Category Archives: Writing

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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…

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For Want of a Copy Editor the Sense Was Lost

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Yuri Matiyasevitch in 1969

When a Russian mathematician collaborates with a French computer scientist on a paper published by Elsevier in the Netherlands, what language do they choose?

English, of course. Unsuitable it may be, but it’s the unavoidable language of science these days.

And that means Elsevier will need to provide expert editors to assist non-native-speaking authors, right?

Wrong. Elsevier’s two and a half billion dollars of annual revenue (only about a billion of it operating profi…

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What if the President Couldn’t Read?

2E131CE400000578-3303860-image-m-27_1446654140207A rumor has been circulating about our new president’s level of literacy. First suggested (I think) in a blog post for The Times of Israel, the notion that the president not only doesn’t like to read but cannot read above the fifth-grade level of his campaign rhetoric has made the rounds of Samantha Bee, the Daily Kos and other left-wing opinion makers. I am not here to spread that rumor, but to ask what it might mean for our understanding of both this unusual president’s character and the fut…

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When Two Negatives Don’t Make a Positive

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Image via Wikipedia.org

Many English grammar advice sites on the web are so dire that it almost seems rude to link to them. I don’t want to fail in my duty to clarify things by deconstructing them; yet it seems cruel to humiliate the poor well-meaning people who wrote them. So let me just say that somewhere out there is a dreadful page of confused drivel on a website maintained by a world-famous dictionary publisher, and its author begins by confessing a…

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Trump’s ‘Use’ of ‘Quotation Marks’

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American presidents have often been noteworthy writers.  Jefferson was an audacious native version of an 18th-century philosophe. Lincoln’s precise yet visionary style was the subject of a 2008 book by Fred Kaplan. Grant’s plainspoken memoirs were admired by Mark Twain, who, contrary to rumor, didn’t ghostwrite them. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, the first President Roosevelt published 33 books (damn him), and that’s counting the four-volume The Winni…

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Agency Style, for Your Eyes Only

CIA

Recently, in ways I am not at liberty to divulge, I obtained access to the CIA report-writing style guide, Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications. My copy is a hefty PDF, weighing in at around 25 megabytes. I will always be grateful to the brave men and women who got it to me, some at risk of their lives.

A browsable HTML version is said to exist. That would be much easier to consult than an image scan of the hard copy. If you know where there is such a version on the web,…

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Why Did the Van Gogh Brothers Write in French?

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The Yellow House at Arles in letter 691, to Theo Van Gogh, September 1888. (Image courtesy of Christie’s and Wikimedia Commons.)

“The limits of my language signify the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne

Zundert. Borinage. Paris. Arles. Auvers-sur-Oise. These names boom through art history like reports from a distant cannon. When it was too dark to paint in them, Vincent Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tr…

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If Only I Could Tell You

It was a simple question, in an email from a nonlinguist friend: “Which is preferable, if only it were or if only it was?”

Oh dear. People choosing between these alternatives are usually struggling to avoid what they fear might be a mistake. Recalling talk of “the subjunctive” and how important it is, they want to make sure they are not to be classified among the ignorant hordes who wouldn’t know a subjunctive clause from a subduction zone.

She wanted the pure and simple truth. She wasn’t going …

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Where Are the Happiness Boys?

Professor with bubbles coming out of pipeExactly 58 years ago today (I write on December 17, 2016), E.B. White wrote a letter of protest to his editor, J.G. Case, who had been trying to get him to take some grammar advice and modify some of the proscriptive ukases in a usage book that White was revising. White wouldn’t yield an inch to what he called “the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists”:

I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust … to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow….

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Highbrow Threading

The following ad appeared in my Facebook feed the other day:

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It put me in mind of my favorite episode of my favorite segment on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, “Share a Little Tea with Goldie.” In “Share a Little Tea” (as I wrote in this space last year),

a wide-eyed hippie, played by Leigh French, found various things to say “Oh, wow” about. I have been thinking about one particular episode in which Goldie excitedly demonstrated to viewers an invention she’d come up with. She took out…