Category Archives: Style

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English Grammar Day

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This Monday, July 3, I’m an invited speaker at English Grammar Day, an annual event involving nonspecialist talks and discussion on aspects of English, held at the British Library in London, and people have been warning me against full-scale frontal assaults on the general public’s beliefs, or polemics against authorities they respect. Be positive and nonconfrontational, they advise. They want me all soft and kind, as if it’s National Brotherhood Week.

Well, I’ve tried that. My article “50 Yea…

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The Half-Life of Metaphors

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The adjective weaponized — meaning “adapted for use as a weapon, equipped with weapons,” or more broadly, “militarized” dates only to 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the following was published in the journal International Security: “The fourth was an air burst of a boosted fission weapon using a U-235 core which obtained an energy yield of approximately 251 kt. It was probably a weaponized version of the 1953 boosted configuration reduced to a m…

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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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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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A Story of Grammar

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Those of us — poets, fiction writers, literary essayists — who consider our work with language to amount to art often have a strange relationship with discussions of language. It’s hard to find a parallel in other forms of art. We who are not painters have little to offer on the subjects of paints and canvases; we who are not composers generally have few opinions about the qualities of various key or tempo signatures, much less about the composition of the orchestra. We have the right to …

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Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage

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Do not place your trust in either of these men.

On May 26, 1897, exactly 120 years ago, Bram Stoker published his dark and gruesome epistolary Gothic novel Dracula. Its fearsome central character, despite his few appearances, has had more impact on the popular imagination, and appeared in more movies, than any fictional character apart from Sherlock Holmes.

On my laptop I keep a small library of late 19th-century and early 20th-century novels (downloaded from gutenberg.org), Dracula being one. I…

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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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The Importance of Being a Prince

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The thing about being a prince is that you can say anything you feel like, and they don’t make you resign. In a democracy it’s different: You can be laid low politically for one thoughtless remark.

Do you remember Trent Lott’s lighthearted remarks at a convivial birthday party on December 5, 2002? “When Strom Thurmond ran for president,” said Lott of the birthday boy, “we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these probl…

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Trump: Down to Earth but Not Dignified

Andrew Jackson was the first down-to-earth president.

When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, coincidentally both on July 4, 1826, half a century after the Declaration of Independence, they must have thought that the character of the presidency had been thoroughly established in the mold of George Washington. After Washington came Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and then the start of the next generation of college-educated, well-to-do gentlemen: John Quincy Adams.

Adams and Jefferson could…

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The Risky Business of Deadpan Humor

ChinoDino

Sometimes on the first day of April, someone at Language Log will inject a trace of levity into what can be a fairly nerdy blog by posting a joke news item about language or linguistics. This year there was no such effort, so (since I occasionally contribute to Language Log and felt the urge to provoke mirth creeping up on me) I created a new genre: the retrospective metahoax. But I must be honest: It failed catastrophically with at least one reader. The case is really quite instructive. In thi…