Monthly Archives: September 2011


How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Spell Check

The verbiage devoted to the denigration of spell check could fill a dictionary. It’s dumbing down our students. It’s withering our synapses. It exposes the techies behind word-processing programs as ill-educated geek hooligans.  On my syllabi, as on countless other syllabi, a separate paragraph is devoted to two simple instructions:

Do not use spell check. Do not use grammar check.

These commands, of course, go unheeded. The fact is that I use spell check, sometimes by choice—who wants to be e…


Invaders From America … Not!

Some weeks ago Matthew Engel published an indignant rant on the BBC News Web site under the title “Why do some Americanisms irritate people?” (not a question he tried to answer), citing examples of U.S. linguistic invasion left, right, and center. Unfortunately he did his raging and fuming without checking whether his examples did indeed come from America. Bad policy. Mark Liberman over at Language Log did some digging into the matter.

Mark is a distinguished professor of linguistics at Penn, fa…


A Lessen in Grammar

Poor less!

It’s getting less and less respect. Or I suppose, to be up to date, I should say fewer and fewer respect.

Who, me?

Yes, less is joining the company of who and me in disrespect.

Remember when signs at checkout lines at grocery stores used to say “10 items or less”? Thanks to the efforts of language vigilantes like the late and truly great William Safire, a store that has pretensions of being upscale now announces “10 items or fewer.”

On the other hand, not to scare away ordinary custom…


Citation Software, or How to Make a Perfect Mess

Preparing notes and bibliographies in a consistent style has long been one of the less glamorous tasks of academic writing. And now, with the increasing use—or rather misuse—of citation software, it is surely one of the most rapidly degenerating.

A recent poll of university teachers who happened to e-mail me the other day showed that although four of the six require students to use consistent styling in notes and bibliographies, there was generally no close monitoring of the results. Four of the…


What the Meaning of ‘Is Is’ Is

Redundancy rears its head in many settings.

Redundant is almost always hurled as a negative epithet, but repetition can be an effective rhetorical device. Shorn of all redundancy, Shakespeare’s “most unkindest cut of all” would be pretty vanilla, and the ad slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” would become the ho-hum “Raid Kills Bugs.” Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” would have to be completely erased because the quotation is nothing but redundancy. (Complet…


In the Time of Declarative Sentences

In a recent essay in The Guardian about whether America can ever recover from what happened after 9/11, the American feature writer Gary Younge says:

An effective response to 9/11 that would have truly satisfied the American public in that moment probably did not exist. A combination of diplomatic pressure, targeted intelligence-led operations and a more enlightened foreign policy was what would have been and has proved to be most successful. But followin…


Antoine Dodson Saves My Class

As one or two readers may know, I teach a weird upper-level college English class in Reed-Kellogg sentence diagramming. You would think that such a venue would be the last refuge for apolitical teaching. You’d be wrong. Once my students become proficient in this arcane art, they are assigned to seek out sentences by famous people and diagram them. Those who feel they have particularly problematic sentences are invited to the blackboard. This past term, one of my cheekier students—male, blond, …


Submitting a Manuscript? Leave the Typesetting to the Pros

Word processors are wondrously FUN to play with, and writers who secretly believe they have a talent for graphic design (but who have never actually studied it) seem unable to resist availing themselves of every bell and whistle.

That’s fine, if you’re self-publishing. But if you’re submitting work for publication, formatting to this degree is not only unhelpful, it’s even a little dangerous—and not just because it’s a sure way to tire your copy editor before she reads a word of your text.



Dreadful Sorry, Clementine

The English language is just too polite.

Too polite for thee, anyhow. And thou art left by the wayside too.

Not so long ago—just a few hundred years—thou and its cousins thee and thy were the words to use when addressing one person, while you and ye and your were reserved for more than one. (Thou and ye, like he and she, were used as sentence subjects; thee and you, like him and her, were the objects of verbs and prepositions.) Indeed, the English language more than a thousand years ago had no…