Monthly Archives: October 2011


Sex and Prepositions

Warning: For mature audiences only. Language and some sexual content.

What’s really destroying family values in the United States? Some sincere but misguided souls think it’s the institution of same-sex marriage, as if what other couples might do would have any effect on one’s own bigendered nuclear marriage. No, the real threat comes from the language we allow in our homes, even in earshot of the vulnerable minds of little children.

We need a Defense of Prepositions Act to prevent blatant immor…


Visigoths vs. Weirdness

Redundancy and usage have been on my mind since one commenter pointed out that I used “advocate for” and “advocate against” in a previous post. This grammarian pointed out, correctly, that the verb “to advocate” is defined purely as transitive. Thus, one should either advocate a thing or oppose it. Without such distinctions, my worthy respondent proclaimed, “Civilization is over, it’s all Goths and Visigoths.”

I took this question to a group of clever nonacademic friends. When I tried out the ph…


Glovens and Webinars

The TV program Dragons’ Den features inventors being challenged by a team of skeptical venture capitalists known as the Dragons. One recent show featured an oven-glove with fingers, which the inventor called a gloven. The assembled Dragons demurred. When a new noun is coined through phonetic fusion of two already existing word roots X and Y, they said (in effect: I paraphrase), people expect the thing named to be both sort of like an X and sort of like a Y. Thus brunch is both sort of like br…


‘Like’ Redux

(We're still not talking about this "like")

This past week, I was reading a fascinating piece in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande, one of those extraordinary scientists who are blessed with the ability to write engaging prose, when I was stopped by this sentence:

  • He didn’t know if other instrumentalists relied on coaching, but he suspected that many find help like he did.

“As!” I almost shouted at the page. “’Like’ is a preposition! It takes an object! ‘As’ is a conjunction! It takes a clause!”


Ortholinguistry: Filling the Gaps in Language

A language is like a mouthful of teeth, right?

The individual teeth are the words. And those who would improve the language are like dentists. Extraction here, filling there, braces to align the words nicely.

Chew on that for a while. Because my concern here is whether modern ortholinguistry, for better or worse, is actually capable of changing a language.

In particular, there is the question of gaps. It’s easy for even unlicensed amateurs to notice that any language, including ours, has gaps …


Article Article

Buster Bluth: "Army had a half day today."

The Wall Street Journal has an amusing article about a new marketing trend of dropping the the before product names, especially (for some reason) technological gizmos. Thus there is a strong push from makers to refer to the Kindle, the Nook, and the Wii. The piece quotes Research In Motion Ltd.’s internal style guide, which mandates, puzzlingly, that “BlackBerry” should be used “as an adjective and not as a noun or verb.” A very BlackBerry Christmas?



Before You Submit: Some Tips for Self-Editing

Big load of logs, 1903. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, image no. 82796.

My colleague Geoffrey Pullum’s musings on our tendency to see motes in the writing of others while ignoring logs in our own raises the question of how writers are supposed to edit themselves in the first place.

Reading your own work objectively is a trick that some master more easily than others. The best-known tactic is highly effective: Put your paper away for as long as you’re able and then read it with …


Teflon and Velcro Writers

I’m founding a new school of literary criticism. You read it here first!

It’s easy, and anybody can do it. So I expect a big following.

I’m calling it Tefcro. Or perhaps TefcroTM so I can get rich and famous from it. You think?

Anyhow, here it is:

Some writing is TeflonTM, some is VelcroTM.

No, the writing is not made of either Teflon or Velcro. This is literature we’re talking about, so I’m using a MetaphorTM.

Teflon writing is smooth, polished, gemlike. You can admire it, but it doesn’t reac…


All Lawyers Are Not Liars: True or False?

Actor posing as lawyer


If you answered “True,” would you also say that all pizzas are not edible, or that all editors are not sticklers, or that all peeves are not justified?

As you know very well, you would be wrong in every case. It’s not true that all lawyers are not liars, because some lawyers are liars. To accurately express what you probably believe to be true, you should write “Not all lawyers are liars”—although the first construction has become so commonplace that even though I…


A Sort of Crutch

U2 called one of their albums "A Sort of Homecoming," after a poem by Paul Celan

I fired up my e-mail this morning to find a note containing the following blurb for a collection of poems:

I was made silent and watchful by the continuing poetry here. I kept reading, sort of mesmerized by the consistent achievement, watching out for the occasional weakness. Surely the level couldn’t be maintained. But the weakness never showed.

One phrase jumped out at me. The phrase was sort of. A couple of year…