Category Archives: Writing


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…


Literary Judgment, Literary Luck

0179f6077adad6796a3eac8bfd6cb67aTwenty years ago this month, I was in New Orleans to receive an award for my writing. I’ve been thinking about that moment as we return to classes. Whatever subject you teach, you most likely find yourself in the position of judging the quality of students’ prose. Indeed, for most of us, the grades we award at the end of the term will depend largely on how well our students express themselves in writing.

Here’s how the award I received in 1996 came about. I had published a couple of books in t…


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…


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…


Did You Drop That ‘H’?

337-t1This past weekend I was preparing for a talk I’ll be giving next month in Washington, D.C. At some moment I decided to check the description of the seminar online to make sure that I would be talking about what I said I would be talking about several months ago. (I have learned not to trust my memory on this!)

In the middle of reading the description, I thought, “I didn’t write that sentence that way.” Now, if I wasn’t sure I could remember what I said I would be talking about, how could…


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…


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…


The Worst Form of Government


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…