Category Archives: Style

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The Linguistics of Assassination Threats

The media have been blandly paraphrasing Donald Trump’s hint about the use of firearms without close reading of the text, and obediently quoting utterly disingenuous spin from supporters as if it were fit to be taken seriously. Four linguistic points are crucially relevant. Three were touched on in a recent Language Log post. Let me review all four somewhat more carefully.

What Trump said in his speech at the rally in Wilmington, N.C., was this (the line breaks roughly correspond with his oddly …

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What’s Old Is New Again

1book21It can be easy to romanticize the state of handwriting back in the day, say the turn of the 20th century, when people were regularly writing letters by hand — and in cursive, to boot. But here is Lewis Carroll lamenting bad handwriting in 1890:

Years ago, I used to receive letters from a friend—and very interesting letters too—written in one of the most atrocious hands ever invented. It generally took me about a week to read one of his letters! I used to carry it about in my pocket, and take…

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Bad Optics

“Tarzan has always had bad optics — white hero, black land — to state the excessively obvious,” wrote Manohla Dargas in her review of The Legend of Tarzan in The New York Times.  This time around, the muscular white expanse of Tarzan is supplied by Alexander Skarsgard, who induces no eye strain. The use of optics is another matter.

Optics, the science of light and lenses and sight, has given way in popular use to the sense of “the way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceiv…

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Finger-Pointing, Trouble-Saving, and Pussyfooting

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In an earlier Lingua Franca post I grumbled about writing advisers who vilify the passive as if it were a dangerous drug (despite using it copiously themselves in private). Warnings against the passive have in fact been getting increasingly extreme for about a hundred years (for the evidence, see my article “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive“). So when I encounter a book that’s a bit better than the average, as I recently did, it’s only fair that I should comment. The Handbook of Good En…

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Making Work

works“You’re just making work for yourself,” said somebody’s mother, and possibly mine.

Making work for yourself  – the reflexive component is essential to the judgmental tone — was a phrase I remember from my youth. It meant, of course, an inefficient and unnecessary expenditure of energy. It could be a task that would have to be done again anyway, though more simply and quickly, or it could be an activity that never had to be done in the first place.

The hyphenated term make-work is apparently an A…

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The Worst Form of Government

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Robert Briffault

The British people’s referendum vote on June 23 proposed (by a slim majority of 51.9% to 48.1%) that the country should leave the world’s largest single market and embark on an unpredictable standalone future for which there had been no political or economic planning. A Churchillian remark crossed my mind immediately: the one about democracy being the worst form of government apart from every other one that had ever been tried.

The country’s politics fell apart straight away. As…

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Capital Capitals

Capital letters, as my Lingua Franca colleague Bill Germano noted recently, aren’t very welcome on the internet. I SAID, CAPITAL LETTERS ARE NOT VERY WELCOME. Get it?

It doesn’t matter what you say. Any message at all,  like the one above, is annoying when delivered in capitals. Even complimentary and loving messages become irritants when capped: YOU ARE SO SMART, I JUST LOVE THE WAY YOU LOOK, I’M YOURS FOREVER.  Stop shouting! I can’t hear you through the noise!

If you’re old enough, you can re…

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Going Forward

Union Jack umbrella 2It is, let us agree, a semantically pointless Briticism: “Going forward, we will develop integrated, cross-platform systems that will respond to uncertain markets.” This is not a sentiment distinct from “We will develop integrated, cross-platform systems that will respond to uncertain markets.” But going forward sounds as if it adds something — a frame, a launch pad, a directional indicator, and a mark of authority. The decision has been well thought out.

Mark Seacombe wrote about the phrase in

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Linguification: That’s the Name of the Game

Narendra Modi, peripatetic prime minister of India

The term linguification originated on Language Log in 2006. I coined it to denote a peculiar kind of rhetorical device: People saying things like “The words ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are always found together” to mean “The concepts X and Y are related,” or (to cite a recent headline on Quartz India) this sort of thing:

Three continents in 140 hours — Narendra Modi shows he doesn’t know the meaning of “jet lag”

Does Modi’s itinerary really show that? Of course…

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Ellipses and I

ellipses-mainI have been thinking about the changing nature of the ellipsis as a grammatical device.

A few days ago, I was going over a draft of a graphic novel I am about to send to the publisher. It is called Angelitos, and it is about a Mexican priest who devotes his life to protecting homeless children. I had written two versions, one in Spanish and the other in English, about a year ago. I had put them aside to simmer. When I looked at them again, I was struck by the abundance of ellipses in the two ver…