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Scribbling Women

Per1Maybe John McWhorter is just being provocative in his post “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good.” Following up on his argument that texting and tweeting amount to “talking with your fingers,” he contends that we are at the dawn of a renewed oral society. We shouldn’t be so concerned, he says, that our students’ formal writing skills are slipping. Other primarily oral societies — the ancient Greeks, for instance — managed to think critically and develop persuasive arguments. “With modern technolo…

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The End of Irony. Or Not.

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David Letterman played it straight after 9/11: “New York is the greatest city in the world.”

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The key text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions

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Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do…

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How Much Do We Curse?

cursing copyTwo Sundays ago, a graph in The New York Times Magazine caught my eye. The title was “Dear Reader: Are You Prone to Profanity?” The graph captured the results of an online study conducted by the newspaper’s research-and-analytics department in January. In this case, the question was: “How often, if at all, do you swear or curse in conversation?”

Of the 3,244 New York Times subscribers who responded, the majority (61 percent) went with “occasionally,” which seems like a fairly safe response f…

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …

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George Eliot, Currer Bell, Clara Gazul, and Me

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Clara Gazul

You will recognize the first name as that of one of our greatest novelists, known privately as Mary Ann Evans, author of the immensely satisfying Middlemarch as well as things you were forced to read in high school, like Silas Marner.

Currer Bell requires a bit more familiarity with 19th-century fiction, though hardly a secret. The work published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography is, so the title page proclaims, “edited by Currer Bell.”  Charlotte Bronte embedded her initials — …

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Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.

 

What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…

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The ‘Winners’

d84a3a1c787b467efef89ae73e08f80b_crop_northI didn’t plan to write a follow-up to my spelling-contest post, but reader response prompted too many thoughts to contain in a footnote.

First, by popular vote, the winners from my lists were loose as a misspelling of lose and definately as a misspelling of definitely. A note on each of these:

Sites abound for the loose/lose problem; there’s even a Facebook page. I admit, I find it odd that so many people truly misspell the common word lose. (By “truly misspell,” I mean I think it’s neither a ty…

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The Genius Card

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Joseph Mitchell (Image by Anne Hall/Pantheon)

The phone buzzed on a sunny fall day as I was taking a stroll on the beautiful campus of Swarthmore College, near my home. I looked at the number—it had New York’s 212 area code, but otherwise I didn’t recognize it. I took a chance that it wasn’t a robo call and answered it.

It wasn’t a robo call. It was Gay Talese, the great nonfiction writer. Nearly the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you know about this new biography of Joseph Mitchell?”

I …