Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups


Welcome to Norwood University

longwood-debate-badge-dWhatever Mike Pence’s qualifications may be as advocate for the Republican presidential candidate, or for his own vice-presidential and presidential temperament, on Tuesday night he showed himself peerless as a comedian.

In his opening remarks at the vice-presidential debate, he declared, with solemn voice and countenance, “Thank you to Norwood University for their wonderful hospitality and Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s deeply humbling for me to be here.”

Humbling indeed. But he wasn’…


Nudgy Down the Lane


Steven Pinker: No claims about what a word “means” or “doesn’t mean.” (Image by Rebecca Goldstein via Wikimedia Commons)

A verb my mother was fond of, especially in relation to me, was nudgy. I’ll use it in a sentence — “Stop nudgying me — we’ll go for ice cream as soon as I finish what I have to do.” It could also be intransitive — “If you keep nudgying, you’ll be in trouble.” There was also a noun form: “Don’t be a nudge.” You sense the pattern. (And by the way, nudge does not rhyme with budge…


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…


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…


Did You Drop That ‘H’?

337-t1This past weekend I was preparing for a talk I’ll be giving next month in Washington, D.C. At some moment I decided to check the description of the seminar online to make sure that I would be talking about what I said I would be talking about several months ago. (I have learned not to trust my memory on this!)

In the middle of reading the description, I thought, “I didn’t write that sentence that way.” Now, if I wasn’t sure I could remember what I said I would be talking about, how could…


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…


In the Phonetic Jungle


A distinguished computational linguist from the University of Colorado, Professor Martha Palmer, is about to begin a lecture in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh under the title “The Blocks World Redux,” when she realizes that (like all of us) she had learned the word redux (it means “restored” or “revisited”) from printed sources, and neither she nor the person introducing her has any idea how to pronounce it.

Two linguists in the front row spring instantly to her aid. “…


Babble, Brabbeln, Babiller, Balbettare

firstwordsI’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.

I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica a…


Being an Auxiliary


“It has been proved that there are infinitely many prime numbers.” Where is the ownership in that sentence?

Lieselotte Anderwald’s new book Language Between Description and Prescription, out this week (from Oxford University Press, New York), embarks on an interesting project, and incidentally turns up evidence that several grammarians of the early 1800s were (to be candid) completely nuts. Bonkers. Out of their pointy heads.

The project is to compare the statements in 19th-century grammars with…


Farmers and Cowmen in the Language Wars


“The Old Editor,” John McIntyre

A common, maybe the most common, framing of the conflict between language prescriptivists and descriptivists puts it in personal and psychologized terms: anal-retentive schoolmarms on the one side, unkempt hippies (probably raised by Dr. Spock-toting parents) on the other. That view, while not baseless, is reductive and not especially helpful, leading as it usually does to name-calling and bile rather than to a forward path on mutual ground.

Maybe a more useful le…