Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups

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How Cliché Can You Get?

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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…

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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…

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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…

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Machine-to-Human Communication: Nobody Cares

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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…

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In the Phonetic Jungle

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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. “…

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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…

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Being an Auxiliary

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“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…

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Farmers and Cowmen in the Language Wars

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“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…

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Is This the Right Moment?

speak-no-evil-monkeyLast month I was recording a lecture and had to say the word pyramidal. The passage, about bats in pyramidal cages, was an example of how the passive voice is deployed in scientific writing. I’d never before had occasion to say that word out loud.

I went with what seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess: pyramid (pronounced as usual) + -al, so the primary stress remained on the first syllable.

I got stopped. And corrected. “Py-RA-midal,” I was told. I had to practice a few times in my head …

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Bring It

headWriting on language shibboleths a couple of weeks ago, I pooh-poohed the idea that one needs to be vigilant about not using bring instead of take, or vice versa. I argued:

No one would ever say “Take me the mail,” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with “Bring your shoes to the room.” You just … have to imagine the action from the point of view of the room. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says“A native speaker of English will hardly ever misuse bring or take; the problem ex…