Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups

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Love Me, Don’t Grade Me

nicklutzapologyletter

When my sons were beginning elementary school, they liked to while away a rainy Saturday afternoon playing school. They wanted me to play the teacher, but apparently I didn’t do it right. “You have to be meaner,” they’d say. “You have to yell a lot.”

I always wondered if their teachers really were shrieking meanies who toned it down when a parent appeared, or if they’d gotten this notion of the harridan-as-schoolteacher elsewhere. I’ve had a similar response to the recent case of the “gra…

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The Notorious ‘Notorious’

Speak of the devil.

No sooner had I written about The New York Times’s unfortunate decision to cut back on copy editors than the sort of error appeared on the Times’s mobile feed that a good copy editor could have caught in his or her sleep. It’s in the slightly grayed-out subhead below:

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The error, as all good sticklers have already noted, is the use of the word notoriety to mean “fame,” when in actuality, notoriety is fame for doing one very bad thing or repeatedly doing moderately bad things….

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‘The Americans Have No Adverbs’

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I still remember the awful woman I met at a reception during an English Speaking Union meeting on George Street, Edinburgh, in 2008 (I mentioned her here once before). She told me loudly and confidently, as if playing Lady Bracknell on stage, that English was rapidly degrading; for example, “The Americans have no adverbs. Absolutely none. They’ve just got rid of them.”

I wanted to explain about my American citizenship and quarter-century of living and teaching linguistics in California, and the…

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The Much-Needed Gap

kindofwoman

A few mornings ago I was half-listening to a radio piece that I think may have been about women’s kick-boxing in Jordan. (Forgive me for the vagueness, but it was way before 6 a.m., and I was half dozing to the early morning sound of my bedside clock radio playing the BBC World Service magazine program Boston Calling.) As my mind slowly rebooted, I heard someone quote an inspirational saying:

[1]   Be the kind of woman that when you get up in the morning the devil says, “Oh crap, she’s up.”
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Apostrophes That Make You Go Hmmm

Apostrophe-Post-Cropped-2Among the conundrums that apostrophes pose, one of the more perplexing is what to do with proper nouns that end in -s. Is it Chris’s mistake or Chris’ mistake? Does it matter for the spelling whether you pronounce that possessive ending on Chris with an extra syllable? Do aesthetics play any role?

Style guides do not all agree. Some favor consistent use of -’s for all nouns. Some guides espouse consistency but with exceptions: For example Strunk and White’s Elements of Style makes an exception f…

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Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?

evidence

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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Abstaining in Absence

Graduation!

I actually enjoy commencement exercises — the pomp, the circumstance, the grandmothers, the decorated caps, even the speeches. Only one niggling irritation blemishes the day, assuming the day is dry and not too hot. At about a third of the more than two dozen commencement exercises I have attended, the stalwart soul reading the names of graduates before they march across the stage into their futures has noted those who earned their degrees but could not be present by tacking onto their names …

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Are You Fed Up of Preposition Creep?

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P.J. Vogt of “Reply All”

Now that my kids are out of the house and I’m in the process of retiring from teaching, I have to be more creative in my efforts to find out how young people are using the language. One place I like to look, or listen, is the excellent “Reply All” podcast, specifically the talk of P.J. Vogt, one of the hosts, who was born in 1985. He says “off-ten,” he’s fond of super as an intensifier and like as, like, a qualifier, and in the most recent episode he used the word overth…

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Fulsome Praisin’ Blues

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Sally Yates (photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

My mother, the late Harriet Yagoda, was a language stickler in the best sense of the word. That is, she very purposefully declined to use loan as a verb, referred to”ant-ee-” (not “ant-eye-) biotics, answered the phone with “This is she,” and, rather magnificently, said “he became bar mitzvah” instead of “he got bar mitzvahed.” But, as far as I remember, she never corrected people who didn’t follow her example. Not even me. Or I.

I frequently think of anot…

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Being a Declarative (or Interrogative, or Imperative, or Exclamative)

dirtyface

Above: a genuine exclamative clause

Grammar books, and hundreds of websites out there, are appallingly confused about statements, questions, orders, and exclamations. Most of the problem lies in their failure to distinguish syntax from semantics. I want to try and sort things out a bit, and provide a little homework exercise.

Clause type is syntactic, not semantic. It shouldn’t be confused with any elemen…