Monthly Archives: July 2013


Is Strunk Bunk? A Game-Changing New Development

ee203fbab8b806ac9ca7c0db834ab9d9 Several of my critics (one of them an editor here at The Chronicle, whom I can hardly ignore) have made a remarkable move in response to the argument of my recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. My thesis was that if Strunk’s pronouncements in The Elements of Style were a sound guide to fine writing, we should find Fitzgerald unconsciously complying with them in work such as his rightly celebrated novel The Great Gatsby (published when Strunk was in his prime). But in the much-admired…


Initialisms With ‘&’ Need a Name

In a recent e-mail, a senior editor at The Chronicle, Don Troop, asked a simple question:

Is there a term to describe abbreviations like R&R, R&D, B&B, etc.?

To our surprise, there isn’t.

So, LF readers, to the rescue!

Our resident grammarian, Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, confirms the gap:

“I don’t know of any term for them. Orthographically they’re just initialisms that happen to contain the ampersand. Syntactically, using CGEL’s terminology, they…


The Internet, That Old Scapegoat

Online-Writing-Jobs1A new Pew study is out, reporting the effects of the digital revolution on student writing. It’s a broad study with dozens of both thought-provoking conclusions and what strike me as flawed equivalencies. For now, I’ll focus on just two points.

The first is that I learned of the study through an article on Atlantic Wire titled “The Internet Is Making Writing Worse.” Well, dog bites man, I thought. But I clicked on the link to learn that the Pew study reaches no such conclusion. It opens with…


Too Late to Learn? Helping the Reluctant With Technology

Creative Daydreaming, from

Creative Daydreaming, from

Everyone has at least one friend, relative, or colleague who is not yet competent in even the most basic computer tasks: creating a document, e-mailing, browsing online.

It’s hard to imagine an academic with poor computer skills. And yet, they aren’t that rare. I know, because I work with them. One correspondent doesn’t know how to open an attachment to an e-mail. Another asks me to convert the edited chapters of his book to an old version of Microso…


Grading Congressmen, Grading Students

Takano gradeEvery now and then, in academic departments where I’ve worked, faculty members have exchanged graded papers and met to compare and contrast approaches to marking and grading student prose. There’s always an element of anxiety to this otherwise useful exercise: am I missing important points? injecting my own prejudices? failing to grade according to my own rubric? missing or overemphasizing mechanical errors? grading too harshly or not harshly enough? All credit, then, to Representative Mark …


I Don’t Like ‘Mic’

Open Mic Night LogoSome years ago, my daughter Elizabeth Yagoda decided she wanted to be known by this first name.

I render the name in sound rather than letters because of the way she spells it, which is “Lizy.” According to my understanding of traditional English phonics and spelling conventions, this should be pronounced to rhyme with prize-he. However, she hasn’t encountered any confusion or pushback on her name, which supports my sense that some traditional English phonics and spelling conventions are changin…


A Shark Takes a Bite

sharkmeetchainsawA couple of weeks ago, the Twittersphere was busy commenting on the television premiere of a Syfy channel Original Movie named Sharknado. Five thousand tweets a minute during the broadcast, we are told. There were many tributes to its awfulness: preposterous plot (tornado picks up sharks, dumps them on LA), absurd acting, insipid special effects. Syfy, many said, had outdone itself in schlockiness with this movie.

Key to the movie’s breathtaking mediocrity was its title. “If we don’t have …


The Great Fitzgerald

greenlightI went to see Baz Luhrmann’s beautiful film The Great Gatsby a few weeks ago. The reviews had been lukewarm, as if the critics were reluctant to admire a movie that (very cleverly) used pounding rock and disco to provide the soundtrack for a classic novel of the 1920s. The talking heads on BBC Radio’s culture programs tended to return wistfully to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, and I heard one critic refer to its final passage as a quintessential example of truly superb English prose.

It struck me …


What to Do About ‘Impactful’?

I notice the word impactful. Sitting in various kinds of meetings throughout the week, I hear a whole range of things described as impactful: NCAA legislation, court decisions, online college courses, powerful people, climate change, and much more.

If I were asked to rate new words on a scale from 1-10 based on their aesthetic appeal (note: words’ aesthetic appeal in my opinion—this scale cannot possibly be objective), with 10 being the most appealing and 1 being the least, I would give impactfu…


Blowing in the Political Wind

The Economist has a weekly commentary page, under the pseudonym “Lexington,” about events in the U.S.A. The July 13 Lexington column entitled “The War of the Words” is about politics and language. Predictably, therefore, it begins by quoting you-know-who:

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Really? Political talk is all just deception to cover up homicide? Sorry, I’m not buying that.

The quoted li…