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Grade-Grubber in Chief

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Mayor Koch would famously ask, “How am I doing?”
But his was a rhetorical question. Getty Images

A friend posts on social media, “Is it grade-grubbing season already?”

Grade-grubbing combines pleading with outrage, supplication with casuistry.

Even if you love teaching (and, please, if you don’t, do find some other line of work), one part of the job that will age you fast is grading. Or, if we can speak frankly, defending the grade you’ve assigned when confronted with an indignant or self-rig…

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These Oftentimes Times

oftentimes_3My colleague Ben Yagoda predicted it a year and a half ago: Oftentimes is on the rise. I just returned from South Carolina, where I was struck by its ubiquity. A server at a restaurant told me that oftentimes people preferred their salad dressing on the side. In a nature preserve, a fellow walker told us he had oftentimes seen alligators sunning themselves on that patch of weeds. Most surprising, my son, who’s moved to South Carolina for work, peppered his speech with oftentimes, an expression I…

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News, False and Fake

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The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu

“Sometimes I wish she would just shut up and let me walk in peace. But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”

Recognize this sentiment? It’s more than three decades old, predating Twitter (2006), Facebook (2004), Google (1996) and the internet (1990s) by a wide margin. But it shows that even in the good old days, there was concern about the validity of news reports, as well as eagerness for them. At least there was tha…

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The Importance of Being a Prince

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The thing about being a prince is that you can say anything you feel like, and they don’t make you resign. In a democracy it’s different: You can be laid low politically for one thoughtless remark.

Do you remember Trent Lott’s lighthearted remarks at a convivial birthday party on December 5, 2002? “When Strom Thurmond ran for president,” said Lott of the birthday boy, “we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these probl…

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Blogger Ben Yagoda on False Titles

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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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Trump: Down to Earth but Not Dignified

Andrew Jackson was the first down-to-earth president.

When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, coincidentally both on July 4, 1826, half a century after the Declaration of Independence, they must have thought that the character of the presidency had been thoroughly established in the mold of George Washington. After Washington came Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and then the start of the next generation of college-educated, well-to-do gentlemen: John Quincy Adams.

Adams and Jefferson could…

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Grammar Blunders and Journalistic Discourtesy

Draft design for the new £5 banknote

Nearly every week some journalist calls me, always on a tight schedule, to get a quote for some story about language or grammar. I help whenever I can, despite knowing that most likely they will slightly misrepresent me, and will not alert me when or if the story appears. Last week I helped Katie Morley of The Telegraph with a story about a supposed grammar error on a banknote. In the story that appeared, which ignored my advice, two linguistic errors of hers…

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‘Whomever’ Revisionism

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I admit to being a whomever scold. As I observed in this space in 2014, most of the times one encounters the word, it’s used incorrectly. I am not alone in this feeling. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s second definition of whomever is: “Misused for whoever as subject of relative clause preceded by a preposition.”

An example is the headline at the top of this post, which appeared in the Pasadena Star-News on April 24. The editor who wrote the headline fell into this trap because for (like all pr…

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Verbalizing

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“Bond doesn’t verbalize a lot.” (Orange Country Register, 2012)

It turns out that the more interesting question is about the verb verbalize, rather than the adjective verbal. Let me explain.

As a copy editor, I have been underlining verbal used to mean “oral” for years. And I have had plenty of opportunities, from student work to university memos to academic articles submitted for publication. Above this underlined use of verbal, I helpfully offer oral as an alternative. In my head, verbal has…

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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 …