in chief.

For those who abstain from social media, President Trump tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” on May 31 at 12:06 a.m. The message ended midmuddle, leaving us to scratch out heads and reach for our smartphones.

A “rosebud” for our time, or at least for our next 15 minutes, covfefe is already laying the groundwork to become Wrdo fo teh arYe, w…

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Hedging One’s Bets

anotherhedgeOne of Shakespeare’s most irritating scamps is the rascally Autolycus, a peddler and trickster-thief whose carryings on slow down the progress of The Winter’s Tale, with its sublime conclusion in which queen Hermione seems to return from the dead.

The Winter’s Tale is a play about a king given to paranoid delusions and capricious anger, with the resulting loss of life. It’s a sadder play than King Lear. I think that’s because it’s a comedy. (Yes, yes, a romance, which is a comedy without laughs….

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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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News, False and Fake

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The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu

“Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace. But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”

Recognize this sentiment? It’s more than three decades old, predating Twitter (2006), Facebook (2004), Google (1996) and the internet (1990s) by a wide margin. But it shows that even in the good old days, there was concern about the validity of news reports, as well as eagerness for them. At least there was tha…

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Blogger Ben Yagoda on False Titles

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Time founder Henry Luce, friend to false titles.

 

A few years back, linguist and Lingua Franca contributor Geoffrey Pullum wrote a post on Language Log where he set out the first sentences of two books by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Geoff went on to observe:

This use of a person’s name preceded …

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Grammar Blunders and Journalistic Discourtesy

Draft design for the new £5 banknote

Nearly every week some journalist calls me, always on a tight schedule, to get a quote for some story about language or grammar. I help whenever I can, despite knowing that most likely they will slightly misrepresent me, and will not alert me when or if the story appears. Last week I helped Katie Morley of The Telegraph with a story about a supposed grammar error on a banknote. In the story that appeared, which ignored my advice, two linguistic errors of hers…

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Truly Weighty Words

IMG_2138Once upon a time, way back in the 20th century, newspapers were not electronic but mechanical. Last week I reminisced about the mechanical tools used by reporters and copy editors: the standard manual typewriter, powered by the writer’s own fingers; half-sheets of newsprint rolled through the typewriter and taking imprints of the keys; and a No. 1 soft black Mirado pencil for marking paragraphs and making corrections.

But one big step was still needed before the marked-up typewriter copy, light …