Category Archives: Style

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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…

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Weighty Words of Yesteryear

Vintage-40s-UNDERWOOD-Standard-Manual-Typewriter-Art-Deco-_57Nowadays, thanks to the internet (which has lost its capital letter in the AP stylebook, for becoming too ordinary) and our numerous computers, smartphones, and other devices, our words flit from device to device to publication as light as their weight in electrons.

But as we veterans of the 20th century know, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, back before anyone had thought of cluttering our (literal) desktops with computers, when our words were always hard copy, beginning with ink on…

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Adverbs and United Airlines

flythefriendlyskiesYou might think nothing more remained to be said about United Airlines Flight 3411 from Chicago to St Louis on Sunday, April 9. Not so. The coverage left key facts of the case misreported, and the most interesting linguistic aspects completely unnoticed.

Sean Davis at The Federalist sensibly dug out United’s contract of carriage and read it. But even he failed to note how bad its use of English is.

The volitional subclass of adverbs used as act-related adjuncts are the adverbs like accidentally,…

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The Many First Rules of Politics

Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer“The first rule of X is Y” is a cliché of the sort that Language Log calls a snowclone: a sentence frame with customizable parts, suitable for journalists who can’t be bothered to craft sentences from scratch.

There is, of course, never a unique first rule of X. The Y’s multiply. One of the many first rules of politics, attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, is “You can’t win unless you’re on the ballot.” Somewhat contradicting it is another, from The Gangs of New York (and Josef Stalin before that): “T…

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Done and Finished

baking-cake-tipThe title might suggest that I am following up on Ben Yagoda’s informative post on the expression done and done, but instead I am revisiting one of my mother’s grammar bugbears.

When my sisters and I were kids, at the end of dinner, we at least sometimes described the postmeal state of affairs this way: “I’m done.” And then we would ask to be excused from the table. My mother would remind us, “Cakes are done, you are finished.” Or, she would tease us: “Are you ready to come out of the oven?”

I w…

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The Empathy Effect

20151021_genre_fictionI am writing this blog post on the last day of National Reading Month, a featured period of time that may become quaint in the years ahead. For now, though, it has comprised several weeks of recommendations, read-ins, read-aloud marathons, and general hoopla around the joys and benefits of reading. And for several years now, the researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano have been tying reading to a specific outcome that many feel is woefully lacking in our political life: empathy. In particula…

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The Team Sat in Its Hotel Drinking Its Beers

Lucky BarWhen Business Insider recently published a listicle entitled “21 common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them,” naturally the old chestnut about its being an error to use they (or their or them) “as a singular pronoun” was included.

It repeats a familiar mistake by saying “as a singular pronoun.” Nobody uses they as a singular pronoun. The word is grammatically plural, as you can see from the form of a present-tense verb that has they as subject: You get They are responsible (as with Women are …

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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Unicorns and Their Opposite

unicorn

Katie Workman, an independent retailer, wears unicorn leggings.

As James Thurber once explained in his fable “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the unicorn is a mythical beast. To argue otherwise labels you crazy as a jay bird.

But if you’re really looking for a real unicorn nowadays, you can find it at LuLaRoe. And for that matter, donkeys too. Who knew?

Not I, certainly,

It turns out that LuLaRoe makes, among other things for women, leggings — highly decorative pants that fit like tights. Suitabl…

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How Dangerous Are Danglers?

starfish-purple-color-420x280I don’t remember many grammar lessons from junior high school, but for whatever reason, one sentence from the lesson about dangling and misplaced modifiers has stuck with me. Here’s the sentence: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw a starfish.” Poor Mary! It is exhausting to have to cling to the side of an aquarium that way.

Now, of course, if we heard this sentence, we would probably assume it was the starfish clinging to the side of the aquarium, as this is the most logical and sen…