Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups


Bonehead Guidance for Would-Be Novelists


The master thriller writer Lee Child


A web article offering self-help for novelists* advises: “Think of choosing more active verbs in place of all your ‘was’ constructions.”

Choose walked  rather than was walking  wherever possible, it says: “The latter invokes stronger, more active images.” And “Catch all of those ‘It was;’ ‘there were;’ constructions.” In fact, unless you are consciously striving to sound literary, “be highly suspicious of any sentence beginning with or containing this struc…


A Couple of Thoughts

three owlsIt seemed so obvious to me that “a couple of questions” referred to two questions that I never stopped to question it. In fact, I would even correct myself on this point of usage. If, for example, I typed in an email “I have a couple of questions,” then went on to list those questions and discovered that actually I had three questions, I would go back and change “a couple of” to “a few.” And I feel sure that I changed this construction in other people’s writing too.

Then came last semester’s r…


The Boy From the Isle of Man


Randolph Quirk

One sign that your future may lie in linguistics is having a serious interest both in languages and in scientific analysis of structure (chemical or mathematical, for example). Such a conflict confronted a farm boy from the Isle of Man in 1945. Five years’ service in the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force had given him an intellectual interest in the science of explosives, and he had enrolled in a course in chemistry. But he also wanted to resume the degree course in English th…


The Fine Line Between Errors and Dialect Differences


“Imagine if I hadn’t of been there!” said someone in an email to my brother, Richard. He regarded the sentence coldly, as if it were a slimy creature emerging from under a rock. What’s that of ? A misspelled extra have ? Why? Doesn’t had suffice? He turned to the grammarian in the family, and asked me what had gone wrong.

It’s an interesting puzzle that teaches us something about drawing the subtle distinction between intralinguistic slips and interlinguistic variation.

Let’s start by setting a…


Making a Case and Point

A couple of times a month, it seems, a new blog post or article comes out with advice on grammar for people entering the business or professional world. Since that group includes most of the seniors who will be graduating from my institution this coming spring, I occasionally check in on what advice is being proffered. The latest list, from the advice website Work + Money, comprises “ways of saying certain words and phrases” that will help readers “strive for impeccable speech.”

To spare you th…


Purity vs. Diversity


Norman soldiers at the Battle of Hastings

So which is better for a language — purity or diversity?

You could make a good argument for either. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if a language could be captured at the peak of its perfection (achieved by its greatest authors), then polished to remove all blemishes?

Then great minds wouldn’t have to waste their time, for example, endlessly arguing, as Geoff Pullum noted this week, whether sentence-final prepositions should be allowed in English — …


Final-Preposition Terror


John Dryden, 1631-1700

The Best American Mystery Stories 2005
 * was co-edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Otto Penzler. Mr. Penzler contributes an introduction in which he compliments his assiduous co-editor. It begins thus:

When I asked Ms. Oates to be the guest editor for this volume, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. (I could rewrite that sentence to avoid ending it with a preposition, but somehow it just sounds a bit off to say “I didn’t quite know into what I was getting,” so I’ll …


Straight Scoop on ‘Strait’


I can’t remember how, on a recent drive to New York, my husband and I got started on a discussion of the phrase strait and narrow. But I do know that, absent a dictionary to straighten things out for us (neither of us being fond of checking Google while roaming), we determined that both the traditional spelling and the more common contemporary phrase, straight and narrow, made no sense.

On the one hand, with strait meaning “narrow or cramped,” strait and narrow seems redundant. The phrase is mo…


300 Posts, Still Getting It Wrong

geoff_as_dunce I have just arrived at a small milestone: This post is my 300th on Lingua Franca (see the full listing here).
In August 2011 we started publishing every working day of the year, and I’ve done 50 posts a year with no breaks. That’s a lot of practice. But I’ve hardly ever managed to write a post that is flawless in the eyes of our wonderful and dedicated editor, Heidi Landecker.

The Chronicle does serious editing. We were all told from the get-go that we had to follow New York Times guidelines no…


Hell, Yes, I’m Judging You


I have a smart and popular Facebook friend named Carrie Rickey. I mention those two qualities because her status updates usually draw responses that are clever and many. That was the case recently, when she posted: “Can we please retire the word bespoke?”

One hundred thirty-eight comments ensued. A good number agreed with Carrie’s proposal; as one put it, “I think ‘bespoke’ is fine to use if you’re a British tailor. People assembling a museum exhibit can use ‘curate.’ Everyone else can get over…