by

Nina in Siberia

Elif-Batuman-The-Idiot

Elif Batuman and her new book

 

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language:…

by

Stopped-Clock Eloquence

time-is-broken-2-by-applepo3-320x214The saying “A stopped clock is right twice a day” is popular lately, perhaps because we have a president who might possibly be bested by a broken clock in tests of intelligence, sophistication, and sensitivity. (According to the Quote Investigator, Joseph Addison originated the maxim back in 1711, with slightly different phrasing.)

Once in a while, through the stopped-clock formula, Trump is right. And though his vocabulary is spectacularly limited, once in a while he perpetrates actual eloquenc…

by

Impactful, Impact-Empty

Lydia Davis, short-story writer

Lydia Davis: Unlikely to stand up for “impactful.”

I’m one of those readers and teachers who find impactful really ugly, and that’s not an argument I can win. It’s not even an argument.

The last — or at least the most recent — straw was a social-media post from Penguin Random House announcing a new book aimed at writers of short stories.  The message included this sentence:

“Signature’s exclusive Short Story Writing Guide features advice from favorite authors on how to craft slim, impactful writ…

by

Beyoncé, Cute Kittens, and Titles That Draw You In

Silly season is approaching — that late-summer period when so little is happening in the serious worlds of politics and business that newspapers start running front-page stories about flying-rodent attacks and ice cream socials for dogs. Except the definition is breaking down: Politics in the Trump era is simultaneously absurd and deadly serious year-round, and academe may be one of the few professional enclaves left where summer brings with it an across-the-board vacation (let the enraged co…

by

Good on All of Us

lrs4z

Often I pay attention to a shift in language only when I find it coming from my own mouth. That was the case the other day, when my husband and I were hiking in the Berkshire hills. He caught his toe in a tree root and started pitching down the hill, but managed to veer right and swing around a slender birch until he steadied himself. “That was clumsy of me,” he said.

“But you managed to right yourself like a ballet dancer,” I said. “Good—”

Right then I felt the new set of words, ready to come …

by

Repeal and Replace — or Revise? Obamacare!

dont-steal-medicare-socialized-medicine

So what exactly have those Republican senators come up with to vote on, whenever they can muster enough support?

They have proposed what they call the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, known as H.R. 1628 because it is a revision, indeed a complete replacement, of the American Health Care Act passed by the House last month. And that in turn would have replaced the Affordable Care Act, better known by its nickname, Obamacare, almost since it was proposed in 2007.

So this Republican version …

by

English Grammar Day

propriety

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…

by

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…

by

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…

by

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…