Monthly Archives: June 2012


Remembering Alan Turing

I was recently in Cambridge—not the big one with Harvard and MIT and all that, but the small market town in England. It would be an unvisited East Anglian backwater today if a few scholars had not started a small university there about 800 years ago. Today it is one of the best in the world, boasting alumni like Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage, John Maynard Keynes, David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, and the current heir to the UK throne.

On June 21 a frien…



Certain debates, like urban legends, make the rounds of the Internet on a regular basis—so let me clarify at the outset that I’m not trying to participate in this one. I refer to the splitting-infinitives debate. It seems to me it’s been resolved. We can all split infinitives to our heart’s content. We shouldn’t go marking student papers with red ink around “to boldly go.” The whole business harks back to a time when infinitives didn’t use two words but were more like the French, like avoir and


Big Bowl of I Was Wrong, Part I

I have noted in these electrons and elsewhere a strong current trend among my students and others: When they start a sentence with a conjunction—And, Yet, Or, But, So—they place a comma after it, counter to standard/traditional punctuation practice. I was right about that and also about the fact that the habit is creeping into mainstream publications. Just a couple of days ago I picked up the Philadelphia Inquirer and read this sentence in an article about the comedian Aziz Ansari:

Yet, it’s du…


A Would-Be Anthropologist Looks at Trucker Lingo

Recently my brother let me ride with him for a week of long-haul trucking in his 18-wheeler. Who hasn’t ever wanted to do that? It’s been a dream of mine from the time I was little and was thrilled by The Big Red Pajama Wagon, by Mary Elting, in which pretty much nothing happens but which thrilled me anyway.

A week in which nothing happens is the trucker’s goal, it turns out. And Tom is a relative novice, having taken up trucking a few months ago after 20 years of teaching high-school math. He…


An Arch Inscription

A century ago, when the Latin and Greek classics still were closely associated with a college education, the graduating Class of MDCCCCX at the University of California at Berkeley decided that its graduation gift to the university would be provided with a suitably dignified Latin inscription, memorializing its own benefaction and that of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, a member of the Board of Regents of the university and incidentally also mother of William Randolph Hearst.

The gift was a big arch by …


Can You Read This? (or, Is Cursive Dead Yet?)

As far back as the early 1990s, I thought that any school curriculum lacking instruction in typing was shortsighted. Had I been asked to jettison cursive writing to make room for keyboarding, however, I would have been surprised and doubtful. But today that is exactly what has happened in many elementary-school classrooms. Already, we hear, there are high-school and college students who when asked to read memos in longhand might as well be asked to read Linear B.

In future, I imagine families sc…


Weeding the Gardens of Language

Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Our arguments about words are so fierce because, like Candide, each of us cultivates our own garden of language.

Indeed, most of us cultivate many language gardens. Some are for public display, for making speeches or talking with strangers. Some are private, for family or friends. Some are for work, for the professions we profess, and some are for play, for our hobbies or sports. Some are for school and some for the playgro…


Being a Noun

Throughout the history of English grammars, a single hopelessly inadequate story about how to define “noun” has been maintained, in increasingly elaborated versions.

My grandmother’s high-school grammar textbook, Alfred West’s The Elements of English Grammar (1893), says: “A noun is the name of anything.” Lindley Murray had said essentially the same more than a hundred years before in his million-selling English Grammar (1795), and he was pretty much plagiarizing Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduc…


Missing Freshman Comp

Have you hugged your college’s freshman writing course today? (Not the students, not the teachers—we don’t want disciplinary hearings. The course.) Like most who have worked in English departments, I was rarely excited to be assigned freshman rhetoric (as it was called where I started). The essay-grading was back-breaking and social-life-destroying, to say nothing of its effects on mental health. But, boy, do I miss having ol’ frosh comp around.

I deserted first-year composition when I moved to …



June of an election year, and a young woman’s fancy turns to politics. As your typical left-leaning campus liberal, I usually click “like” whenever someone sends me another amusing observation of gaffes and bloopers from the right side of the aisle. But last week’s snark, “Gosh, Golly, Gee,” in The New Republic, seemed both desperate and unfair. In it, John McWhorter argues that Mitt Romney’s euphemistic “G-words” not only are “tokens of dissimulation” but also hark back to a time when…