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The Speech Act of Hoping

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Last week millions of us were glued to our televisions or computer screens as James Comey, the recently ousted FBI director, was testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee about a conversation in the Oval Office with President Trump. Sen. James E. Risch, Republican of Idaho, was asking him questions about the meaning of Trump’s reported utterance: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

“OMG,” I texted a lin…

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A Story of Grammar

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Those of us — poets, fiction writers, literary essayists — who consider our work with language to amount to art often have a strange relationship with discussions of language. It’s hard to find a parallel in other forms of art. We who are not painters have little to offer on the subjects of paints and canvases; we who are not composers generally have few opinions about the qualities of various key or tempo signatures, much less about the composition of the orchestra. We have the right to …

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Of Cadillacs and Prairie Dogs

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On a summer evening years ago, I dined with a group of friends at a rural Midwest restaurant where the parking lot was a patch of rough ground without marked bays. We came out to find a Cadillac parked close in beside our car. Edging into the gap between the vehicles (the other side was also tight), we did our best to get the doors far enough open to slide in without dinging the Cadillac. Our close approach triggered the Cadillac’s motion-sensitive theft alarm. A loud synthesized voice told us:…

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Comey, I Salute You!

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Trump pressing Comey’s flesh the day after his inauguration. Photo: Andrew Harrer via Getty Images

Last week’s congressional testimony by James Comey was fascinating to anyone interested in politics, human relations, or, to the point, language. A monograph could probably be written about President Trump’s use of the word hope in his remark (in Comey’s recollection), “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” and in fact another Lingua Franca blogger may explore …

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A Lexicographical Bildungsroman

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I have just finished the most amazing astonishing intriguing edifying profound intense book about the making of dictionaries I have ever read encountered. I want to tell all lovers of words — no, not just that select group (likely including many readers of Lingua Franca), but all users of words — in other words, everyone in the world — about it.

Is that so difficult? In this case, yes. It’s a book of a lifetime about a life in lexicography. And instead of being casually written, as for example …

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Rapider Times

SWA Rapider[1]

On a quick trip to Minneapolis over the weekend, I noticed Southwest Airlines’ slogan, “Is ‘rapider’ a word?” Well, no, I thought. It’s not. That is, you do not find suffixes appended to the adjective rapid to form comparative and superlative forms. Fortunately, in English, you have other choices. You could say faster or quicker, for instance. But those words wouldn’t draw the busy traveler’s attention as easily, and of course they would have no resonance with Southwest’s Rapid Rewards fr…

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Brother, Can You ‘Anodyne’?

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Sometimes a word is just ready for its close-up. My friend Jim Ericson commented to me that this is now the case with anodyne, and he was right. The Google News database charts 102 uses of it in the past 30 days, including six posted on June 2 alone:

  • A New York Times article called “How to Raise a Feminist Son” was ” … promptly excoriated by right-wing trolls, none of whom seemed to have actually read the article, which is filled with such anodyne nuggets as ‘let him be himself’ and ‘teach him…
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Engaging Students Through Tests

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I took a lot of “blue book” exams when I was in college — and I was good at them. In case you’re not familiar with the “blue book,” it is a thin booklet filled with lined paper, typically available for purchase at the university bookstore, which students use to complete essay exams. Sometimes I wrote very targeted answers to the essay questions, but I also knew and occasionally used the strategy of writing everything I knew that was even tangentially related to the topic and hoping …

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Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?

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My title asks it in words of one syllable. But if you will allow polysyllabicity: How can I persuade dyed-in-the-wool grammar conservatives to consider it at least possible in principle that their claims might need support from evidence? You wouldn’t trust a physician who ignored all evidence gathered in the past two centuries of medical science; but the analogous behavior regarding language and writing is happily accepted by academics who in other domains seem sensible.

Consider the responses …

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Ain’t It Hard

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Plain words have rich histories and variegated trajectories. One of the plainest, hard, accounts for 75 separate Oxford English Dictionary definitions in its adjective form alone, and continues to go forth and multiply.

Consider some of the phrases in which hard appears. You can give someone a hard time, be hard of hearing, play hardball, do something the hard way, take a hard look, or go in for the hard sell. We speak of hard bargains, cheese (the British expression meaning “tough luck”), copi…