Category Archives: Style

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A Three-Hundred-Year-Old Dilemma

Hyphenation

Recently The Economist’s “Johnson” column (named not for its author, but for the dictionary pioneer Samuel Johnson, who lived three centuries ago) ruminated on the frustrations and obscure consistencies of hyphenation. Apparently the magazine’s style book carries on about hyphens for eight pages, which to my mind leaves plenty to be said.

As they rightly point out, the path of hyphenation runs generally toward its disappearance: good-bye becomes goodbye, to-day becomes today, e-mail has widely …

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Lollapalooza: a Modern Sockdolager

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A
t times the English language has seemed inadequate to express the expansiveness and exuberance of the American spirit … at times, that is, when the nation felt expansive and exuberant.

Words like expansive and exuberant wouldn’t do; they can be quite accurate in denotation, but too nicely tied to classical Latin roots to express this spirit.

No, for the American experience, a different kind of sesquipedalian nomenclature was needed. And in the early 19th century it emerged, breathing fire and…

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Heat of Life

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Matthew Desmond wrote that the people he was studying for his book Evicted taught him how to see. (Photo: Scott Brauer for The Chronicle)

If you are an academic, and your manuscript is accepted for publication by a university press, a questionnaire mailed to you will ask for a list of the courses in which your book can be taught. (A similar question is asked of those serving as reviewers of a manuscript for a university press: “Will the book have any crossover appeal?”) The idea is to assess…

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‘The Americans Have No Adverbs’

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I still remember the awful woman I met at a reception during an English Speaking Union meeting on George Street, Edinburgh, in 2008 (I mentioned her here once before). She told me loudly and confidently, as if playing Lady Bracknell on stage, that English was rapidly degrading; for example, “The Americans have no adverbs. Absolutely none. They’ve just got rid of them.”

I wanted to explain about my American citizenship and quarter-century of living and teaching linguistics in California, and the…

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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…