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A Philosopher-Grammarian Gets Something Right

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I have often excoriated the useless traditional definitions of the “parts of speech” presupposed by all usage manuals and dictionaries (see my “Being a Noun,” “Being a Verb,” “Being an Adjective,” etc.). I seldom praise popular grammar books; too many of them are unredeemed horse dung from cover to cover. But I am not implacable: I did have a kind word or two here for Edward D. Johnson’s treatment of the passive. Today I want to make a positive remark about a grammar book by a fine philosopher.

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Spelling, Agin

a863d50f236278b5_trump_poster_1024x1024Farhad Manjoo is of the mind that mockery of Donald Trump’s spelling mistakes exhibits elitism. It’s a vexed question that I’ve addressed once before in this forum. There’s no doubt that making fun of people for frequent spelling mistakes, not to mention numerous typos, can prove to be an unkind jab at a dyslexic person, or a crass implication that poor spelling equates to stupidity. It is also true that an exceptionally bright, well-read person can be a lousy speller, often because of one of …

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Crash or Accident?

If, like me and millions of other Americans, you used the Waze navigation app for your Labor Day holiday driving, you probably encountered somewhere along the way a screen like this one:

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Last year, that screen would have been different. Rather than notifying the user of a crash, the word would have been accident.

The change is due in large part to the efforts of Jeff Larason, a former Boston traffic reporter who’s now the director of highway safety for Massachusetts. For about four years, he an…

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Finaciously, More Regional Words for ‘DARE’

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DARE’s map represents population density when the words were collected, instead of land area.

Without an accident (as they used to say in the South), it’s time again to harvest a quarterly crop of regional words for the online Dictionary of American Regional English. As usual, the new update is available free on DARE’s website, though a subscription fee is required to get the whole six-volume 60,000-word dictionary online.

The dictionary was compiled in 1965-70 by researchers from the University…

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‘Up’ in Arms

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Early this year, the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced it had added more than 1,000 words or phrases, including fast fashion; first world problem; ginger; microaggression; mumblecore; safe spaceside-eye; wayback machine; woo-woo; and the verbs face-palm, ghost, photobomb, throw shade, and walk back. (Links go to my posts on the terms either here on Lingua Franca or my Not One-Off Britishisms blog.)

Another newly listed word — up-fake, defined as “a [basketball] fake in which a player makes…

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What’s He to Hecuba?

hecuba-statue-baseThe unveiling of the University of Southern California’s new expansion has given the Los Angeles campus an opportunity to add a new statue. She is Hecuba, Queen of the Trojans, deliberately selected as a subject to counterbalance USC’s testosterone-fueled Tommy Trojan (officially “the Trojan Shrine”), the bronze campus mascot erected in 1930.

The new statue is the work of Christopher Slatoff. “Queen Hecuba will serve as the new symbol of Troy,” said President C.L. Max Nikias, who emphasized that…

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Totality

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The word totally has grown so overused that I was struck, last week, by the power of its near cousin, totality, describing the two or three minutes, along the arc of the much-heralded solar eclipse, when the sun was blanked out except for its flaming (and dangerous to look at) corona. At first I thought the media had invented the term. But no, it has been in the astronomy lexicon for 185 years to indicate “the moment or duration of total obscuration of the sun or moon during an eclipse.”

When t…

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Bogus Advice for Op-Ed Authors

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Bret Stephens offers in The New York Times (August 25) a guide for beginning op-ed authors: “As a summertime service for readers of the editorial pages who may wish someday to write for them,” he says, “here’s a list of things I’ve learned over the years as an editor, op-ed writer, and columnist.”

And what does this experienced editor, writer, and columnist have to tell us about how to write? (You know how it usually goes: People who can write very nicely are hopeless at explaining how you coul…

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Not Everyone Calls It That?

ReynoldsWrap“Did you just use Reynolds Wrap as a generic?” my friend asked with surprise.

Like many American English speakers, I call facial tissues Kleenex, cotton swabs Q-tips, photocopying Xeroxing, adhesive tape Scotch tape, adhesive bandages Band-Aids, adhesive notes Post-Its, and searching the internet Googling. These terms are all still protected trademarks, but that hasn’t stopped American English speakers from using them generically in speech and unpublished writing.

This process of brand names com…

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DIY Digital Humanities

The digital humanities are known for major-infrastructure projects, such as data-crunching the contents of capacious corpora and charting the movement of vast numbers of people and ideas over space and time. An example picked from many is Martin Grandjean’s pleasingly meta visualization of digital-humanities Twitter users, below.

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Grandjean parses: “This graph consists of 1,434 nodes connected by 137,061 directed edges, each symbolizing a user ‘following’ another on Twitter.” The data, he says, …