Category Archives: Writing


No Overtime Pay for Milk-Truck Drivers (or Professors)


The Oakhurst Dairy case was finally resolved this week by a financial settlement. You may remember Lucy Ferriss’s piece about the case (“Milking a Comma for All It’s Worth”) in March 2017. In a recent New York Times article Daniel Victor throws a few casual insults at the linguistically informed (“punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs”), and asserts that the case “hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law,” as if it was all about the victory of a trivial us…


Punctuation Dot Dot Dot

dot dot dotSometimes a punctuation mark is more than a punctuation mark. Period.

You undoubtedly caught what I just did there, using the word period as an adverb or interjection to emphasize my point. And voilà: a punctuation mark being more than a punctuation mark.

I first became interested in the life of punctuation marks as words, rather than squiggles on a page, when I learned about how younger speakers are using slash as a coordinator. It got me wondering about how many punctuation marks have taken on…


Pretentious, or Not


Rachel Roberts as Mrs. Appleyard in “Picnic at Hanging Rock”

I am lucky enough to be in Melbourne, Australia, for a month, teaching two courses to students from the University of Delaware. One of the classes is on Australian novels that have been adapted into films, including Picnic at Hanging Rock. The 1975 movie is famous, but I prefer the book, by Joan Lindsay, published in 1967. It has a snarky tone that mocks the characters, undercuts any conclusions we might draw about the narrative, and a…


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…


Punctuate, Punctuate; Punctuate!

Keep Calm and Punctuate

Punctuation is really an elementary and intuitive idea. Sentences are written down as a linear sequence of characters that (mostly) represent speech sounds. Punctuation marks are inserted in the sequence to signal certain aspects of the structure of their covert grammatical structure; they do what those little musical interludes do in NPR’s Morning Edition program.

However, punctuation does not have a direct or simple relation to phonological, grammatical, or semantic structure. Take clause typ…


‘A Foreign Way Which Never Really Caught On’


It’s the centenary year of the poet and novelist Muriel Spark. Though born in Edinburgh (February 1, 1918), she lived in New York for a time, and it was The New Yorker that first published her wonderful short novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (William Shawn decided to devote most of an issue to it in 1961). The story weaves together its themes of education, friendship, charisma, narcissism, sex, fascism, scandal, loyalty, and betrayal in a way that is alternately humorous and tragic, and with…


It’s the Wine Talking


This is the season for eating out, perhaps slightly more than one should, and even allowing oneself a small glass of wine during an end-of-fall-semester three-course lunch.

The descriptions on wine lists, couched in language that is vaguely tempting yet simultaneously baffling, are presumably intended to help us make a decision to indulge. James Thurber satirized the genre in 1944 with a justly famous cartoon caption, a dinner host telling his guests, “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without an…


The Man Who Hated Relativism

Jerry A. Fodor

It was a spring evening in 1993 at Stanford; Fred Dretske (1932–2013) was introducing the man who would deliver that year’s Immanuel Kant Lectures, a distinguished philosopher of the cognitive and linguistic sciences from Rutgers: Jerry Fodor. Dretske spoke with warm approval about the intensity of Fodor’s philosophical views. He doesn’t just disagree with doctrines like empiricism, pragmatism, relativism, and holism, Dretske smilingly explained; he hates them.

To welcoming applau…


The Unmentionable Topic of Edinburgh Weather

Robert Louis Stevenson

Last Friday I purchased a secondhand copy of an early work by Robert Louis Stevenson that I had not been aware of: Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878). On its very first page it addresses a topic on which my lips are sealed by an oath I took when I first moved from Santa Cruz to Edinburgh in September 2007.

My first Edinburgh home was at 5 Howe Street. I was awestruck to find that my kitchen window looked down into the garden of the house round the corner at 17 Heriot Row where Stevenson had pl…


BuzzFeed Has Style Too

“Your style guide reads like it was written by a guy who had way too much cocaine one weekend and an unlimited data plan,” said somebody in an email to Emmy J. Favilla. In A World Without Whom: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, she describes it as the greatest compliment she has ever received as BuzzFeed copy chief.

Considered as a published version of that style guide, her book is rather plump: around 400 pages, fattened with far too many personal reminiscences, screenshots,…