Category Archives: Writing

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The Half-Life of Metaphors

220px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_portrait

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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Worst Sentence Ever Seen in Academic Prose

Fitzedward Hall

Fitzedward Hall

Linguists are often accused of ignoring the difference between good writing and bad. But I’m not one of E. B. White’s Happiness Boys: “the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow.”

Just today I was shocked by perhaps the most ill-structured sentence I’ve ever seen in academic prose (not ungrammatical, just hideously clumsy):

Our infinitive, where to precedes it, having been generally, of old, dativo-gerundial, it is pertinent, at the outset, to note…

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Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?

evidence

My title asks it in words of one syllable. But if you will allow polysyllabicity: How can I persuade dyed-in-the-wool grammar conservatives to consider it at least possible in principle that their claims might need support from evidence? You wouldn’t trust a physician who ignored all evidence gathered in the past two centuries of medical science; but the analogous behavior regarding language and writing is happily accepted by academics who in other domains seem sensible.

Consider the responses …

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Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage

strunkpic-dracula

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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Blogger Ben Yagoda on False Titles

henry luce

Time founder Henry Luce, friend to false titles.

 

A few years back, linguist and Lingua Franca contributor Geoffrey Pullum wrote a post on Language Log where he set out the first sentences of two books by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Geoff went on to observe:

This use of a person’s name preceded …

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Who Really Said That?

???????????????????????????????????????????????????For a time in my 20s, I worked as “assistant to the publisher” at Schocken Books, now part of Random House. Like anyone with that sort of glorified-secretary position, I took on a lot of tasks that weren’t part of the job description. At one point, my boss realized that a charming “book of days” desk calendar, with clever quotes and illustrations — for which he had purchased publishing rights and print-ready films from a British publisher — lacked the permissions to reproduce most …

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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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‘The Dictionary’

look it up 2 copyDespite my best efforts, I still catch myself using the phrase “the dictionary,” as in “If you look that word up in the dictionary, you’ll actually find. … ” Or, “I need to look that word up in the dictionary.”

I grew up with “the dictionary.” It was a phrase that I heard at home to refer to several different dictionaries scattered around the house (including a very tattered one that must have been 20 years old by the time my sisters and I were using it), and my parents weren’t fussy about…

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Teaching Journalism in the Trump Era

We were fortunate to have Ben Yagoda, one of the bloggers for Lingua Franca, visiting our offices last month. We asked him to share what he’d learned in 25 years of teaching journalism and writing at the University of Delaware. Here’s what he had to say: