Category Archives: Style


Greetings and Salutations: Endangered Species

Dear readers:

No, that won’t do for an email nowadays. Try again.

Hello, all:

or should my greeting be less hellish? (A generation ago, a county in Texas adopted “heaven-o” as an alternative to “hello.” No, I won’t go that far. Just this — )

Hi, all:

Maybe that will get me off on the right foot. It’s hard to be sure, because in the world of email the salutations aren’t as fixed as they were for communications on paper. Before the internet, a business letter in hard copy would begin “Dear So&So,”…


The Internet Isn’t Changing English. Nor the Converse.

Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha of The Awl

I don’t buy any of the argument in Katy Waldman’s Slate article about language on the internet. I’m not looking for the most “shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language” because I don’t think the web is changing our language at all. The various headlines, summaries, sharelines, and text of Waldman’s piece compete with and contradict each other in their striking but unsupported claims: “Language took over the internet…”; “the internet is changing langu…


A Postcard From Brno

The Villa Tugendhat in Brno

Brno, Czech Republic — Many months ago I accepted an invitation to give a conference plenary here in central Czechia. (The Czech Republic does have an approved one-word name. People don’t seem to use it much, but I do.) The conference has a discourse-studies theme, and discourse isn’t my usual bag, but I accepted because I was sure that by the time the conference started I would have come up with a suitable talk to give (the usual plenary-invitation gamble). I did not expect shifting fashions i…


The Two Voices of Trump

janusReams have been written about Donald Trump’s astonishing mendacity (see The Washington Post’s one-stop-shopping compilation of his Four-Pinocchio lies, from back in March; five months of shocking fibs and howlers have passed since then). But now some are trying to analyze not just his use of lying as a game plan but his curious bivocalism. Like a rhetorical Tuvan overtone singer, he seems to be able to issue two different messages simultaneously. Nathan Heller, in a September 1 New Yorker articl…


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…


Foul Things of the Night


Eula Biss was a featured author last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And from her I learned something horrifying about certain vile creatures of darkness.

My bibliophile friend Melinda, a visitor from Hawaii, wanted to attend the session on Eula’s much-praised study of vaccination, On Immunity (Graywolf Press, 2014). It was sold out. Demand for seats is intense. Cognoscenti book their choice of events (only four per person allowed) on the day in spring when the program is ann…


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 …


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…


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…


Finger-Pointing, Trouble-Saving, and Pussyfooting


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…