Category Archives: Orthography

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My New Crush on the Dictionary

Trump_Bigly (1)I’m hooked. Merriam-Webster is the coolest thing on social media. In these dark times, where clickbait generally leads down a long tunnel into dystopia, the Twitter resurgence of a venerable dictionary is something to, well, tweet about.

First, there’s M-W’s political savvy. As NPR and other media organizations have observed, the nerdy group in Springfield, Mass., has been having a field day with the malapropisms of the current administration. Just last week, after the president spent part of hi…

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How Not to Teach Chinese

Chinese_characters_logoVictor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the …

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Is ‘Mens’ Becoming a Word?

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In deciding whether or not to use, and where to place, an apostrophe after a genitive (or possessive) word, I have always relied on men. That’s men, the word. Here’s what I mean. If I wanted to refer to the school I attended as a youth, there are basically three choices: “a boy’s private school,” “a boys private school,” and “a boys’ private school.”  (“Boy private school” doesn’t sound right.) I’d be able to eliminate the first option quickly, as it implies that the school was designed for or …

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Tpyos vs. Mispelings: a Presidential Matter

TR-Spelling-BookMy New Year’s resolution is to write less about politics. But Orwell has hardly been the only one to note how deeply entwined are politics and language. Today I’m obsessed with the difference between typos and misspellings.

Why? Because the storm of tweets sent out by our president-elect reveals an unusual number of orthographic oddities. Let’s put aside, for the moment, the claim that these are “grammar errors,” grammar being another province from orthography. I’m interested in the subtle…

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Thanksgiving Victuals

Thanksgiving ClipartThis week many of us are thinking about or shopping for Thanksgiving victuals. If, that is, we are people who use the word victuals. Otherwise, we’re thinking about or shopping for food.

The word victual(s) is on my mind not because it is Thanksgiving week but instead because a Lingua Franca reader mentioned the word in response to my column about spelling reform and supercede/supersede. The anonymous commenter noted that the spelling supercede probably wasn’t going to be the end of civilizati…

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Can ‘Supercede’ Supersede?

Last March, I posted a spelling challenge here on Lingua Franca: Which irregular spellings are you willing to part with? Earlier this term, the graduate-student instructor for my introductory English linguistics course gave this challenge to students, and we got one suggestion that had not occurred to me. And I’m sold.

If one thing replaces another thing, it supersedes it

Is that how you spell supersede? Or do you want the word to have a c and be supercede?

The spellchecker on my computer just b…

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Semi(-)colon

way station copyIn response to my previous post on dashes, one of Lingua Franca’s readers, Dan K, sent me an email noting that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, spells semicolon without a hyphen. I had spelled it with a hyphen — because in my head, that word has a hyphen. And the editors clearly didn’t have strong enough feelings about the spelling to change it.

The fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language agrees with Merriam-Webster’s spelling, not with th…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

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You have to laugh at some of the spam you get, don’t you? Or maybe weep. Today I received a spam email from a proofreading and academic editing company. “We majorly specialize in proofreading academic documents,” it told me, with a majorly eyebrow-raising adverb (wouldn’t “mostly” have been better?). But before I had finished reading it I decided this one was a laugher, not a weeper.

Bafflingly, the company that sent the email (and I have decided it would be kinder not to name the company here)…

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Poetically Punctuating

stanleyquotepoetrypunctuationAt last, in the final four weeks of the semester, my “Introduction to Creative Writing” class has come to poetry. I both love and dread this section. I love it because I teach poetry taxonomically. That is, each student must delve deep into the well of poetry old and new until she finds a poetic form to embrace. She then reports to us all on the history and highlights of, say, the pantoum or the elegy; recites a poem in that form; and writes one in that form. The exercise reminds me of the fanta…

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Order and Chaos in English Spelling

CsccO47XPr-2“But here’s the thing,” wrote David Shariatmadari in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. “English orthography makes no sense.” No sense? I know it is exaggeration for the sake of humor (no quibble there), but I’ve decided to use it as an excuse to come to the defense of English spelling. It’s a hard case to make, no doubt (note the wonderfully silent b), but here goes. …

The article was a response to Donald Trump’s misspelling of the word honor in this tweet from February 26:

Wow, every poll sai…